Websites for Researching Your Historical Novel
In this post, I’ve provided links to websites that offer good content for researching your historical novel. I hope HNS readers will be able to get inspiration from these sites for story ideas, or use them for fact-checking.
FREE IMAGES: CLEVELAND MUSEUM OF ART’S OPEN ACCESS
The Museum recently announced it is now an open access institution: “Open Access means the public now has the ability to share, collaborate, remix, and reuse images of many as 30,000 public- domain artworks from the CMA’s world-renowned collection of art for commercial and non-commercial purposes.” So this is a potential source of free images for authors. See their FAQ page for answers to “What can be used and how?”
This page makes available a large collection of manuscripts owned by the British Library, including the St. Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book, an 8th century book found in a tomb in the 1100s. Other treasures include ancient Greek, Persian, Hebrew, Thai, and Malay manuscripts, music scores by Bach and Handel, a manuscript from the 1500s depicting an early form of golf, and some really gorgeous medieval illuminations.
STORY IDEA SOURCE: CHRONICLING AMERICA
Chronicling America is an online source for digitized American newspapers, offered by the Library of Congress. It provides “information about historic newspapers and select digitized newspaper pages… a long-term effort to develop an Internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers with descriptive information and select digitization of historic pages.” Coverage ranges from 1789-1963.
If you click on the tab “All Digitized Newspapers,” you can select a state, ethnicity, and language, and once you click “go,” you’ll see an alphabetical list of newspaper choices that are available within those parameters. If you click on a newspaper title, then on “Browse Issues,” a calendar comes up with dates highlighted of the issues available. Click on a date to see thumbnail images of the different pages, and then click on an image to retrieve a larger version.
What a great resource for someone thinking about setting a novel in a particular local place in the U.S. This site makes it possible to view primary source newspapers from the area and time period you want to write about. One issue I picked at random from 1859 had articles about how a late June frost affected crops, statistics on the number of sheep killed by dogs, and plans for celebrating the July 4 holiday. If you are struggling for story ideas for a novel set in small-town America in the 19th century, this resource could be a gold mine.
GET HISTORIC FOODS RIGHT: THE FOODS OF ENGLAND PROJECT
This website is not from a university or museum, but instead offered by Glyn Hughes, an engineer and food history enthusiast. If you click on “Cookbooks,” you’ll retrieve a list in date order of historic cookbooks. Some listings have links to other websites where the cookbooks are hosted, and others have links to transcriptions of recipes from the cookbooks that Hughes provides. Examples: Mary Eales’s Receipts, 1718 lists ways to preserve gooseberries and other fruit, and “receipts” for fruit pastes and “clear-cakes.” If you enjoyed the ITV/PBS Victoria television series, you might be interested in this site’s transcriptions of Queen Victoria’s chef Francatelli’s recipes.
GET THE POUND VALUE RIGHT: BANK OF ENGLAND’S INFLATION CALCULATOR
“Use our inflation calculator to check how prices in the UK have changed over time, from 1209 to 2018.”
If you need to compare something that cost, say, £10 in 1533, with its value in today’s currency, plug those numbers into the page’s calculator to get the answer of £8,408.30. There are sections on the page which describe how the calculator was created and how it works. Using this tool would give you an idea of the relative value of goods in Britain’s history, on which could hinge a critical plot point in your novel.
WRITING A REGENCY? READ WALKS THROUGH LONDON, 1817
The Internet Archive offers a copy of Walks Through London by David Hughson, a guidebook to the city of London in the late Regency period. Use this to properly orient your characters as they move about London in the course of your plot. The display software lets users click at the right or left edge of the e-book to get the pages to turn, similar to turning the pages of a print book.
LGBTQ HISTORY: CANADIAN LESBIAN AND GAY ARCHIVES DIGITAL COLLECTION
“Explore highlights from the… world’s largest independent collection of LGBTQ+ documentary heritage.” The page offers a search feature, or you can view all items–photos and texts which document Canadian LGBTQ history. View examples of T-shirts and buttons, photos of protests, or watch videos of interviews with activists.
U.S. TV AND RADIO HISTORY: AMERICAN ARCHIVE OF PUBLIC BROADCASTING
This website “seeks to preserve and make accessible significant historical content created by public media.” It makes available selected U.S. public radio and television programs from the last 60 years. There are 40,000 hours of digitized content. A search feature finds shows that cover a particular topic, or, you can click on “browse” to view broad categories like nature, social issues, cooking, or dance. I got over 4,000 hits searching for the 9/11 attacks. You can view early 1980s news reports about the AIDS epidemic, reports on the historic 1988 fires in Yellowstone Park, or listen to the earliest stories about Nixon’s Watergate affair. Boston’s WGBH public television station and the Library of Congress partnered to bring this archive about.
Booth was a pioneering social researcher in late Victorian London, who personally funded a survey of the poor. Pages from his notebooks and the poverty maps of London can be viewed on this website, hosted by the London School of Economics. A novelist can search the maps for a particular street, so that you can place your Victorian characters in the right area for their affluence level. Not all of the notebooks are available digitally, but in the ones that are, I found such historical tidbits as the prices of drinks in a pub, an account of a visit to a music hall, and information about brothels in St. Mary Paddington area. The maps and notebooks have links that allow you to jump between them to the relevant sections. This would be excellent primary source material on late Victorian London.
PRISONER OF WAR, WWII: WILLIAM H. TURCOTTE DIARY
This diary by U.S. airman William Turcotte was created while he spent 18 months as a prisoner of war in Sagan, Germany. “Turcotte’s log book contains colored pencil drawings of ‘Kriegie’ (German slang for a Prisoner-of-War) living conditions, food, and activities.” View his amusing colored pencil drawings of camp conditions and his fellow inmates, and read his moving account of the camp’s liberation in April 1945. Excellent primary source material about life as a POW in WWII. The diary is hosted by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
About the contributor: B.J. Sedlock is Lead Librarian and Coordinator of Metadata and Archives at Defiance College in Defiance, Ohio. She writes book reviews and articles for The Historical Novels Review, and has contributed to The Sondheim Review.