Last week I wrote about historical fiction as a form of world-building. I promised to share my research "secrets" so here we go.
First, I believe that if you want to write believable, textured historical fiction, you need to do a LOT of research. It's like an iceberg--only a little is visible but there's a whole lot behind it. Otherwise your story will feel flimsy, like the historical detail was grafted onto your plot.
Just as the best emotional scenes are written when you FEEL the emotion, the best historical settings are lived vicariously in your head. They are as vivid as if you got into a time machine and now you're there.
That said, where do you go for information? I set my fiction in real places, which makes it a little easier. If your town or city is fictional, use a real one as a template. First I'll share some general resources then I'll talk about the variety of information I used in one book. A general rule is that you need as much contemporary source material as you can find. This means contemporary to the period you are writing about.
An incredible site is the Library of Congress's American Memory. Here you will find photographs, books, playbills, songs, magazines, and oral histories. These are organized by topic and geography and can be searched across collections. Another awesome site is Cornell's Making of America. This has, for instance, back copies of Harper's Magazine, which has lengthy travelogue-type articles. Very useful if you want to find out how a setting appeared to eyewitnesses. If you're a Victorian-era buff, then The Victorian Web is a great index of rich source material. Project Gutenberg has usefully digitized thousands of many classic texts. You can search by location. In addition, local and college libraries may have collections of vintage books and other publications relating to your subject or location. Online catalogs make it easy to determine what they have before taking a trip.
I like to read novels written during the period (should there be any) as well as women's magazines because these inform the sensibilities, word choices, and attitudes of the day.
And don't forget the old standby, Roget's Thesaurus! I have several, with my oldest printed somewhere in the 1880s. It's falling apart but incredibly useful. If a word isn't in there--don't use it! The Oxford Dictionary is a good source to find out when a word was first used. Heavy reading in your period helps a lot with word choice. When I'm immersed in my setting, often the "right" dialogue and descriptive words come to me. A little spooky but it works.
I'll use Last Summer in Eden as my example. It is set in 1929, in a real town, Bethlehem, NH. I lived there, which made research much easier. Many of the old buildings were still around, including my house, which I used in the book. :)
Contemporary source materials included oral histories; a directory of the region and towns that included resident names and businesses; 1920s novels including F. Scott; reprints of Sears catalogs; tourism brochures and books for the White Mountains; local newspaper archives; the historical society's photographs and printed materials (brochures, events, menus); maps (the old insurance ones are super since they show buildings); old magazines; and my trusty thesaurus.
In addition, I referred to history books that covered the 1920s, the White Mountains and grand hotels, Prohibition, anti-Semitism, and bootlegging. I also researched arcane information like the history of the washing machine (they used to be gas powered!) online.
It takes a lot of work to build an iceberg. But as the writer, you get to practically live in the period you're writing about. It's a blast. Happy researching!