Friday, September 09, 2011

Some of my favorite research resources

I started writing back in the ancient times before blogs or websites or even e-mail.  Back then, I had research books.  I still have them close at hand in my writing room.  Though the present is constantly changing, the past doesn't.  (It's true that new discoveries change what we know about the past, but for the most part, European history since the Middle Ages remains pretty much the same, and I feel comfortable using reference books I bought in the early 1990s.)  This month, I thought I'd pass along some of my favorites in hopes they might be helpful to you, as well.

The History of Underclothes

I think you can see why this volume would be invaluable when writing historical romance.  It's an ambitious book, ranging from the medieval period through 1939.  It also covers men's underclothes, so descriptions of ladies' umnentionables are on the brief side.  I don't find that much of a negative, to tell you the truth.  I don't think modern women think much about the design of a bra.  It's just a bra.  Men think even less about the construction of clothing but are mainly concerned with getting it off their women.  Frankly, I'd worry about people who dwell on details of fabrics and such when they're in mating mode, anyway.

For more detail about the Victorian period in the United States, there's the 1886 Bloomingdale's catalogue.

This one comes with a caveat.  Bloomingdale's wasn't an upper class store back then.  Both it and Macy's were notorious competitors for the dollars of working people.  Although the dresses look luxurious, they were sturdy, conservative, and inexpensive.

Still, this gives you a good idea of the sorts of clothing people from the period would wear.  It also includes information on underclothing.  (So much of it!)  There's a whole section on corsets.  Plus pages on children's clothing and all sorts of other merchandise.

For stories set in the medieval period, there are several works by Joseph and Frances Gies.

I have these two books, but there are several more.  They give great detail about what medieval life was like.  It turns out castles were a lot more comfortable to live in than one might think.  Americans need to bear in mind that the climate in Europe is usually not as extreme as our own.

I might have to go back and buy some more books, come to think of it.

By the way, when I want to buy used books online, I generally go to  It's a listing place for huge numbers of independent used book sellers.  You might get your book from Vermont or Oklahoma.  I've always had great service from these merchants.

Finally, here's something rather idiosyncratic to me.

My training is in social science, specifically psychology.  I enjoy writing characters who have an interest in science.  I love to look at the science timeline from around the year I'm writing and see what work was being done and what theories would have been in the air.

Did you know that in 1751, Benjamin Franklin published the results of his experiment with the kite in a paper titled Experiments and Observations on Electricity?  Or that in 1733 someone named Hales measured blood pressure?  I've had all kinds of fun with Gall's theory of phrenology, which posited that mental functions each had their own location in the brain and those functions could be measured through bumps in the skull.  I could get lost in the timeline for hours.

What are your favorite research materials?


Alyssa Everett said...

It's an online resource, but whenever I wonder if an expression might be an anachronism (or an Americanism) I consult the Online Etymology Dictionary:

Patricia Preston said...

I wouldn't know where to begin I have tons of research books and every time I start a book I buy more. And I definitely want hardback copies. No ebooks for research. I may have several open at the same time with pages marked, etc.

Wendy Soliman said...

I love the mention of ladies unmentionables, brief!