Historical Fudgery: Using Wikipedia as a Portal

When I spoke about Historical Research at the DFW Writer’s Conference earlier this month, one of the things I mentioned was using Wikipedia.

Now I always suggest taking any Wiki with a grain of salt. As a user, you don’t know who’s posting the info there. But I wanted to mention one way in which Wiki became invaluable to me in researching 1902 Portugal.

I used it extensively as a portal to Portuguese Wikipedia.

Let me give you an example:
Here’s the English Wiki Page for Matosinhos, a town where part of The Golden City is set.


As you can see, there’s hardly anything there. Apparently English speakers don’t care much about this town.

But if you look down the left sidebar, you can see several other languages available.

When I click on Portuguese, I get this version of the page:

screen 2

You can see that there’s a LOT more information on this version of the page. There are also dozens of links on the Portuguese version that I can follow, both to other pages in Portuguese Wikipedia, and to external sites. Each of those might have links to dozens of other sites…and on it goes.

So I’ve used Wiki this way to help me slip into Portuguese research. If I tried to do research via a search engine in Portuguese, I would be overwhelmed. I wouldn’t know where to start or which sites had any validity. With Wiki’s help, though, I have a starting place.

But I don’t speak Portuguese!, you complain.

I speak very little, and that I had to learn for writing these books, but there are always machine translators out there that can give you a leg up. I mostly use the Bing Translator, but Google has one as well. (Keep in mind that these are machine translations, and are only ‘better than nothing’.) Between my poor Portuguese and the machine, I do a decent job.

In addition, if you hop to another Wiki page, you can double check to see whether there’s an English version. That page may have similar information.

To research for Book 3, The Shores of Spain, I’m now having to hop over to Spanish Wiki a lot. Since my Spanish is better than my Portugese, this is easier for me.

It’s still proving a very useful research trick.

Historical Fudgery: Costume Research Edition

When I talked about Historical Resources last week, one of the things I spoke of was resources for costume detail. So here are some of my suggestions and links:

Costume Books:
I actually own more than the ones shown here. But I wanted to show a few. The one on “Russian Elegance” and “Calico Chronicle” are the ones I paid Full Price (gasps!) for, because they were both newer and directly tied to something I was researching. I admit that I bought the rest used. I’m very partial to the work of John Peacock, by the way…

However, costume books tend to focus on the clothing of the wealthy–so keep that in mind while researching.

These are only useful if you’re researching some date after 1880 or so, but they are excellent for showing what the average guy or gal would wear. Off the Rack. Mail Order. Very useful. They also include the items your characters will have scattered about the house…

My favorite is the big 1902 Sears catalog, but to one side you also see the 1895 Harrod’s catalog. I’ve also been picking up a lot of 1930s resources, preparatory to researching that 1933 Saratoga Springs novel (with Patrick O’Donnell as an adult) that I’m hoping to write one day.

Now a LOT of websites out there chronicling certain periods, Victorian and Edwardian being very popular. There are also websites that sell historic costumes. So some of the ones I’ve used are:

1900s Dress
Gentleman’s Emporium
SCA Russian Dress
Clothing in Early Rus
Premier Design Historic Clothing
Victorian Web: What Victorians Wore
Victoriana Magazine
which also has a…
Regency Page
Regency Fashion
The Regency Fashion Page
A Regency Repository

And you could add yours…
I’m going to start a links list over on my website (not necessarily this week) so if you have other suggestions of prime websites for costume, feel free to put a link in the comments below (or over on my LiveJournal)

Historical Fudgery: Research on the Internet

I am still collecting information on Historical Research for Writers. I’ve been through dozens of webpages, enough to make my eyes burn. Internet resources are generally free, a boon that authors of two decades ago simply didn’t have.

But how do we find those internet resources?

There are five main things I’m going to suggest.

1) Use your search engines.
Not everyone has the same level of GoogleFu, but using a search engine is fairly basic. I prefer Google, but my Browser opts for Bing, so I use both fairly often. Yahoo slips my mind, but I sometimes use Dogpile, which includes Yahoo (and Google, but not Bing).

2) Ask around.
If you have access to a writers group that writes in the same genre as you, the chances are good that one of your compatriots knows where to find that little tidbit you’re searching for. The RWA, for example, has dozens of ‘subgenre’ specific chapters. If you’re interested in shoes for the Regency era, you could just ask that group, and someone’s likely to be able to send you a link. I believe that the MWA has something similar. Not a member? Well, there’s always FaceBook.

