Writing Tips by Gary Speer

Tips for writers, musing about writing and life

Writing Historical Fiction Part 3: Good sources are everywhere

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One of the best resources I’ve found for the sort of research I’ve used when writing historical fiction is a set of books that were published in the 1980s and ’90s by Writers Digest Books. This was a series of dictionary-like books called “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life …” followed by whatever period of history or historical niche the book covered. I only own one volume in the series, “The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in the 1800s.” Other volumes include ” … in Renaissance England,” ” … from Prohibition Through Word War II,” ” … in Regency and Victorian England,” and I believe several others.

There are two unfortunate drawbacks to this series of historical writing reference material: 1) many or even most of the series is out of print or very hard to find, and, 2) they are not carefully organized if you’re looking for detailed discussions. Due to their dictionary-style setup, you almost need to know a specific subject or topic in order to look it up alphabetically. However, for the browser with a bit of time to invest, they have a huge amount of material.

The second historical research source I would recommend to you is perhaps surprising. But it’s very convenient and has a huge amount of general material on just about all things historical you might need to scratch through. I’m talking about that universal Internet “fall-back” resource for everything knowledgeable — Wikipedia.

I’m aware of many problems using Wikipedia. It’s sort of the odd uncle nobody likes to take out in public of encyclopedias. But it’s very comprehensive in one way or another and will always give you something to start with. It’s easily accessible if you’re doing any research online, and even public librarians I know take a peek there once in awhile. But be warned: Don’t take anything in Wikipedia as “authoritative,” because it’s a grow as it goes kind of resource. The editing and oversight, from what I’ve heard, is improving, and I only recommend it as a quick “brainstorming” resource to lead you to other places.

The third specific research resource I’m calling your attention to is World History Compass. It is an extremely useful source of links and reviews, as well as visitor-added links, to Internet sites and even historical documents. Don’t overlook this site and all the sites to which it links.

When all else fails, go to a reliable online or public library encyclopedia like Britannica, World Book, and Encarta. You’ll find some good “starter” material in any good encyclopedia, and our high-tech world makes it extremely easy to access good encyclopedias online.
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