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"Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing." ~ Benjamin Franklin

Friday, July 29, 2011

Tools of the Trade: Historical Societies - Window to the Past

Historical Society of Windham, ME
c. 1833 school house

When I needed to know some details about the 18th century shipyards for my Colonial Courtships novella, Carving a Future, I contacted the town historical society in which the story is set. They were so helpful during our correspondence and provided the information free of charge. I was able to learn the names and owners of the shipyards, where they were located, and dates of operation. There were many more queries I had and they were eager to oblige. When I told them I was an author looking for this information, they seemed quite pleased that I had chosen their town for my story.

Glastonbury, CT Historical Society Building
Welles Shipman Ward House, c. 1755
From their website I was able to obtain much more information, and in fact, I started there to see what information was already available. Like most historical society websites they had information on places, people, industry, events, and much more. They provided a fascinating timeline which I was able to draw from to authentic my story by including some of the interesting historical facts. This is where I found out that during the 1700's the town was spelled differently. Thus the anthology is set in Glassenbury, Connecticut rather than Glastenbury.

Other information that I have accessed online, and have by visiting local historical societies during my research are their publications. You may have seen some of these books on town histories that have been published in recent years. Sometimes special books will be printed for centennial celebrations. My favorites are town history books that were written hundreds of years ago, available at Google Books or Internet Archive. I have found many items that have prompted scenes and even stories. Census and marriage records are also a great way to get authentic character names that were used in the locale. These, too, are kept and sometimes published online by historical societies.

Historical societies are categorized by town, county, region, and state. Most towns have a society, many have have buildings where information is archived, many have small museums, and often they a web presence.  State government websites usually provide a list and town websites will often have a link.

A word of caution. Each society has their own guidelines for queries. Some are free, sometimes they charge. Societies are usually operated by volunteers, some with much knowlege and some are there just holding down the fort. So be as specific as possible and ask to speak with the historian who has research knowledge in that category.

Also, keep an eye on historical society events calendars. I've attending several events through the years that have been educational and given me much inspiration for writing.

Remember, the mission of historical societies is to preserve and record the past ~ an excellent resource to access when authenticating your novel.

7 comments:

  1. Carla, You share some wonderful helps here about research and digging deeper into the past. I'm so glad your contact with the historical society netted you such thrilling results which are often hard to find on our own. Like you, I love Google books, particularly the old, out of print ones. I find they contain more historically accurate info than many of their modern counterparts. Maybe because they're a little bit closer to the source or time period. I'm really looking forward to reading your Colonial Courtships novella and the ships theme. Love those ships! If I remember correctly, your hero is a carver? Please correct me if I'm wrong! Anyway, thanks so much for the great post.

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  2. Thank you, Laura. Historical societies is probably one of my favorite and most used resource when I write. Yes, my hero is a ship's figurehead carver and his workshop is over a shipbuilding loft. I had so much fun with the research for this story, but then again I say that every time!

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  3. Thanks for this post, Carla, very interesting!

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  4. I've had good experiences contacted historical societies and public libraries of the counties in which my stories were set. One woman in NC happened to be working on a book about the town I was interested in, and for a small fee sent me much of her research notes via snail mail, as well as answered several emails about the general area. They provided more help than I was expecting.

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  5. Addendum: I have been busy today researching colonial days in Maine from a 1919 publication put out by the Maine Historical Society. It is a wonderful book and I'm gobbling up every bit of it. What I like is that it gives specifics concerning people and places in the state, but there is also a wealth of general information that may be helpful to others.

    http://www.archive.org/details/mainehistory03mainuoft

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  6. Glad to hear of your research success, Lori. The folks at historical societies are often very eager to help and its great that you made that contact with the author.

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  7. Carla, thank you for all this info! I haven't delved into resources from historical societies yet, but obviously I need to.

    Laura, I totally agree with you about the old books at times containing more accurate info. I always look for the oldest accounts because they often include wonderful details that aren't mentioned in modern-day histories.

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