Resources for writers are bountiful, especially in the digital age. You can find all sorts of obscure bits of trivia online. You can also access digitized journals or books that you might not be able to access outside of a college town. There is so much that can be discovered, and it is exciting!
In this post, I’m sharing the resources that I have found beneficial in my own research project.
If Project Gutenberg isn’t already on your list of online resources, add it now! This website has more than 58,000 free e-books. I’ve been able to find several period novels that will be referenced by characters in my historical fiction novel on this site. While a bulk of the submitted books are in English, there are several works from different languages as well, including Chinese, Danish, Italian, Latin, Swedish, Tagalog, Arabic, etc. You never know what you are going to find. Similarly, you can find free public domain books via Amazon and Google Books. Via Google Books, I was able to find and download Indiana’s War Purse (1920), which chronicled Indiana’s Liberty Bond efforts during WWI. I have also found numerous memoirs from the Great War on the Kindle, including Over the Top by Arthur Guy Empey and How We Advertised America by George Creel.
On the more academic side, JSTOR is a resource that I enjoyed a lot during my college days. It is an online collection of more than 2,000 academic journals that span a variety of topics from African studies and Slavic studies to music, economics and criminology/criminal justice. It is easy to fall down the rabbit hole here. Some of the journals are free, but most will require access to JSTOR via a library or university. You can also purchase a JPASS, which allows this nonprofit to add to its collections, for a monthly fee of $19.50 or a yearly subscription of $199. The search feature is open to everyone so you can get an idea of how helpful JSTOR might be to your research project prior to committing financially.
The Library of Congress website literally has almost everything you could imagine — prints and photographs, sheet music, posters, newspapers, historic American buildings surveys, maps, documents, etc. It is easy to loose track of time shifting through its digital collections. Personally, I tend to get side track as I dive into the sheet music that is available. I’m sure I have only scratch the surface of the LoC website.
Another great government site is the National Archives. Much like the LoC, it has a cornucopia of items available, including documents and photos. It also harbors census records (though you can also find them on Ancestry.com — paid account — or Family Search — free), so if you are struggling to give your 1890s character a profession, you can go through census records to get ideas of what might work.
Newspapers.com is perfect for researchers as well and features digitized newspapers from a variety of countries and eras. Writers can trial it for seven days, but after that, it is $7.95 per month (or $44.95 for six months) for the basic account. There is an premium account available for a higher price.
Forums also exist to help with research, and you can find them for any genre really. I’m a personal fan of the NaNoWriMo forum’s Reference Desk thread where you can ask any question and hopefully get an accurate answer. Blogs, Facebook groups, and Reddit can be avenues to gather information as well; however, with all things internet, verify what you’ve gathered before plopping it into your book!
Don’t forget about local and state resources. These include your local library, which will often have a bunch of local interest-related artifacts, photographs, maps, books, and documents available. Librarians can also be godsends — always keep them in your corner as they know a lot things about the local community and local resources. They usually have a good idea of what is happening on a regional and state level when it comes to potentially helpful projects, programs, or events.
Most cities have a local historical museum or society that also might be beneficial to your research project. If your city doesn’t have one, move up to your overall county (if you live in the U.S.). If not, then hunt for state-level museums or societies. In Indiana, for example, there are several resources that are available, including the state library’s digital collections. The state library also spearheaded the statewide Indiana Memory project, which numerous local libraries and their community members participated in, preserving many artifacts.
For my own novel, I traveled to the location where my historical fiction novel takes place and used resources that its library had to really flesh out my project. A visit to the rather specific Mennonite Historical Library also paid off dividends; for this trip, I didn’t have to travel as far as Rensselaer, IN, sticking to my backyard of Goshen, IN. Amazingly enough, the library had the perfect book that was specific to the community my book is loosely based around.
I’ve pursued state-level resources, too, particularly the Hoosier State Chronicles, to which I owe so much. Its collection of free, digitized newspapers is invaluable! Its related blog has also been very informative in regards to Indiana history. Similarly, I’ve utilized the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections since my characters are in close proximity to Chicago, thanks to a train line. Even my alma mater has provided a great amount of help, especially the Purdue Extension. I’ve used its documents to time out planting and harvests for my characters. Purdue also has many historical documents within its collection that I have been able to use.
It’s easy to think the internet is the be-all and end-all of research nowadays, but there are some things that just haven’t been digitized yet and can only be found within the local community. Sticking strictly to digital/online resources can end with you missing some gems, so try to round out your approach to get both online and physical resources.
Join me next week for part five of the Let’s Research series, which will be about filling in research gaps and creative license. Previous parts of the Let’s Research series can be found here: https://smwright.wordpress.com/category/writing-articles/lets-research-series/.