3) Use Wikipedia.
Yes, I know a lot of people cringe when I say that. But Wikipedia does offer a huge amount of information, most of which is reasonably accurate. In each Wikipedia article there are usually citations below with links to the original sources for the article. Also, I don’t mind occasionally clicking over to the discussion page and seeing what they’re quibbling over there. Ooh! More links there. Plus every article seems to link to a gazillion other articles, outside sites, and photographs. It’s a wealth of information that’s free. And even if the article itself is uninspiring, one of the links it takes you to might be just what you need.

4) Check Authors’ Websites.
Some authors want to be helpful to other authors, so they often set up a page of links on their website. If there’s an author who writes about 1920 San Francisco and -you- write about 1920 San Francisco, that writer might have some links up that would save you some time.

5) Writers On-line Forums and Groups
While you may not choose to be a member of some of these groups, you can often access their writers’ resource pages free. Writers Write, Absolute Write, places like that…if you know one, there’s a chance they have a list somewhere.

So what are some other on-line resources that we can use to find historical resources?

Historical Resources: Library Resources

There’s a saying in Portugal:
Lisbon shows off, Braga prays, Coimbra studies, and Porto works.

Having visited three of the four cities, I can see why they say that.

But what does that have to do with my historical research?

This Monday I picked up some books (term used loosely) that the library system had gathered and reserved for me. Our library lends out all forms of media, so two of those books were DVDs of Rick Steves travel guides. Now we’re faithful watchers on Rick Steves on PBS and we even catch him on the radio, but one of the problems with travel guide DVDs is that they rarely go where you want them to.

Try finding a travel DVD that covers Porto (in English and more than just the cathedral). It’s not easy. Porto is a working city, not a tourist town.

I’m beginning to think Lleida might have the same problem that Porto has. Although the DVDs I just got cover Barcelona and Sevilla, they skipped Lleida. Just not touristy enough.

This brings me around full circle to the one problem with using libraries as resources. Libraries have to serve the public. They have to have the right books/DVDs/cassettes/etc stored in their finite amount of space to satisfy their clientele. That means obscure books that don’t get checked out…end up going to book sales or worse.

So if someone wrote a book on Lleida, it’s no longer in my library system. In fact, even the 2 Catalonia travel guides only give it 2 paragraphs. So all but one of my library resources are going back early. This isn’t because the library is bad but because what I’m researching is obscure.

(I’m keeping the set of Barcelona crime fiction short stories, Barcelona Noir, for a bit longer, hoping to get some ‘atmosphere’ out of it.)

Historical Fudgery: First Steps

Yesterday I took some initial steps for research that I have to do on Book 3 (The Shores of Spain). That includes researching 3 Spanish cities: Barcelona, Lleida, and Seville.

So what do I do to start?

I usually begin with the Free Information. There are two main sources of this, the library and the internet.

1) To get background on the cities, I checked them out on Wikipedia. Yes, I use Wikipedia, although I’ll warn you to take anything you read with a grain of salt.

One of the advantages for me about Wikipedia is that when I type in the page for, say, Lleida….down in the left sidebar is a space to click for different languages. You see, Spanish Wikipedia has far more to say about that city than English Wikipedia. (I’ve used Portuguese Wikipedia extensively for my Portugal research.) My Spanish is mediocre at best, but between that and machine translation, I can usually get through an article there with reasonable understanding.

One of the other advantages of Wikipedia is that it provides both links to external (tourism, etc.) websites as well as a footnote list which might lead to other interesting articles that are closer to ‘primary’ sources.

Also, because I’m working in 1902, one of the additional things on the internet I check out right away is the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica and the 1902 Encyclopedia Brittanica. They don’t have articles about everything, but they are excellent for my time period (if I can ignore the ‘all peoples are inferior to the English’ bias.)

2) Now I check online book-sellers. I’m not buying anything at this point. I just want to see what’s available out there. I search the booksellers for the things I’m hunting (at this point, geographical). If a book looks promising, I scroll down and look at reviews to see what other readers have to say about them.

In addition, if a book is from earlier than 1923, I make a note of that, because there’s a chance the whole text is available Free on-line. I can do a Google search where I put in the name of the book followed by something like ‘read on-line.’

3) My next step is usually to head to my library. This is a FREE resource that too many of us overlook. I’m fortunate in that the Metro Library System has its catalog on-line. So yesterday I went and pored through the catalog….and reserved 5 items to pick up at the local branch. Convenient, huh? This includes a couple of Rick Steves videos of the area, which will give me a ‘feel’ for the place, even if not a great deal of history.*

Books from the library can often give me other places to look, as well. If you check the ‘Bibliography’ section of a book, you can often find more places to go from there.

