Sunday, March 22, 2009

Craft Issue # 3: Research Methods

My debut novel, Faithful (Puffin, 2010), is historical fiction. When I started writing it four years ago, I knew a great deal about the setting: the bulk of the story takes place in Yellowstone National Park (, not far from where my family vacations. Researching the Park was made easier by the wonderful new research center located just outside of Gardiner, Montana. And I'd already spent a great deal of time in the Park; I made several special trips to hone my descriptions.

But knowing how to depict other details of the time period - language, clothing, transportation, culture - that took more intensive research. There are tons of resources, and I'd like to share a couple.

Clothing research for this project began with finding period pictures. Dover Publications ( specializes in archival books, including period clothing catalogues. Combing those catalogues allowed me to choose actual outfits for my character, complete with fabric choices. Costume exhibits in museums supported this pictorial research.

The New York Times ( historical society pages were also helpful. I found it intriguing to read between the lines in some of these small pieces, which often contain detailed descriptions of clothing, houses, and activities.

But one of the most useful internet sources I discovered was Project Gutenberg (, an electronic database of out-of-copyright books. I searched for the best-selling books of my time period, and then was able to download entire manuscripts of those books, all well out of print and otherwise unavailable. Reading those books gave me a flavor of language and manners of the time.

If you have favorite research tools, I'd love to have you share.


Heather Tomlinson said...

Here are a few I've found helpful:

The Food Timeline & related culinary history pages are great for period menus & cookbooks:

Society of Dance History Scholars:

Repositories of Primary Sources:

Social Security Adm popular baby names site (good for naming characters-- you can enter a particular year back to 1879):

Happy researching!

Janet Fox said...

Heather - these are terrific! Thanks so much for the addition.