Since writing the Online Resources for Historical Novelists piece the other day, I’ve stumbled upon a few more resources.
The National Archives
How did I miss this the other day? The National Archives is a godsend to historical novelists, because you can actually search by year. For my year of interest, 1862, it immediately found 9,165 armed services records, 3,989 government records, 7,022 law and order records, and 3005 businesses and organisations records. None of these would have come up on a Google search, and I’ve never seen a Wikipedia reference to one of them. Even narrowing my search down to the single (unusual) word “impostor” for 1862 only gets me three documents. If that wasn’t enough, the site then offered to sell me a CD of the most detailed map of London ever made, surveyed in 1862, from which (if I was writing that kind of novel) I could plot in the most minute house to house detail the doings of my characters.
The London Gazette
All official pronouncements in England are made through the London Gazette. Searching 1862 produced 39,803 results instantly. You can refine a date search right down to the exact days you are interested in — quite important since even looking for just July 1 – July 31 1862 pulled up 492 results. You can also choose a limited number of historical events. A lot of the information is arcane, but it goes back a long, long time and will give you an endless source of names, places, dates, and official terms.
The British Medical Journal
You can search the BMJ all the way back to 1840, before which time doctors were more likely to kill you than cure you anyway. For my search, there are 2,017 articles from 1860 to 1862, including such gems as Lunacy Certificates, Rare Cases in Midwifery and An Antidote for Organic Poisons. The Organic Poisons article is fascinating. It reveals that Condy’s fluid, available in almost every chemist’s shop, is an antidote to laudanum, strychnine, cyanide, aconite and other deadly organic substances. “If this were more generally known, many valuable lives would doubtless be saved.” Anyone even considering including a case of poisoning in their 1840 or later novel, or, indeed, almost any other physical ailment, would be most advised to wend their way to the BMJ’s august tomes.
The thirty-six dramatic situations
For a complete change of pace, try the Victorian classic The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations available as a free read on The Open Library. French author Georges Polti analysed tragedies to try to come up with the thirty-six fundamental situations in tragedy. You may not agree with all of them, and you may have others you prefer, but it’s a great gander through the history of story, and brings together a lot of the literary ideas of a bygone era, before structuralism and deconstruction got the better of us. In my view, much sounder than The Seven Basic Plots, more interesting, shorter, and free.
The Oxford English Dictionary Online
This one is a pay-to-use at a shocking £56 for three months, so be a little more careful. The OED is the ultimate authority on the English language, giving you not only what the word is purported to mean now, but the first recorded instance of the word in each of its varying meanings. This is great for assuring yourself that the word you want to use really was in use in the year whatever (William Goldman had a long argument about this in writing Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as related in The Princess Bride), though, again, be aware that for £56 you may be creating a nuance that none of your readers will be aware of, or even care. If you’re a member of certain libraries, especially university libraries, you may be able to get free access through your library card. Worth investigating before springing for your own subscription.
The British Library
The British Library has a copy of every book ever published in English. Unfortunately they’re not all online (yet), but the library is doing more and more to make its out-of-copyright works available. This includes rare manuscripts but also British Newspapers 1800-1900. Like the OED, they want some money from you unless you are a member of a subscribing institution, but in this case it’s less than £10 for a week’s pass and up to 200 articles. You might just decide this is worth it for the fun of getting all the local colour right. There’s also an images online catalogue, which you can purchase, or you can just look at online. And, of course, there’s the catalogue of books — worth it just to browse and see what kinds of titles were being published in what year.
Euratlas and Eurodocs
Although you can find historical maps of Europe online for virtually any year, Euratlas does a lot to allow you to customise your map for the end of any century to exactly the information you need. Eurodocs is a (not connected) collection of official documents of various European states. Nothing you couldn’t find with Google, but good to browse.
Getting more out of Google
Searching for “swords” in 1862 or “famous events of 1862” only goes a certain distance. Do a search for, for example, Newcastle 1862, though, and things start to happen. For example, you discover that there was a terrible mining disaster in Newcastle in January of that year. You may or may not decide to include it, but it brings in a lot of local colour and can add real depth and poignancy to the reactions of incidental characters.
- Beyond Wikipedia – online resources for historical novelists (martinturner.org.uk)