Researching the Historical Novel, Part Two

B. J. Sedlock

DawnoftheXIXthcent-cover0001Having trouble researching Australia’s First Fleet because you can’t travel that far to view the original documents? The beauty of being able to research online is how easily it bridges vast distances, without having to spend money on airline tickets and hotels.

I don’t want to only mention UK or US history when the world is so much wider, so in this article I’ll profile some websites that offer historical documents from former British colonies.



For that First Fleet research, the University of Sydney’s Library offers a collection of documents on the First Fleet and early settlement. The menu at left allows you to either search for a particular term, or browse the whole collection. Most are available as PDF documents. At the bottom of the brief descriptions, if it says “PDF available/ view,” you can click on “view” to retrieve it. The library also offers a related site with documents on European exploration of the new continent.

Do you need to research what it was like to live in Saskatchewan in the Canadian West? The University of Saskatchewan Library’s Archives and Special Collections website has images of 4,500 postcards of Saskatchewan scenes. This site is searchable by a specific term, such as “fire,” “oxen,” or “Saskatoon.” But if you are going to search for multiple terms, you will get maximum results if you click on “home” to start over with each new term. The postcards are drawn from multiple collections belonging to the province’s governments, libraries, and universities. Other document collections offered by the library include labor history, cross-dressing images, and indigenous peoples.

Are you thinking of setting a novel in 19th-century Hong Kong? A collection of digitized documents hosted by the University of Hong Kong Library’s Special Collections provides rich information about pre-1860 Hong Kong. You can search for a particular word, or else click on the “browse” option at left to see the list of 42 documents, including letters, journals, and book extracts, many of them in English. Click on the title to open a document. This site’s purpose “is to provide online access to, and retrieval of, a variety of valuable information, including sketches, maps, and accounts of western visitors and settlers about early Hong Kong, which are scattered in rare titles located in Special Collections and Fung Ping Shan Library of the University of Hong Kong Libraries.” There are also other collections about Hong Kong’s history available.



Here are some books that historical fiction writers may find useful:

Bible in Pocket, Gun in Hand: the Story of Frontier Religion, by Ross Phares (University of Nebraska, 1971) will be useful to authors of Westerns, historical romances, or inspirational fiction set in the USBibleinpocket-cover0001 West. Phares covers such topics as preachers’ education (or lack thereof), how they were chosen to lead a congregation, rivalry among denominations, and what it was like to attend a camp meeting/revival. Phares was on the staff of Rice University at the time of publication and a former history professor. Sixteen pages of footnotes should provide plenty of research leads for authors who need more information.

Regency romance authors will find the next book especially useful:  The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England: a Social Sketch of the Times, by John Ashton (T. Fisher Unwin, 1906). Its 476 pages contain a wealth of detail, such as which London mail coaches departed from which pubs, street vendors and their cries, chairmen’s fees, how a tinder box worked, and debtors’ prisons. I am a fan of Georgette Heyer’s novels, and wondered, when I first saw this book, whether she used it as a source. Heyer biographer Jennifer Kloester confirmed for me that the inventor of the Regency romance did own a copy. Ashton provides no footnotes or bibliography, but many of the facts are cited within the text to a period newspaper.

A more modern book, Horses and Mules in the Civil War, by Gene C. Armistead (McFarland, 2013) takes on a small aspect of a broader topic that should be a good resource for military fiction authors. Armistead explains how horses and mules were used in different sections of the US army: engineers, signal corps, medical, cavalry, etc. He covers how horses were acquired, for what cost, and how they were trained and transported. Army horses suffered terribly during feed shortages and from heavy burdens on bad roads, and some were used as human food when supplies were short. Armistead includes a lengthy roster of famous Civil War horses, and extensive bibliographical notes.


About the contributor: B.J. SEDLOCK is Metadata and Archives Librarian at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.

Posted by Claire Morris

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