Historical Research – Not For The Fainthearted
Updated: May 19
Research is part of the fun in writing historical novels. For me it’s often an excuse to go on a rabbit trail—in other words, “squirrel!” The heroine of my story in Mending Sarah’s Heart (which releases in the Thimbles and Threads Collection in July) is a seamstress.
I typed the words. “Sarah pushed one last pin into the sleeve.”
But wait, did they have pins in 1884?
I Googled the history of pins. While not the most accurate resource, Google is a start.
The short answer is yes, my heroine would use pins. But I didn’t stop reading there. The design and manufacturing process caught my attention. Pretty soon, I found myself reading about something completely unrelated.
Google is a secondary source because it gathers information from other places and presents it in some type of order. I like order. Most reference books are also secondary sources. They present the information with some modern interpretation, whether intended or not.
I wanted to get information directly from the source. Primary source research. For the late 1800’s, newspapers give me a glimpse of everyday life. Not only do they contain local happenings, but most include national news, housekeeping tips and health advice. Advertisements give ideas of what people considered normal.
A wonderful archive of historic newspapers is available at coloradohistoricnewspapers.org. I can read them from my recliner.
I decided to set a story in Silverton, Colorado in 1877, two years after the town was founded. To pretend I was there, I could read all of the local newspapers for that year.
But those newspapers hadn’t been scanned to the website. So, I went to the local historic archive (which is only open on Thursdays) and met some nice people. They told me that the Silverton 1877 newspapers were housed in the library on Microfilm.
Then I went to the library, where I learned that the microfilm resided in the basement with the black mold. No public allowed.
A year later, I checked back. Still no luck.
This fall, I read in the current paper that the mold had been cleaned up. Yay.
So, I went back to the library and learned that the Microfilm now sits at the archive building where I started my search a few years before. It was a Wednesday and the archives are only open on Thursday.
Primary source research is not for the faint hearted.
Meanwhile, I gather tidbits from the newspaper in nearby Lake City because those are online. Some of the articles are confusing without context. And some of the papers didn’t scan very well, causing my eyes to cross.
Makes me appreciate the secondary source research, where someone else has already located and read the microfilm. They added background information and put it in a context that makes sense to me, the modern reader.
I will continue to study both and enjoy the meandering path they take me on. Because, who doesn’t want to know that Mrs. Green came into town for New Years’ Eve or the price of morphine laced tonic?