Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Writer Wednesday - Researching for Fun and Profit

For this week's Writer Wednesday, I thought I'd explore a topic that didn't require the posting of excerpts in order to draw out those of you who prefer not to post excerpts. Since I'm in the midst of writing a historical novel, I also thought I'd blatently use this blog in an attempt to discover all of your favorite research methods. Here are a few of mine.

I am a master of Google Search. If it's on the Internet, I can find it with my Googlebar. I'm really good at figuring out the perfect search term to get the info I need. Maybe it's because I just love research and the Googlebar was something I just adored from day one. Privacy concerns? Bah. It's worth the loss of privacy. :)

Wikipedia is also a wonderful resource, especially when the article you are looking at has lots of citations that you can explore as well. I found some great Rosie the Riveter sites through Wikipedia. One thing I love is plugging in a date and seeing all the information that appears. Want to know the major news stories in 1924? Just plug "1924" in your Googlebar, and Wikipedia will be the first entry that pops up. Click on it, and you will see a comprehensive listing of everything that happened in 1924, along with a bunch of internal links to stuff like film, literature, sports, television--you name it. It may not be a definitive source, but it is a comprehensive one.

But the problem with Google and Wikipedia is you have to know what you're looking for. You can get lucky and have one page lead to another and eventually to a gem, but it takes a lot of surfing to find those.

But what about when you don't know what you are looking for?

What I really want to do one day soon is spend an afternoon at a library looking through microfiche. Those of you who are younger may not have any clue how fun microfiche is. It's so cool, even if it's low-tech. Imagine a bunch of newspaper pages placed side by side, zipping by you in the viewer. Unless they've changed these viewers considerably, you actually use a dial to control how fast the pages fly by. It's so 1970! If they duplicated this with computers, it would take forever to load!

What am I looking for? Nothing in particular. I'll know it when I see it. I want to look at the microfiche for the local papers in the early 20s, and zip through them. I'm looking for culture, for atmosphere. I'm looking for things like ads (and prices!), for portraits, for fashion, for cars, for sports, for buildings, for anything that catches my eye. Newspapers are a slice of life from that particular day in time, and I just want to browse through them.

To this end, I love Shorpy Photo Archive. I look at Shorpy's photos every day. If you are a history lover, you will love it as well. At least a few time a week, they post a street scene from the 20s. These are invaluable to me. You can zoom in on the photos and examine them in detail. When they post scenes from the interior of drugstores, I can get the prices on common goods. A milkshake? Fifteen cents. They had soda subscriptions. Buy a card for a dollar and you can redeem it for ten sodas. That sort of stuff didn't make the history books.

Your turn! What are your favorite research sites and methods?

22 comments:

A. Grey said...

Great topic Tia! I don't really ever write anything historical (unless it's my own history) but I do research things sometimes. I love Wikipedia and Google, although I admit I haven't any idea what a 'Googlebar' is. I'm pretty good at finding what I'm looking for online, even if I'm not sure what it is. I just brainstorm everything conceivably related to one main theme and sprawl search. It takes longer than a narrowly defined search, but I've never come up empty-handed yet!

Microfiche is where it's at! Another cool thing that you might try, is looking through bookstores that deal in rare/old books and newspapers and magazines. There's one not too far from where I live and my father collects Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia so I've spent hours flipping through looking for articles pertaining to Hoppy. It's amazing what you can find. Like stepping back in time. I added Shorpy to my favorites. My family is from Appalachia, and between that and having Cherokee in our blood (which back then you did NOT advertise) there aren't a whole lot of photos of our people. Therefore, I LOVE researching photos from the same era and same location where my family lived because I can see how they lived in a roundabout way.

Antique stores are another great way to research history because you can see it for yourself. And old buildings. We were moving stuff around in a circa 1700's barn on the property where I work and found a huge wooden shipping box for something unknown. It was filled with scraps of newspaper from the 1918's to the late 1920's. We sat for hours reading adds for hats, fur coats, spats and the like!

Chicory said...

Wow, you picked a tough topic for me, since I've always claimed to be allergic to research. I really love digging for background on fairy-tales and myths, though. Does that count? I get gooey, happy feelings when I dig up the translation of an actual Greek or Norse myth instead of someone's summery, and I adore those delicious scholarly notes. Yesterday, while reading `The Epic of Giglamesh' for my World Lit class (yeah, collage started this week. I may not be commenting quite as often for awhile.) I found a description of Mesopotamian doors. I was so happy. It never occured to me before to wonder how people managed doors before hinges were invented, and now I know. :)

TK42ONE said...

I risk sounding like a rude a-hole by saying this, but, if you've never seen Shorpy, then you're dumb. It's just that good.

I've followed David's work for a few years now and it's awesome. When it comes to old photos, he's the best. In fact, I can easily say that finding a photo on Shorpy is easier than finding one on the Library of Congress site. And the best part? He runs his shop out of Fairfax, just an hour or so up the road from me.

Tia Nevitt said...

Chicory, of course fairy tale research counts! I love stuff like that! And you MUST share the ancients' solution for door hinges. It never occurred to me to be curious about stuff like that!

