I recently gave a couple of classes on researching historical fiction, and even though I’ve posted about (read: “totally geeked out about”) some of these resources before, I wanted to put them all in one place (especially if I missed emailing them to anyone who wanted them!). So, here are some of the sources I use when researching historical fiction:
Secondary sources (written after the fact, by someone who was not there, often a historian): “Daily Life in…” type books for an overview of the time period, to get a big picture understanding to help put primary sources in context, and to mine the bibliography for other books with more specific details, like ghosts stories from rural Pennsylvania, food in Edo Japan, or early French heraldry. Interlibrary loan is your friend when looking for obscure secondary sources–for the cost of shipping the books via library mail (about $3.50 last time I used it), most public libraries in the U.S. will help you check out books from other libraries all over the country.
Primary sources (written by someone who was there–an eyewitness): Old diaries and letters, legal documents, newspapers, etc. Some of them are available for free through Kindle, Project Gutenberg, Google Books, etc., but there are also databases that will point you to primary sources online, such as:
- Voice of the Shuttle at UC Santa Barbara
- University of Delaware Library: Websites for World History and Websites for U.S. History
- The Labyrinth at Georgetown University (medieval)
- Internet History Sourcebooks (Fordham): http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/
- U.S. National Archives: http://www.archives.gov
- Library of Congress (some newspapers): http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/
- UK National Archives: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
Other cool, random history-related sites:
- Google n-grams, where you can find out if an English word was used (in print) and how common it was in a given historical time period: https://books.google.com/ngrams
- Online Etymology Dictionary, where you can find out what a word actually meant historically (it can change a lot!), and well as when it was in use: http://www.etymonline.com/
- Historical maps: http://www.oldmapsonline.org
- The Met museum’s searchable database of their amazing collection of historical objects, including weapons, jewelry, musical instruments, and clothing (The dresses! The beautiful, beautiful dresses!): http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection
That’s really just a start, but these are good places to begin. There are lots of web sites run by local history societies, re-enactors, and other authors/history buffs that are full of good information too, as long as you remember to read everything online with a skeptical eye. Happy researching!