20 February 2007

Primary Sources

Primary sources, I feel, are a writer's best friend, especially a historical writer.

I collect Victorian diaries and journals, written mainly by women who have arrived in Australia after leaving England, but also by women born in Australia. These diaries give me an insight to how they lived and what was happening in the world around them at that time. From their personal entries, we can learn what was important to them, their daily routine, their views and opinions. They can also lift some of those myths we in the modern world tend to think as true.

Diaries aren't the only primary source available to us. We have so many musuems and art galleries. I love studying paintings of the different eras and visting museums that have wonderful displays of every era.

We should be visiting our local or state libraries for books, letters, newspapers and articles written in the eras we write. Naturally this is difficult for those writing in the ancient periods, but those of us who write about the last few hundred years have sources available and we need to use them.

If you are writing about the area where you live, join your local historical society, where as a member, you can study maps, paintings and photos are that area. Also the local councils will have documents and maps going back years.

It is not always possible to visit your chosen setting, but if you can visit, make sure you don't simply go to the main attractions, like a castle, etc, but find the time to visit the graveyard of the local church, sit in a pew and study the stain glass windows, lay by the river and absorb the surroundings, listen to the birds sing, the insect buzz and imagine what it would be like in your period. Walk the back streets of the village or town, find the oldest parts and touch the walls of the buildings and think of nothing but how your characters would have lived. Would their footsteps have walked where yours have?

The photo above is taken from a sketch done of Lower George St, Sydney, Australia 1828. Sketches and paintings like these give us the artist's view of those times and from studying it we can see a little of what life was like then.

I found this photo in a book, but the internet has many websites with great antique photos and paintings, some even for sale.

If you write in the Victorian or Edwardian era, you may even have photos of your own family and this is another source you have to look at their clothes, etc.
I find it fascinating that we have so many choices to help us become better writers. I guess that is why research is never a chore for me. :o)


Jacquie said...


I loved Gossamer Wings!

Your books are so rich with character. Do you think your attention to historical detail enhances your characters' reactions to their environment?

Keely's blog

Tess said...

Anne - yep, I have Victorian era photos, but as yet, haven't set a story there.

And I'm in total agreement - primary sources are fantastic. For the FR, I'm lucky as I still have boxes of copies of the pds I used for my thesis in the late 80s/early 90s. And paintings are something a lot of people don't think of - nice to see them mentioned :-)

Karen Mercury said...

When I decide on my country, the first place I go is to the missionary's diaries. They tend to have scientific leanings which gives me all the flora and fauna, and some of them are quite the characters. One was literally such a character I made him a character in my 2nd novel!

DeborahBrent said...

In addition to writing historicals I'm a genealogical researcher. We have a copy of my husband's ggg grandfather's journal.

In it there is a throw-a-way line where he tells how a great something grandfather emigrated to England from Italy. He changed the family name from Postonii to Poston.

He must have been a man of some means as he married a Duke's daughter.

Seek out primary sources to add authenticity to your story.

Deborah Brent