A, you've reminded me of a stack of undated newspaper clippings my grandmother had. I have no idea why she clipped them out and kept them for so many years. The subjects seem almost random.

St. Augustine has an old drugstore museum that I love to stroll around. They still have a lot of the stock. Ancient bottles with mysterious fluids, labeled with something like "Browne's Arthritis Elixir". Plus, an old-fashioned soda fountain.

I bet that box of newspaper articles was so fun to find. What did you eventually do with them? That was quite a find!

Chicory said...

Tia, their doors were really brilliant! What they did (if I understand correctly) was build the door with a doorpost on the end. On the floor they'd have a pin that the post fit over, and in the sealing above, there would be a cap for the post to fit into. That way, the whole door revolved on this post to open and close.

superwench83 said...

You have totally tuned into my nerd-passion today. I LOVE research! And I'm in the middle of a bunch of it right now, so this is a timely topic.

One of the things I love about research is how it gives you ideas about new directions your story can go; you may be looking up one thing and stumble across something else completely which just fits in as though it was made for your story. That is one of the best feelings!

For my preliminary research, I definitley find Wikipedia useful. Children's books are also a great place to start. They're simplified down to the most important facts and information, which gives you an idea of what you need to focus on and what topics to research more about.

Historical sites and museums and festivals--especially living history sites and festivals--are great places to go as well. Many of the people who work there are experts on the clothes, cooking methods, crafts, economy, travel, and other aspects of the era and the place. The best way to take advantage of this expertise--in an outdoor site, anyway--is to go on a rainy day. There are no crowds; you'll have the whole museum and all the experts all to yourself. Last year I went to the Landis Valley Museum in Lancaster, PA on a rainy day and spoke to one man for 45 minutes, a lady for an hour, and another lady for 2 hours. It was so fantastic. And so, so helpful. And so fascinating! Oh, and it's also best to go by yourself, I think. I could never have stayed so long or been able to focus if I'd had my kids and husband with me.

Tia Nevitt said...

Superwench: "One of the things I love about research is how it gives you ideas about new directions your story can go; you may be looking up one thing and stumble across something else completely which just fits in as though it was made for your story."

This happens to me, too! I never thought of using children's books, but what a great idea.

Fort Clinch, a local civil war fort, has re-enacters every first Saturday of the month. The first time we went there, we didn't even know this; we just got lucky. It was great fun.

I also have been looking into the local historical society. The St. Augustine Historical Society has an extensive microfiche library! I must go. And when I'm there, I'll have to join. It will be something I can add to my bio when I send out query letters.

The Decreed said...

Research for me has always been a vice. Generally, I spend most of my worldbuilding for my fantasy novels trying NOT to do much actual research, just trying to think through certain facets of life in that world and that time and come up with the solutions. Why? Because when I finally reach a point and I wonder "how did the Romans do it?" then I spend the next four to six hours finding out everything about Romans, and Greeks, and fireworks, and medieval horsebreeding, and...

That's all interesting and cool, but I never actually got to worldbuilding, much less writing. :)

superwench83 said...

I've never used microfiche. I'm not sure how to even get started. Where might I find a library with microfiche? Can anyone use it? I'd love to know.

Not that microfiche would do me much good with my current research. All the newspapers of the Pennsylvania Dutch country in the 1700s were written in German.

Memory said...

I love this topic! I love Wikipedia too; it's a great jumping off point for further research. I turn up some good material in Google searches, too. I also belong to a LiveJournal community called Little Details, which is a great place to ask for specialized information and/or recommendations for places to look.

I also make use of Dictionary.com to check the dates when certain words came into common use. My WIP is an imaginary world fantasy with a setting that's (very loosely) based off the late eighteenth century, and I try to avoid anachronistic word choices.

Off the internet, I love just browsing around my library and favourite bookstore for useful tidbits. The historical costuming section has been a great help when it comes to envisioning what my characters are wearing, and I borrowed many, many books from the martial arts section when I was trying to figure out the terminology they'd use. (They're ex-mercenaries who now attend a military academy). I've also stumbled across helpful books about etiquette and the history of the home and other such interesting subjects that help with worldbuilding and character development.

Tia Nevitt said...

The main branch of your public libraries will have periodicals on microfiche. So will historical societies. I'm pretty sure newspapers do as well, but I'm not sure if their microfiche libraries are open to the general public.

As for what you would look at--probably the same things I'm looking at. Slices of life. In the 1700s, I bet the Pennsylvania Dutch lived very similar lifestyles to their contemporaries. Even if you couldn't read the German papers, you could read papers of their English-speaking contemporaries. If any surivive.

Raven said...

I'm an expert Googler as well. And, like others above, I find Wikipedia gives a good overview, so I often start there.

Next I prefer primary sources if I can find them, anything from someone's travel blog to my prize find, a treatise on Russia at the time of Peter I's father, written by someone alive then. I still haven't figured out what I'm going to use this treatise for, but it has to come in handy at some point, right? It's fascinating reading.

Primary sources have details that secondary sources miss. You're getting the POV of someone who was there.

