Research for Writers of Historical Fiction, #3

We talked briefly about how much research is needed for your book, and now we’ll just dive in.

I always start with my Number One GoTo Resource: THE LIBRARY

This is a seriously underused resource, and I want people who’ve never bothered with their library to reconsider that. Why? Because you’ve already paid for it. It’s free, and waiting there for you.

And there’s a magic person there called The Research Librarian who can make your burden so much lighter. (Sometimes they have different titles, but most libraries have a person dedicated to helping people find weird things.)

So lets talk about using the Library (Public or University):

Start off at home.

The vast majority of library systems now have their catalogs on-line, so if you join your local library, you can easily search to see what they–or any library in that system–have available on the topics you’re interested in.

Libraries are great places to start for the basic information. You can borrow books on the location you’re researching, the historical period, the events of that time, the clothing worn, etc.  You can borrow DVDs and CDs to watch movies, travel guides, and listen to music that’s appropriate to your time period and location. Basic stuff.

The majority of the items you can get in your library are going to be newer books and DVDs. In some ways, libraries are like book stores, where a finite amount of space means that things that aren’t being checked out often have to go. The 100-year-old book on French crockery? Probably not available….right away.

But that’s the beauty of the library–the inter-library loan.

That 100-year-old book on French crockery? The can probably borrow it from another library pretty quickly. So you won’t have to purchase the thing. (Or at least can look at it to make an educated decision of whether you want to purchase it.)

But hey, you ask, how do I even know the book on crockery exists if it’s not in the library?

Well, this is one of the values of basic books. You can flip to the back of your DK Book of Cooking, and look through that author’s sources….and there you’ll find the gold: All the things that another author has already used and vetted for you.


When Researching, Stand on the Shoulders of Giants


(Photo by Eric Sala & Tània García, Wikimedia Commons)

Other people have surely researched these topics before you. Make use of what they learned.

If they thought a book was important enough to include in their listing of sources, that means the book might also be valuable for you. So flip to the back of their book and read through them.

Don’t start from scratch!


So library books not only have information in them, they also provide a pathway to other books. Those are the books that you might want to borrow from other libraries (if possible).

But I don’t know how to do inter-library loans, you cry…

Well, this is the beginning point for you to get help from your RESEARCH LIBRARIAN. If there’s anyone within that library who can locate a resource for you, it’s that person. Make use of them! Treat them well! Listen to their advice!

Let me tell you some of the interesting interactions I’ve had with Research Librarians:


I said, I’m looking for information on Pierce-Arrow Automobiles, circa 1910.  Librarian says, Oh, there’s a guy who lives just down the street who collects them. He’s part of an old car enthusiast group!  

Research Librarians often have information about local groups and specialists with whom they can hook you up. (She also mentioned to me a local SCA group that does fencing live weekly, and a group that had weekly meetings to study Farsi.  She knew EVERYTHING.)


I contacted the Local History Librarian at the Saratoga Springs Public Library and told her I would be in town on a Monday to research 1933 Saratoga Springs, particularly anything about the medical profession, the horse racing, and the town layout. When I arrived, she had multiple books and files pulled for me, many of which were not available for loan, such as city directories, newspaper clippings, and papers donated by local families. She also gave me contact information for several historical society people who would have pertinent information.

Research Librarians, especially in the locale in which your story is set, will know where to find exactly what you’re looking for, even when it’s not loanable.


I approached the Research Librarian about a journal article that I wanted to read, but it was behind a paywall. She said, No problem, we have a JSTOR membership…and she printed it out for me.

Research Librarians have access to a lot of pay-wall hidden resources, and if you’re nice to them and they have the time, they’re often willing to share.


All of those stories are evidence that the Research Librarians want to be used. Can they find everything you need? No, not always. A couple of years back, I emailed the LHL in Sartoga Springs and asked a very specific question: Were women allowed in the hotel gambling rooms in 1909?   A few hours later, she got back to me and said, “I’m sorry, but I have nothing about gambling in 1909 in my gambling file, which is very odd.”

As it turns out, there was a reason she had nothing in her file, and I stumbled over the answer a few days later, but that’s a story for another slide.  The point, is, however, that they can’t do ALL your research for you, but they can do a lot.

So use your library…and your Research Librarian. Stand on the shoulders of those giants!




Next week: Talking about the Internet, #1



RRH Confession #3

When researching for The Shores of Spain, I kept reading books about sailing because I knew that a good deal of the book (as outlined) would take place on a yacht. I wasn’t ‘getting it’ so I actually learned to sail by going to the YMCA and taking a summer sailing course. (And yes, I hate natural bodies of water.)

As it turned out, this only affected a couple of scenes in the final book because I ended up taking out most of my sailing travel in favor of train travel!  But I did learn a new trick ;o)


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