Writing Tip

My Favorite Historical Research Resources

Small details transfer the reader into another world, and for historical fiction, another time. Lingering honey upon a tongue after a character sips mead, the warmth of a candle flickering in the mind, the sound of a metal zipper opening in the corner…

And nothing destroys the mood more than an anachronism.

All of this condemns the historical fiction writer to hours of research – a thankless task necessity for our genre. To aid the burden, here are some of my favorite resources available from the comfort of your favorite writing place.


A Timeline Of Slang

These timelines were developed by Jonathan Green, a “slang lexicographer.” His website has timelines for 31 terms including oaths, weapons, rich/poor, death, money, and private body parts.

For example, clicking on “drunk” brings up this visual timeline of what people called that slop in the tavern over the last hundreds of years.


Online Etymology

Etymologies are explanations of what words meant and how they sounded in the past. This Online Etymology website is a fantastic way to check if a word was common in the period of your manuscript and the origins of a term.


Ngram Viewer

Another way to check if a word was used during a time period is Google’s Ngram Viewer. This tool lists the earliest written record of a word. Keep in mind, especially for early historic periods, a word was likely used in speech decades before written records.


Historical Thesaurus

Well shoot, the word you just typed was not used during the era of your manuscript. No worries, use this Historical Thesaurus!


Historical Maps

My favorite source for historical maps is Old Maps Online. You can search via geographical area and obtain links to historical maps within the search field. For example, I’ve zoomed in on London, England and historical maps are linked to the right.

Another great map source is the Leventhal Map & Education Center, part of the Boston Public Library. This site allows you to also search by date with the timeline selector on the left.


Historical Names

What’s in a name? Well, a lot.

I find naming characters stressful. They can affect a reader’s preconceived notions before any description is offered. Are they an eccentric pirate with an exotic name? Are they one of a hundred farmers named Thomas?

Here are my favorite lists of early English names:


Podcasts

Have 30 minutes during your commute or jog? Why not research your novel at the same time?

Listening to historical podcasts from your period of history can be a great way to pick up little bits to weave into a manuscript and make the world come to life for your reader.

My favorite history podcast is the Renaissance English History Podcast produced by historian, Heather Teysko. Her casts are short, entertaining, and jam packed with interesting facts. I especially enjoyed this episode about 16th century cosmetics.


Historical Bibles

Given the domination of religion upon past society and politics, religious quotes often come up in historical fiction. But historic bibles are different than modern ones. Bible Study Tools provides multiple translations from different eras and languages.


Social Media

Yes, you read that right.

Facebook has a breath of historic groups and societies, many of whom are pleased to answer your questions. My current WIP takes place near Hinckley, England and I’ve received aid from the Hinckley Past & Present Facebook Group of historians. Shout out also to the English Historical Fiction Author’s Group who have helped me with research in the past.

Similarly, there’s a a breath of historical fiction authors on Twitter who are ready and willing to help. Checkout these historical fiction hashtags:


What else?

What is your favorite research resource? Please leave a link in the comments below!

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