I have to admit I don't use libraries much anymore, but before the advent of the internet one of my favorite research techniques was to look up a topic in the library catalogue, note where the books about it were, and just go browse those shelves. I wasn't necessarily looking for specific books, I'd just see what was there. Usually I found some useful books I hadn't seen in the catalogue. I'd probably do this again if I were writing about a topic that required lots of research.

Online message boards and forums are another useful research tool. People there are usually happy to answer questions.

Tia Nevitt said...

Oh, yeah; personal experience is the best. Once I posted a question on a message board asking if sugar in the gas tank was really a good way to disable a car. (It was for a story! Honest!) One of the responses was from quite a knowledgeable source--a former Chicago gang member. He recommended Karo syrup, because it would blend better with the gas and melt the engine in no time. And he spoke from experience. I took his advice.

Another time, I asked my father if a laptop taken back to the 20s (my historical novel is a time travel novel) would still work when plugged in. He's an electrical engineer. He said yes, but the plug might not fit. File down the thicker prong so they are both the same width, and it would work no problem.

One day I'll learn Latin so I can read Cicero in the original language.

Raven said...

Tia, I was just thinking today that I should learn Latin.

Interesting about the laptop. Actually, for what it's worth, I live in an apartment built in the late 20's. The landlord's not sure if it's 1928 or 1929. I'm not sure if all the fixtures are original, but I suspect the stove and toilet are. The stove is huge, has a couple of different ovens whose uses I haven't figured out, and has a griddle on top with two burners on either side. The toilet stands further out from the wall than modern ones and has a small water tank in the front (at the bottom under the seat; hard to describe) instead of a large one behind.

There's one plug that I think is original and a few more that look like they were installed later. There aren't many plugs in the place.

Funny, when you were talking about your historical earlier it didn't even occur to me that I live in a place from your time period.

SciFiGuy said...

Love the post Tia and that photo site is something. Great technique for getting those small details. Old catalogues are good that way too. As for other resources you probably already know about www.archive.org but I thought I would mention it.

Deborah Blake said...

I'm currently researching the Inquisition for my WIP, an Urban Fantasy. I love the Internet--and I'm really grateful I DON'T have to look through microfiches!

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin said...

Wikipedia and web pages are great places to start researching, but if you're concerned about accuracy, you do need to verify the information with a source that only puts things out after an editor has looked it over. {lop-sided smile}

That's why a lot of my research begins with my and my father's personal libraries. We both tend to hoarde books, including non-fiction that just might have somthing we're lokoing for. After that, it's off to the local libraries. Or to the computer, to email a friend who's closer to the subject than I am, or ask on a group where I know some folks really ought to know. If I know someone who I can't contact either way, I'll wait until I run into them, and ask. But then, my father was a university professor, and I made it as far as a Master's degree, myself. This means that both friends and friends-of-the-family who "know something" about a subject tend to be pretty well informed. {SMILE}

I'll also ask a librarian, even tho I'm trained in the field, myself. My training is pretty good when it comes to searching books, magazines, journals, and newspapers, but my online search skills are rusty and a bit out of date compared to most practicing librarians, particularly at a university library. {Smile}

Anne Elizabeth Baldwin

Tia Nevitt said...

Raven, your apartment sounds awesome! I'd love to see a photograph of everything you mentioned--even the toilet.

SciFiGuy, I forgot all about archive.org. Thanks for the reminder!

Memory, great suggestions about costumes and word origins! I found several sites on 1920s slang that were very helpful!

Deborah, I doubt the time period you are looking at would have anything useful on microfiche. But you really ought to try it sometime!

Anne, I use Wikipedia as a jumping-off point, as others have mentioned. However, there have been studies showing that Wikipedia's cross-referenced articles are now very accurate. Every new change is immediately checked by rabid volunteers. I thought about getting into it myself, but I only have so much time.

superwench83 said...

Raven's comments reminded me of another problem your characters might run into with the laptop. I grew up in a house which was built in 1907, and all of the wiring in the house was original. Back then, houses weren't wired to support both the amount and the power of the electrical appliances we use today. We couldn't vacuume with the lights on, we couldn't have the computer or TV on if we were using the hairdryer, and all kinds of other things. So your character might have to turn off all the other appliances in order to run his laptop. Or whatever. Just thought you might find that interesting.

Tia Nevitt said...

I do! Thank you! I already had planned to have the neighbor wonder why Ashley ran the lights during the daytime, so that is perfect.

The laptop and some cameras with rechargable batteries are really the only things they bring with them to the past. The trip is very unplanned.

A. Grey said...

I was just going through and reading what everyone's written and I have to say that I giggled maniacally when I read about the former gang member responding to your question Tia! Then I got even more tickled when I read about your father's help with the laptop. All I could picture was Richard Deane Anderson in top hat and tails rigging a computer to somehow save himself and all the unknowing inhabitants of the 1920's. There's something exciting about getting information from someone who knows from experience, as if they're passing on some kind of secret.

Tia Nevitt said...

I'm not sure yet what I'm going to do with the laptop, but whatever it is, I'm sure it will be fun. I've already got all sorts of fun things planned. This novel is certainly going to be a mixture of humor and tragedy.

The syruped car is part of a short story that is currently under consideration. Wish me luck!