Friday, March 30, 2012

Planning a research trip (Part 1)

Before we get started on this post, for those of you who follow this blog, you may have missed a recent post, the one that was supposed to appear between Julia West's guest post and M.M. Bennetts' guest post. That would be my post on the Medieval Studies Conference at Kalamazoo, for which I forgot to change the date, so that when I published it, it immediately disappeared into February. I've now put it where it belongs, so if you want to read it, just go back a couple of posts and it will be there. Sorry about that.

On to this one:

So, you may be wondering, what exactly is different about planning a research trip? How does it differ from planning a vacation trip? True, once you arrive you'll be looking for certain specific things; perhaps you're more likely to spend time in museums than on beaches. Maybe your main goal is to absorb the ambience of a place. But as for the planning, how and why is it different?

Let's break it down by category. But first, my assumptions: I'm assuming a trip that covers substantial distance and takes a substantial amount of time, not a weekend drive to a nearby site. (Most of my own experience involves travel from the U.S. to Europe.) And I'm assuming that most of us have some limitations in terms of time and resources. It's possible that some of the thoughts here would apply even to short trips, but if you have no limitations on your time or resources, you won't get much out of this post other than a glimpse at the way the other 99% lives.

Planning your research
Think about what you'll want to do and what you'll need in order to accomplish it. If other people are involved - you're planning to interview someone, meet with experts, attend a conference or a lecture - you will of course need to schedule around those commitments. But assuming some time that you can control, you may want to keep some thoughts in mind.

If you're travelling for a specific event (the Palio in Siena, Carnevale in Venice, or the Corsa dei Ceri in Gubbio, for example), be sure to reserve your lodgings well in advance, and prepare for crowds and higher prices. It could be worth it, though - taking part in one of these events could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Check hours and closing days for museums, castles, and other sites requiring entry. Note any national holidays during your visit; they may affect access to such places. Sometimes there will be a day or two each month when such a site offers free entry; while it may save you a little money, you will be battling much bigger crowds, so you'll need to decide if the savings is worth it.

Know what you'd like to see, and have a pretty good idea of how you're going to get to it. I've been frustrated sometimes when I assumed that a public transportation option would be available, and then found out it wasn't. And don't assume that just because something is only *this* far away on the map, it will be an easy day trip. I did that once, and forgot that there was a mountain in the way. We didn't get to Gubbio for several more years (though it was well worth the wait).

If you will need a laptop, an i-whatzit, a recording device, or other technological gear, make sure you have what you need and can keep it charged and working. Don't neglect paper notebooks. However low-tech, there are times when nothing else will do. Especially, remember to carry a couple of tiny, pocket-size notebooks and a little pencil, for those places where you are not permitted to carry anything in with you - no purse, tote bag, camera bag, backpack, etc. You may want to jot down something you see in a museum, for instance - a date, a name, a quick sketch, a reference.

Think about what photographic equipment you'll need, how sophisticated you want it to be, whether you'll be concentrating on close-up pictures or long shots. Have a convenient and secure way to carry it with you.

You probably don't want to carry quite this much photographic equipment...

Planning your time
What we're looking for here is maximum efficiency - the biggest return for your travel time and money. Here are a few things that I've learned by trial and error (a surprisingly large amount of error, actually):

If you are going somewhere where museums and other sites typically close on one particular weekday, consider using that day for travelling from one place to the next. In general, know when the things you need to see are open or available, and know how long it will take you to get to them from your starting point. Have an idea how long you want to spend on each component of your trip. You may need to revise as you go, but it helps to have a general plan in mind. It can be maddening to schedule two side trips in a day, only to find that each of them could easily have absorbed a full week. Use guidebooks (from the library if you want a wide selection at no cost), the internet, and maps to do this.

Have a Plan B in case the weather becomes a factor. Be ready to trade an outdoor activity for an indoor one, or at least make sure you have what you need to brave the elements. (See What to Pack in my next blog post.)

Arrange your lodgings ahead of time. Yes, it's less spontaneous, but it can save you a lot of time. Also, if day trips are on your agenda, try to house yourself somewhere near a station if you are depending on public transportation.

One caveat: if jet lag will be a factor, do yourself a favor and don't schedule something of paramount importance for your first full day. If you're anything like me, you won't remember a thing about it, afterward. Instead, use that day to stroll around and get an overview of the area and to hunt down whatever you need in the way of supplies, including finding places to eat. (Also, don't plan to hop off the plane after a sleepless 8-hour overnight flight and then pick up a rental car to drive on the opposite side of the road than the one you're used to. Trust me on this.)

How to travel

Rent a car, or rely on public transport? Obviously there's no one right answer to this. Is good public transportation available? Will it get you everywhere you want to go? How comfortable are you with the idea of driving in the place you're visiting? Do you need a car to get to and from the place you're staying? (What's essential if you're in a country villa can be a major nuisance if you're staying in the historical center of a city.)

