The Vagaries of Historical Research

I recently started working on a new project. It’s a set of three novels and a novella about four female friends who live and love in mid-nineteenth century America. My first recently completed manuscript is a contemporary and is set at a university, a world that I know intimately. This new concept is historical, however, which means that I have to do research.

Research doesn’t frighten me. I’m a Ph.D. student who’s writing a dissertation on 19th century print culture. I’m a database ninja. I’ve read in a number of archives, including the Special Collections at the Library of Congress, the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, and, next month, the New York Public Library. Hell, I’ve even made my peace with microfilm.

But as I began working on a outline for this project, I realized that the kind of historical research that I know how to do is not necessarily the kind that I need as a fiction writer.

For example, I needed to find a town in New England — I was thinking Connecticut — that had textile mills in 1860 but which was still fairly well-to-do and which contributed a significant number of troops to the Civil War. Whew.

Then, I needed to figure out which regiment an officer from that town who enlisted fairly early in the war might have ended up in. And it had to be a regiment that saw major action in approximately 1862 for a plot twist that I had in mind. Double whew.

Plus I wanted lots of pictures of said town, regiment, etc. for inspiration.

The coolest resource that I’ve found so far is the National Park Service Database of Civil War People. I was able to search all of the men from Connecticut who served in the Union and then, using the list, I worked backward until I found a regiment that met my criteria.

What are your favorite online databases for historical research?  Do you develop plot/characters and then try to find history to match it? Or do you research first and then develop plot/characters?

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