Of course a library’s resources are limited. They can’t store every book, but…

…there’s this awesome person called the Research Librarian at many of them, who is often more than happy to help out in steering you the right way. While writing Iron Shoes, I even contacted the Research Librarian in Saratoga Springs (via e-mail) to ask about something I was having trouble finding.** She hunted through her files for me, something I couldn’t have done myself.

There are far more resources, of course, but this is where I start.

*Travel guides can turn out to be pots of gold. I found one on Porto that included one important factoid that, oddly enough, no other resource bothered to mention–Porto doesn’t have any palaces in the old city (other than the Bishop’s Palace) because nobles weren’t allowed to build there or even spend more than 3 days in the city.

**As it turned out, she didn’t have the information. However, I found it a few days later in the on-line archives of the New York Times. So I sent her the link, and she put a copy of the article in her files for the next person who came along. That’s what they do ;o)

Historical Fudgery: Getting the Vocab Right

This is one of the hardest things for a writer to do. We write, much of it in our personal vernacular. We use certain words and phrases and usually don’t think about them twice.

But when we’re writing historical, it’s difficult to get everything right. NPR recently had a story in Fresh Aire, Historical Vocab: When We Get It Wrong, Does It Matter?

It’s an interesting problem that a lot of readers never consider. We writers try to get it right. I recall spending an inordinate amount of time trying to decide whether tarps would be called tarps in 1906 (They would not, it turns out. They were still called tarpaulins then….so that’s what I stuck in the text.)

Would someone have freaked out if I’d put ‘tarps’? Well, since I headed off that mistake at the pass, I won’t ever have to deal with it.

FWIW, there’s also one historical mistake that has been caught in the movie Lincoln so far, one that’s just a sign of laziness, since it should have been easy to find the information.

Historical Fudgery: Making Readers Comfortable

One of the things that happens? Sometimes authors intentionally get it wrong.

I ran across a good example in More Magazine today, where they talk with costume designer Joan Bergin (regarding the upcoming miniseries Vikings). She had a very pertinent point, saying,

“If you’re watching a film and your first reaction to seeing characters from another period is ‘Oh, how strange they look,’ then that interferes with your experience. So I try to go for a modern take that isn’t so distracting….What I do is about 70 percent historically accurate and about 30 percent creative license.”

I’ve found this to be true when writing historical fiction. If authors stick with 100% accuracy, they might risk alienating or distracting their audience. It’s hard to relate to the social norms of the past, particularly when we’re trying to draw out a specific reaction in our readers. For example, if you’re writing in a period where arranged marriages are the norm, but you’re writing a Romance….well, you may need to bend history a bit.

When I researched 1200 Russia, reading the excellent book Sex and Society in the World of the Orthodox Slavs: 900-1700 by Dr. Eve Levin, I ran across things I thought my readers wouldn’t readily accept. Not if I’m writing short fiction with a romantic element. Apparently, in general, the early Russians didn’t believe in love in marriage. Nor did they believe that love had any part in a sexual relationship. (The author refers to a story where an infatuated boyar approached his master’s wife, wanting to initiate an affair, and she tells him to go find a loose woman (paraphrased) because if he wanted sex there wasn’t any difference, was there? Not exactly romantic, huh?)

So my general rule was to ignore those two tenets of general social behavior. I did try to pick up a lot of the historical details that the author talks about…but others I chose to ignore.

Can you think of times when you specifically chose to ignore history?

Historical Fudgery: Even the Best Make Mistakes

One of the things that I am hunting in my Historical Fudgery series is instances where writers got it wrong.

So today I will mention here one of my favorite mistakes: Hazard by Jo Beverley.

Now I’ll first start off by saying that Beverley is one of the few Regency Historical writers I read. In fact I followed her from Regency Romance over to Regency Historical. The writers in RR generally know their stuff, but back when this book was written (2002, I think), internet databases and information weren’t as developed as they are now.

So in the author’s note for this book, Beverley relates how she made a mistake…and then had to scramble to redeem it.

She gave a Regency-period character the surname de Vere.

Some of you will recognize that name right away. Most of you won’t. I know it because I sat through a gazillion Shakespeare classes when I got my degree in English. But if a person with that name showed up during the Regency period, there would have been a small furor every time he entered a ballroom.

