Make your stories authentic
Some tools and tips for doing historical research online
Published: March 8, 2006
|More than some other genres, historical fiction requires writers to conduct research. And these days, writers often conduct that research over the Internet.|
But the amount of information available online can pose its own puzzles. Just try a Google search for "Tudor England." You'll get more than 61,000 returns to search through. How helpful is that, really? And how can you begin to use these results effectively?
It can help to become skilled from the start with (or to refresh your memory on the basics of) evaluating historical sources on the Web. Before delving into any actual research, take a few minutes to read through a guide on "Using Primary Sources on the Web" (http://www.lib.washington.edu/subject/History/RUSA), written by members of the American Library Association.
Primary sources are a subset of historical research materials. As the guide explains, they are "original records created at the time historical events occurred or well after events in the form of memoirs or oral histories." They include letters, newspapers, speeches, photographs and other materials. Often, and increasingly, you'll find access to such sources on the Internet.
In fact, "Using Primary Sources on the Web" helps researchers begin to locate these materials on the Web. But equally important, it suggests ways to evaluate their credibility. For example, the guide counsels that you identify who is responsible for the site you're visiting and check for the author or organization's credentials, contact address and other identifying information.
Beyond that, however, there are several good starting points for writers engaged in historical research. They include:
HistFiction.net: Authors and Books in Historical Fiction
Maintained by Soon-Young Choi, this site provides some very good resources for historical-fiction writers, including a range of nonfiction historical research links (click on "Resources for HF Writers" on the home page). If it's time to feed your medieval characters, you might click on the link to "A Boke of Gode Cookery," with information on cuisine from the Middle Ages. Need to change some money for (time) travel? There's a link to help with that, too.
MedHist: The guide to history-of-medicine resources on the Internet
This site is managed by the Wellcome Library for the History and Understanding of Medicine at the Wellcome Trust. Search here for Internet sites and resources covering the history of medicine, or browse by category to learn about health and illness in ancient, medieval and modern times, in all corners of the world.
Organization of American Historians: Links for the History Profession
Provides an extensive set of links to organizations and institutions, teaching and research sources, publications and state historical societies that will be helpful to writer-researchers. Samples include the Martin Luther King Papers Project at Stanford University, The New Deal Network, and Valley of the Shadow: Documents on the Civil War.
Social Security Administration: Popular Baby Names
Looking for a historically "accurate" name for your protagonist? Check these lists, courtesy of the Social Security Administration. Birthdates go back to 1880.
Erika Dreifus is a Massachusetts-based writer and writing instructor with a Ph.D. in history and MFA in creative writing. Her short story "Homecomings," set largely during the 1972 Munich Olympics, won the 2003 David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest, sponsored by the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education. Visit her Web site at http://www.practicing-writer.com.
--Posted March 8, 2006