Historical Research Using Internet, Interviews and Site Visits

In Part I of this two-part series, I talked about using books and libraries in doing historical research. Although print matter is a good place to start, in today’s world you can’t ignore the Internet. But there are two problems: quantity and quality – too much of the former and not enough of the latter. Unlike traditionally published books, which have to go through some screening process (in academic circles that can be quite rigorous), anyone can put anything up on the Net and pass it off as truth. So what’s a good historical fiction writer to do?

Stick to sites that have some stake in maintaining their reputation for accuracy such as universities and historical, archaeological and professional societies. Many sites  not only update articles, but blog and tweet as well. Others aggregate the news. The Archaeological Institute of America has a daily update of archaeology in the news. When you find interesting aggregaters, subscribe to their RSS feed, get email alerts or tweets when new information is posted. Google also has  Google Scholar (click on the “more” button at the Google.com home page) that searches professional and scholarly literature. Many newspapers and local government organizations are digitizing their archives and can be a great source of primary material. (Remember your best friend the research librarian? Tap them for help on accessing those databases.)

Entering a keyword in a favorite search engine (Google, Yahoo, Bing, etc.) will yield tens of thousands of hits. That’s where sites like ResearchBuzz come in handy with essays on how to do Web research, reviews of search engines and data bases, and links to “ask the expert” sites. And speaking of sources, beware of “experts” in chat rooms,  on bulletin boards, and forums, as well. The web is a wonderful experiment in crowd sourcing knowledge, but not all sources are created equal. Some universities are not even accepting Wikipedia citations as valid for bibliographies or footnotes. A safer source is ProfNet,  a database created to link journalists and writers with university professors and other expert sources.

With the advent of cable and satellite TV, even couch potatoes can do research on anything from WWII, biographies, and Roman troops to the history of underwear, courtship or plumbing. If you don’t see what you need, search their Web sites for shows on video or on-demand download, companion books, speeches, trivia, and extensive links to other sites related to your historical time period or topic. However, I’d take a page from our  journalist brethren and make sure there are two independent sources for your facts. I’ve found some history shows that play a little loose with the facts for artistic purposes.

Researching in books, on the Web, and on TV can turn you into a hermit, so get out of the house! Especially, if you’re writing local or more recent history, take advantage of the experts in your own back yard.  Christine Wiltz interviewed over one hundred people for her biography of Norma Wallace The Last Madam: A Life in the New Orleans Underworld set primarily in the early half of the Twentieth Century. “I met so many incredible characters and I learned a lot from them. They led fascinating lives but some are very old and not doing well. There are some wonderful materials that just didn’t make it in the book.”  If interviewing people seems daunting, go to DoHistory.org, a Website with a case study; downloadable forms; and an excellent series of essays on how to organize a research project, use primary sources (diaries, newspaper accounts, public records), and conduct oral histories.

Visit museums where you can see the art and artifacts of your chosen time period.  There’s nothing like seeing a gold torc worn by a Celtic warrior, studying an ancient Egyptian tomb diorama of a slaughterhouse, or wondering at the realistic beauty and sartorial detail of portraits to inspire that specificity that makes your story stand out from the crowd.

Want to visit a Revolutionary War tavern, watch a barrel being made, or tramp through a whaling ship?  There are hundreds of historic villages, farms, and ports with working artisans (who live to answer questions about their craft) scattered across the U.S. The American Association for State and Local History has an extensive listing of historical societies at their Web site. Renaissance fairs, battle reenactments, and local festivals also offer a chance to have fun in the name of research.

The site visit is still the ultimate in historical research. John Jakes, author of the best-selling Kent Chronicles, said, “I travel largely to check out geography: what does the area look like?  How’s the weather?  Are there hills?  How high? Back when I was researching the first of the Kent novels, and didn’t have much money, I decided I had to go to Boston anyway…The site of the Boston Tea Party turned out to be an office building with a plaque on it…So I work judiciously between written sources, photos, old engravings, and visits to places if I think it might help fill in details.”

If you do plan a site visit, keep in mind that the farther back in time your story, the more likely there will be changes in geography, flora, fauna, commerce, and climate. Woolley in her How to Write and Sell Historical Fiction gives an excellent step-by-step guide on how to get the most out of your trip with everything from contacting local experts to what and how to pack. And don’t forget to keep all your receipts – when you sell your book, they’re tax deductible!

Related links:

The American Association for State and Local History started in 1904 as a department within the American Historical Association. They provide services and assistance to over 5,000 institutions and individuals who work in the field of state and local history. The AASLH site provides links to regional museum groups, state associations, national resource organizations, and state historical societies.

The American Institute of Archaeology promotes a vivid and informed public interest in the cultures and civilizations of the past, supports archaeological research, fosters the sound professional practice of archaeology, advocates the preservation of the world’s archaeological heritage, and represents the discipline in the wider world. Weekday updates on archaeology in the news available.

DoHistory is built around an interactive case study of an 18th Century midwife. Go to the “on your own” section for an excellent series of essays on how to organize a research project, use primary sources (diaries, newspaper accounts, public records), and conduct oral histories. Many of the essays contain downloadable forms.

ProfNet created a collaboration of information officers linked by the internet to give journalists and writers free, convenient access to expert sources. They have sources in organizations of every type in North America and Europe — colleges, universities, corporations, think tanks, laboratories, medical centers, non-profit organizations, government agencies, and PR agencies.

ResearchBuzz covers the world of Internet research by providing daily updates on search engines, new data managing software, browser technology, Web directories and more.