The whole point of this is that in the book Hazard, which features this character, she works out an elaborate way for this character to carry about a sensational name…all in an effort to catch up to her mistake.

Nowdays we can google character names to see if anything weird turns up, and hopefully avoid the handwavium.

But it’s good to gracefully admit your mistake as well. ;o)
This is, BTW, my absolute favorite of her books, and I totally bought the handwavium explanation. So Kudos to Jo Beverly for doing it right….

Historical Fudgery: Street Names

I have been working in 1902 Portugal for some time now, and one thing I’ve had trouble with has been street names. Particularly when a country has been through a revolution or two since the date I’m working with. Old regime street names fall out of favor, and newly important guys get the streets renamed after them.

While my biggest issue in Porto was street names changing due to the revolution, my biggest problem in Saratoga Springs was buildings burning down. Either way, it’s important to think about change when you’re using your old setting.

When I’m looking at a modern-day map of Porto, I can’t count on any of the street names being the same as they were in 1902. In addition, some parts of the city we demolished and rebuilt post 1911, when the new regime took over, putting in the new municipal building and the wide avenues on either side of it. The buildings on that street -look- old, as if they came from the 1700s, but in truth they’re all post 1911. That means they can’t appear in my novel, can they?

So what’s a writer to do?

Well, if you’re writing in a post 1827 world, the Baedeker (or other travel guides) can possibly be your salvation. A lot of people have been selling off maps from travel guides and atlases, via such venues as Ebay or Etsy. I’ve picked up some nice period maps for Portugal that have been very helpful. I’ve also found a couple of old travel guides for Saratoga Springs that have turned up all sorts of interesting tidbits (including a menu from the U.S.Hotel!).

But these do cost money–this is the kind of thing you won’t find in a library. OTOH, usually the seller posts a photograph of the map when they’re trying to sell it, and you could copy that photo to a file and use that (although that’s never as good as having the real thing)*.

So keep in mind that there are resources out there, even if not in the most obvious place. Put your city and the year (try a couple of adjacent years, too) into Google, and see what crops up!

And if all else fails, fudge it. Remember…if you can’t find that information after a reasonable amount of time searching the internet, then most of your readers can’t either.

*It’s better to buy if you an afford it at all, as otherwise it’s approaching piracy.

Historical Fudgery: Spelling Edition

I’m starting off this post with a confession. My main character in The Golden City‘s name is misspelled. Or not, depending on how you look at it…

His name is Duilio Ferreira, but it should be spelled Duílio Ferreira. See the difference?

So what am I on about here? Well, I’ve been considering this since Wednesday, when I was listening to Zorba Paster On Your Health. A fan had e-mailed in a question about why we pronounce ‘licorice’ the way we do. Evidently this irritated him enough to get him to write in to a show that isn’t about pronunciation or language at all. (Dr. Zorba handled it with remarkable aplomb.)

In the word licorice we have two difference pronunciations of the letter C. The hard C that falls before the O is pretty normal. It’s that ‘sh’ sound at the end that’s abnormal. Usually a C followed by an E is soft, like an S: rice, mice, dice, lice, and so on. But how is a foreigner supposed to know that this is an irregular pronunciation?

Well, this takes me back to poor unaccented Duilio. You see, Portuguese pretty much has one way of spelling words. There’s a right way to spell a name. However, in reading older books, I’ve found a lot of names or words that are spelled more than one way. Eça de Queiroz? That last bit also appears as Queiros at times. Rossio sometimes shows up as Rocio. I’ll stop there, but clearly, in the past, spelling wasn’t as straightforward as it is now.

In fact, Portugal and Brazil and all the gazillion colonies had a high illiteracy rate, probably 85% or higher in 1902. It wasn’t until 1911 that the new republic decided that, in an effort to improve literacy, they should normalize the spelling of their language. Then, in a sweeping series of conferences with philologists of Portugal and her Portuguese-speaking colonies, they hammered out the rules of how their language is to be spelled.

Interestingly enough, they are still at it, a reform in 2009 showing up on that list. Portugal even has an official list of permissible names for babies, and how to spell them (Norway has one as well, so they’re not alone).

On that name list, my character’s name is clearly spelled Duílio.

But back in 1902 when my books are set? Well, it’s entirely possible that my Duilio would have gone about unaccented, leaving strangers to read his name and be uncertain whether the accent fell on the first or second I.

None of this helps a non-English speaker to know how to pronounce licorice, but it does raise the question of why this never happened with English, why the English-speaking world never got together and regulated the spelling of our insane language…

And for that I have no answer!