A Treasure Trove of Research Sources for Authors

Christine FrostGuest Post
by Christine Frost

I confess — I’m a digital hoarder. Spending many years in the academic world and being a historical fiction author, I’ve collected a tremendous amount of research. Over the years, I’ve taken notes from countless books to ensure I’m accurately portraying the historical figures, cuisine, and cultures I’m portraying in my writing. It’s easy to get swept up in taking notes. New ideas for the story come with each interesting detail.

There is a delicate balance in historical fiction. In order to be able to move comfortably within the realm of the story you’re creating, the scale of research needed can be huge. The risk for writers is spooling out endless facts in prose just because there were dozens of fascinating details that were discovered in research. While working on my second novel, set in medieval Ireland, I happened to find a book describing everyday life in rural areas. Soot houses dotting the Irish landscape may provide just the right touch of authenticity, but an expository paragraph on their construction and functionality bogs down the narrative and removes the reader from the story.

Open Access and the DASH Project

In recent years, the ability to find free, high quality resources online has been an amazing boon. The Open Access movement began as a means to make academic papers and peer-reviewed articles openly available. It’s changing the way academic research is being managed, and has given unprecedented access to the knowledge gathered in universities around the world. And this can be a great benefit for writers.

Harvard has played a key role in making its research freely available through the DASH Project, which launched in 2009. Their model for Open Access has been used by many other universities. To date, 4.1 million works have been downloaded from DASH in 234 countries. They encourage testimonials to show how the resources they share have benefitted people. The last week of each October is now celebrated as International Open Access Week. It feels like a knowledge revolution.

An Author’s Ultimate Resource

How has Open Access helped me as an author? I love to study the Ancient Near East. Reliable resources that cover Mesopotamia’s history thoroughly have been frustratingly far and few between. A couple of years ago, I attended a day-long conference at Harvard about Mesopotamian cities. My conversations with professors revealed that the history books published in the mid-twentieth century that I bought in book stores were not highly regarded. The books were loaded with inaccuracies, and the credibility of my stories was at risk.

Through DASH, I now have access to new research done by faculty and students at Harvard, among many other institutions as more universities adopt the Open Access model. Satellite photos taken during the Cold War revealed ancient trade routes that were previously unknown, and papers on what people farmed in Mesopotamia were easy to find. The world I write about now feels much more authentic and complete.

Free research materials go beyond the DASH model. The Digital Public Library of America was created after a conference on the history of publishing at Radcliffe in 2010. It hosts more than 8 million sources online from museums, libraries, and archives. Covering many aspects of history, from Prohibition to social movements in the US, it serves as an amazing resource, and authors can find a wealth of information to help develop their works. Additionally, OpenCulture.com has films, audio files, courses, books, and more archived online. While writing a short story about Mesopotamia for a literary journal, I listened to a professor read the Epic of Gilgamesh in the original Akkadian language. It was inspirational, and helped me infuse the story with a bit more atmosphere that I may not have otherwise been able to include.

This isn’t all about historical fiction. Writing a novel about a frustrated clinician who spends too much time in the lab? You can find great medical research that may help the clinician’s big breakthrough. Writing a thriller involving international schemes? Papers on political science may be just the thing to make it more realistic. New research on social sciences, technology, and beyond is available for writers of any genre and style. If you add anything to your writer’s toolbox, bookmark these sites and seek out Open Access sources. You’ll never know what novel-changing inspiration you’ll find.

Christine Frost is the author of three novels and several published short stories. She has a master’s of literature and creative writing from Harvard Extension School and serves on the board of the Independent Publishers of New England. You can learn more about Christine on her Author Central page and her blog, where she runs a series called “How Do They Feast?” to explore how food and cooking is portrayed in fiction.

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13 thoughts on “A Treasure Trove of Research Sources for Authors”

  1. Christine, this is great stuff. I had no idea such resources existed, and of course I’m always looking to authenticate whatever I’m writing. Thanks so much for sharing.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the article! It was a post where, just like my research-gathering habits, was difficult to stop–there was so much to say about this topic. 🙂

  2. Great article. I’m writing a WW II historical romance and have done loads of research on internment camps, fighter bases in the UK, Rosies, and 1940s Los Angeles. I have even exchanged email with survivors of internment camps. Yes, there is a fine line of putting too much into the book, and I’ve been very careful not to info dump.

    1. And sometimes for me, it can all be so fascinating to research, that it can distracting! 🙂 My second novel was set in medieval Ireland, and I realized there wasn’t enough substance just focused on Ireland, so I expanded out into the political realms of England and Spain at the same time to better contextualize the war at the time. I think I spent an extra year on research in that case, but it was well worth it. So glad you have had the opportunity to talk with survivors of the camps–that personal component add so much to a story!

  3. What great resources, Christine! Thanks for sharing them with us. Even though I write fantasy, I’m always surprised at the amount of research I need to do before I start writing.

    1. Absolutely–I agree! I write fantasy as well, and want to avoid many of the tropes associated with it. I’ve been reading a lot of ancient world history, and it’s amazing how much research can go into worldbuilding.

  4. Thanks, Christine. This is an informative post.

    I mentioned http://etymonline.com/ before the comments system died. Etymonline provides the etymology of words–a great resource for creating realistic historical dialogue.

    For instance, mentioning someone “spinning out of control” in conversation that takes place in 1860 wouldn’t work.

    1. Thank you for coming back to it–I’d been checking back to see when comments were enabled again, and am glad to see everything’s well now. Glad you also enjoyed the article!

  5. Thanks for sharing these. American Memory from the Library of Congress is also a great resource. All of this is growing improvement from the days when the stuff we needed wasn’t digitized and could only be found by visiting the library or historical society and going through (often) unsorted archival boxes of material.

    1. I think we’ll see a lot more from libraries and museums as time goes on–there is so much opportunity with digitizing resources. Thanks for mentioning American Memory–I’ve barely scratched the surface there, but it’s a great site to bookmark. I have an idea for a novel set in 1880s Maine, and I’m sure I’ll be going to American Memory to help with the research!

  6. The internet has made it SO much easier to research books than when I started out. And now, while I’m researching, I do advanced marketing at the same time by setting up a secret Pinterest board and pinning neat photos I find there. I hope to unveil those boards just before the books’ releases. Sounds like a plan, right? Great article, Christine. I really enjoyed it. Thanks!

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