I love getting random notifications from our county library system. Yesterday’s was an invitation to a free lecture on the local impact of the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic. My writer’s wheels started turning right away and I added the event to the calendar. Though I have no plans to start drafting a flu epidemic middle grade novel anytime soon, I think it’s safe to say that the more your writer-head knows about a historical time period–and history in general–the more inclined (read: less terrified) you become toward actually drafting a historical.
Historical research can be daunting, even for lovers of history, even for lovers of research and research paper writing. We have so much info available to us now…and yet, sometimes a seemingly easy answer eludes us. And then there’s the very real trust issues we writers have with the online world, and justifiably so; though the internet has certainly made it easier to quickly access reading material, it has also made it crucially necessary to question, check and double check, confirm and re-confirm sources. Random Googling can be appropriate for a brief overview of a historical event, person, or time period in MG historical writing; for example, clicking around for short, valid articles is great when you are still in the throes of a new crazy idea and are exploring the topic to gauge your own interest in it. The question “Is this something I want to learn more about?” is just as important as “Is this idea any ‘good’ for an MG novel?” at this stage of the game, and quick search engine results can help you start to answer these basic questions.
But once you’ve decided to dig in and try your hand at a new historical middle grade, to what types of resources do you turn?
I thought I’d share here some of the more interesting and trusted sources of historical info I’ve used in recent years. This is, of course, just to get your own wheels turning, the way that library notification did mine, and to hopefully start some comments from you all with other source ideas to inspire our whole community here at The Mixed-Up Files.
Your local library might surprise you, and have a great resource on hand all about the preparations for a medieval feast, or The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, or the first-ever passenger rail car (England, 1825). If your own library doesn’t, search your county or statewide library system, and enjoy the benefits of interlibrary loan (free, real books, delivered to your local library, just for you!).
Local museums, local historical societies, local college and university libraries. Librarians, docents, and historical society volunteers share your passion for info and history, and chances are, they will be eager to help a writer towards historical accuracy.
Don’t forget to try your public, state, or university library’s online aggregated content databases of articles and reference books. As a card-holding library patron, you should have access to these databases, often a mix of academic and popular culture resources. For example, my town library is part of Pennsylvania’s electronic library system (called PowerLibrary), which I can access from my home computer by inputting the patron number on my library card. This morning I found a recent Smithsonian article through PowerLibrary perfect for my WIP.
Primary source documents, like digitized newspapers, magazines, and periodicals—some from centuries ago–are amazing pieces of actual history that convey the aesthetics, attitudes, and atmosphere of the time period as well as info.
Online digital libraries. Digitized libraries can be huge aggregates of centuries’ worth of books and serials, many of them full-text… or they can be an individual’s personal web site of images of the local ferry service’s crossing schedules from 1955. And depending on your book idea, either of these or any in between might be equally helpful. Try your luck with Hathi Trust Digital Library for out-of-print books and resources, Project Gutenberg for works in the public domain, or this site…when you have a few hours free: http://oedb.org/ilibrarian/250-plus-killer-digital-libraries-and-archives/ I liked how these were organized by state (alphabetically) with multi-state resources listed at the end.
Photographs, of course. I like the search results I get (and the amount of info for citations) from the Photo Archive at the Getty Institute: http://www.getty.edu/research/tools/photo/
Here, for inspiration, are Life magazine historical photos by decade hosted by Google: http://images.google.com/hosted/life
Don’t forget the daily details in all your hard-core historical info. Food, footwear, furniture…depending on your setting, a sales resource like a digitized Sears and Roebuck catalog might be helpful (not to mention fascinating). Today I looked at this one on Hathi from 1918. Middle-grade-aged girls’ clothes start on the third page, with prices and descriptions.
Grocery store ads with prices, movie posters, war propaganda literature…all telling signs of the times. From a special collections library at Emory University, here’s a 1947 ad for women’s high heels for $5.99 (!!). How interesting that the ad utilizes the fun, adventurous lifestyle of circus performers to catch the consumer’s attention.
Specific to American history research, try the National Archives (great educator section here, by the way!): https://www.archives.gov/ and the site of the American Antiquarian Society: http://www.americanantiquarian.org/ (for info and primary sources through 1876).
The Library of Congress has an abundance of free reference materials, including an International Collections section as well an American Folklife Center: http://www.loc.gov/rr/ .
Books on historical topics that are especially cool for writers:
The Writer’s Guide to… Series. The Wild West, Prohibition through WWII, the 1800’s, Colonial America, Renaissance England, and more.
If you have kids, you probably know the DK Eyewitness series of books. Written for elementary through middle graders as visual encyclopedias, these books present great overviews on a wealth of topics and time periods. They contain the perfect amount of info if you are just getting started on a research topic—enough to catch your interest and start notetaking, but not so much as to overwhelm.
An illustrated costume history text. You can page through possibilities at bookstores on university campuses with theatre departments, or try a book like What People Wore: 1,800 Illustrations from Ancient Times to the Early Twentieth Century by Douglas Gorsline.
I hope you found this to be a fun and possibilities-ripe list! Please chime in with comments on what creative and helpful sources you’ve used in the past. Thanks for reading and good luck with your future research!