Tips on Research: Painless Research

I know. I know. You just read one of my “Tips on Research” posts a couple of days ago. But Lea is under the weather, so you’re stuck with me again and another installment of my irregular series of posts on research, aka the backup blogs.

The material that follows is adapted from How To Write Killer Historical Mysteries: The Art and Adventure of Sleuthing Through the Past (Perseverance Press, 2008) by Kathy Lynn Emerson (aka Kaitlyn Dunnett).

The old adage “write about what you know” is particularly true in dealing with historical mysteries. You get to “know” the era in which your book is set by turning yourself into an expert on its history.

Even though you won’t use more than a fraction of what you discover, you cannot stint on research, if for no other reason than this: when you know a lot, you can pick and choose which details best suit your story. And you can always save the leftovers for another project.

If you hated doing term papers in high school or college, you may be dreading this part of the writing process. Cheer up. This isn’t an assignment, it’s a project you’ve chosen for yourself and that makes all the difference. Many writers find they enjoy digging for tidbits of information so much that they have trouble moving on to actually writing the book. Why? Because this kind of research has a great deal in common with solving a mystery.

If you do no research before you start to write, you are likely to have a great many gaps in your manuscript—notes to yourself to look up what people wore or what they ate or how they managed to get from point A to point B. That’s why a certain amount of research needs to be done before you begin writing. However, once you feel comfortable with what you know about the historical period you’ve chosen, it’s time to get to work on your novel. There will be more research—it’s an ongoing part of the process—but in many cases you won’t know which bit of information you need until you need it.

There is no need to study original manuscripts in order to write a work of fiction, although you certainly may if you want to. For most people, however, spending time on a trip to England in the Public Records Office searching for some elusive detail, for example, would probably be more frustrating than productive. Unless you are qualified to read the handwriting and interpret the language of the period you’re interested in—and I assure you, I cannot do that for the Elizabethan period, and don’t want to—then you’re better off leaving it to the experts.

an example of Elizabethan handwriting

Published books can be either primary or secondary sources, depending on their content. Modern editions—translated and annotated—of books written during the time your mystery is set are available for most historical periods.

My advice to every fiction writer concerning research has always been this: Find a college or university library in your area. Meet and make friends with the reference librarian. If you are not a student or faculty member, ask about a courtesy card to allow you to borrow books and request inter-library loans. If you live in a large city, you’ll also want to make use of your public library. Even in small towns, public libraries have access to inter-library loans, although the process may take a little longer. No matter what else you do for research, you will benefit from the resources libraries provide.

I print out all the maps I can find!

Photographs, of course, are not available for time periods in the distant past, but there are contemporary illustrations you can study—portraits, sketches, even maps, which were sometimes drawn in great detail, including tiny reproductions of houses and people. From the advent of printing, notorious crimes were written up in pamphlets illustrated with woodcuts. They’re crude, but they contain clues to the way things were.

Travel books are another source of visual aids, especially in the nineteenth century. Many books published then are still available in the original and others have been reprinted. Railroads also published books to promote travel, illustrating them lavishly and including information on each town along the way.

Photograph collections are maintained by some libraries and many local historical societies. Some have even been published in book form. Check the real towns and counties near the area where your book is set. See what they have available and how accessible the collections are. You may even be able to access the archives online. Taking a look at contemporary illustrations, especially photographs, is well worth your time. There’s a lot of truth in the old saying that a picture is worth a thousand words.

Newspapers and magazines provide a wealth of information. The library at a branch of the University of Maine near my home has a complete collection of the New York Times on microfilm. Although that newspaper doesn’t cover every news story, it includes some reports from every state and around the world. Just as important, it contains ads, telling me what was available to buy and how much it cost. As science fiction and mystery writer P. N. Elrod puts it, “A few days in a library’s basement spinning through the microfiche or flipping fragile pages is almost as good as a time machine.”

Even small libraries may have newspapers on microfilm or microfiche, at least for their local area. If you cannot find such resources in your town’s library, try the local historical society. Larger libraries will also have collections of magazines.

Unfortunately, libraries do not generally use inter-library loan for periodicals or microfilm, although they may agree to make copies of specific pages for you. In the future, old issues may become available on the Internet. Some are already, although at present most require a subscription and the majority don’t go back very far. Old newspapers and magazines may also turn up for sale on eBay. I found a Maine almanac for 1888 that has proved invaluable for things like the time of sunrise and sunset and high tide, and for lists of county officials for that year.

Some time ago, I needed to know what the weather was like in Denver for certain dates in 1888. The weather wasn’t a factor in the story but if there had been a major storm on one of those dates I didn’t want to ignore it. For some times and places there are extant diaries with a wealth of such information. By 1888, the U.S. Weather Service was in operation and daily weather reports appeared in some newspapers. On an earlier trip to Denver I had visited the public library and copied several pages from local newspapers for future use, but I hadn’t been looking for specific dates or for weather reports. Since I live in Maine, this wasn’t something I’d travel back to Colorado for. Instead, my local inter-library-loan librarian requested the information I needed from a colleague at the Denver Public Library and the librarian there looked up the dates I needed and made printouts from the microfilm to mail to me. It turned out there were very few mentions of the weather, which was all to the good for my fictional purposes. Sometimes negative results are exactly what you want.

That’s it for this blog, but you can check for previous research tips in “Kaitlyn’s Posts” on the left side of this page.

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