Researching history online is a passion for many people but for authors, it’s also essential to provide the authentic details that make historical settings come to life.
The best advice on researching that I’ve received was from an hour-long workshop given last summer by historical romance author and professional historian Jennifer Hallock, who has lived and worked in the Philippines, the settings of her books.
Currently, Hallock spends her days teaching history and her nights writing historical happily-ever-afters, but she took time to share some of her best tips on historical research with me.
GeekMom: Where’s the first place you go on the internet to start your research? What is hands-down the best place to dig into those little details that make everything authentic?
Jennifer Hallock: As a professional historian, I like to mine primary sources for story ideas about outliers—the intrepid and unconventional characters, maybe even the rule-breakers. While encyclopedias smooth out history to give you only the most average experience, mining the original texts gives you the full range of what is possible and helps you develop the convincing details of daily life. (You can read more about how I use micro-history to write fiction on my website.)
My first research stop is digging into digitized books from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, available for free at Google Books. The trick is to use the dropdown “Tools” menu on the results page to limit the publication date to the period that interests you, especially anything before 1923 (meaning that it is in the public domain).
Do be aware, though, that just because something was printed in a historical period does not mean it is an accurate representation of events happening then. If anything, newspapers were less reliable sources in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The biases of white cishet male imperialist academics went thoroughly unchecked.
A key tenet of history as a discipline is to be sure you understand the provenance of any source you use. Who was the author? Who was the intended audience? Break it down by background, perspective, and motivations. Find a variety of sources, including translated sources, if you can. Wear critical lenses always.
GeekMom: Is there somewhere that specializes in historical details by, say, profession? Or home design? Or clothing?
JH: Check out the Digital Library Directory to find specialized online collections in public libraries, national archives, and museums. Another great place for print, video, and audio resources is the Internet Archive. Or, if you want to scour the internet more broadly, try Sweet Search: it has an algorithm that prioritizes academic institutions, governmental pages, and non-profit websites. For even more suggestions, check out the full list at my site.
GM: How do you organize the details you’ve uncovered online for use in your stories? Do you paste them into Scrivener? Create a master document? Bookmark them?
JH: My first recommendation is to bookmark the site and keep your bookmarks relatively organized in folders. (Do as I say, not as I do.) I store my notes in Scrivener so that I can access the information in the same place as my writing. I can even split the screen, rather than looking back and forth.
While this hodge-podge system works for me, a more purpose-built program that I use professionally is called NoodleTools, which costs only $15 a year per subscription. It allows you to keep track of your bibliography and make research note cards that are searchable and easily organized.
Ultimately, this is a personal decision based on how you best work.
Author Bio: Jennifer Hallock spends her days teaching history and her nights writing historical happily-ever-afters. She has lived and worked in the Philippines, the setting of her books, but she currently writes at her little brick house on a New England homestead—kept company by her husband, a growing flock of chickens, and a mutt named Wile E.