Train in Tuscany/Parking in Palermo

My husband and I usually opt for public transportation in Italy. (The picture above shows one reason why.) We search out train and bus schedules online before our trip and print out the relevant itineraries to bring with us. That way we know the costs, the timing, and any limitations (different schedules on holidays and weekends; slower trains with more frequent stops at certain times of day). Sometimes we like to keep track of how many different forms of transportation we can manage to use in a single trip. Often it's something like this: car, taxi, bus, train, boat, funicular, tram, ski lift. Other possibilities involve horses, hydrofoils, and who knows what else. Subcategories abound; riding a historic steam train is nothing like riding the Eurostar, for example.

Italian bus/Going up the mountain in Gubbio

Depending on how far you're travelling, an overnight train can save you time and money, in that your ticket covers both transportation and that night's lodging. If you can afford it, you'll be much more comfortable in a sleeping compartment. Think of it as a substitute for a hotel or apartment.

Funicular track/On a boat in Sicily

Where to stay

Again, we're looking for efficiency, but there are other factors to be considered. If you have an opportunity to stay in an area that is directly relevant to your research, you will probably want to do that. In Naples we stayed in a pensione in the palazzo where Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa, murdered his wife and her lover when he caught them in an awkward situation. No ghosts appeared, though.

If, however, you need access to trains and buses for day trips, you may find it suits you to stay close to the station. One advantage to this is that prices will tend to be lower.

Cost is a factor for most of us. I find that holiday apartments can be rented for no more than we would spend on a hotel, and we get more space, the ability to prepare our own meals, and - if we plan it well - internet connection and laundry facilities. If you're travelling with more than two people, an apartment will almost certainly save you money. Even for two, not needing to eat in a restaurant twice a day is a big money-saver. Also, laundromats are not always easy to find or inexpensive, and they take up your valuable time, so an apartment can be a good way to go. (Note, however, that the presence of a washing machine does not necessarily mean there will also be a drier. You may need to allow enough time to hang clothes to dry. Also, if your trip is short enough that you'll only do laundry once, it might be a good idea to pack just enough laundry powder; otherwise you'll have to buy a box and leave most of it unused.) Also, you may find irregularities in water pressure or availability of hot water in budget accommodations, so if you normally use a hair conditioner, consider bringing one that does not need to be rinsed out, thus shortening your shower time.

Just search for "vacation apartments" or "vacation rentals" and the name of the city you're going to. We've done this quite a bit now, in at least three countries, and we have not yet been disappointed or had a problem.

And you can find some amazing locations. My husband took this picture of the Milan cathedral from our rooftop apartment across the street:

The apartment was miniscule, and equipped mostly with wine glasses, but it was worth it for the view.

In Palermo, we stayed in a modest apartment somewhere in the depths of this vast yellow palazzo, which used to belong to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo (The Leopard). His heirs now rent out a few lovely apartments.

This only shows a single floor of one part of the palazzo

You'll find a number of reputable services listing apartments. If you don't speak the language of the country you'll be visiting, you might want to limit your search to places where the owner speaks your language, because you will be dealing directly with that person for every aspect of your stay. We've met some wonderful people by renting from them, and you may well find that your host or hostess becomes a resource as well, telling you about the city or area from a native's perspective and advising you on practical matters of transportation and scheduling.

Next time, we'll finish with these topics: Food, What to pack, What to buy, Disappointments and surprises, and Serendipity.

Images in this post: Palio picture is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 Unported; Carnevale and Ceri pictures are public domain. Other pictures are our travel photos.

Friday, March 23, 2012

No! Not Paris! (Guest post by M.M. Bennetts)


May 1812. Of Honest Fame. I'm more excited about these books by M.M. Bennetts than I have been about anything else I've read in a very, very long time. It was pure luck that I encountered them - well, luck and the lively and voluble historical fiction community - because the Napoleonic Wars were never exactly on my radar screen. Not even a little bit.

Not till now.

But I know excellence when I see it, and I see it here, both in the writing and in the author's meticulous research. M.M. Bennetts now has my attention, and I'm happy to report that more books are in progress. And while we wait for them, we can enjoy the author's erudite and entertaining website (where you can also order the books, which I would heartily recommend you do).

Also for your enjoyment, we have this guest post graciously provided by the author of May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. But first, by way of introduction, here's the "About Me" section from M.M. Bennetts's website:

"History, poetry, music and horses probably sums it up.

For some twenty years, I was a book critic for the Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, The Christian Science Monitor, specialising in history and fiction.

In researching the period of the novels, I have attended scholarly conferences marking the bicentennial of Trafalgar; studied the architecture, furnishings and art of the period; and read upwards of an hundred relevant histories and biographies, as well as the eyewitness accounts of Prime Minister Perceval's assassination found in the newspapers and magazines of May and June 1812.

An avid cross country rider, I'm also - so they tell me - an accomplished pianist and accompanist, having regularly performed music of the period of my novels."

And now, M.M. Bennetts:

No! Not Paris!


Before we go any further into this business of research, you have
to understand just how much I hated Paris.

Not just hated. Loathed. I mean, this was the one place on
earth you could not get me to visit--right up there with the
Bermuda Triangle and steamy-air-thick-with-mosquitos,
crocodile-infested swamps. Just so we're clear.

It's true that my view of the place may have been coloured by the
fact that the single time I had been there, it had rained
torrentially for a fortnight, until even my boots were squelching
with water. And as it was high summer and the heat turned off in
the hotel, one could neither get warm nor dry one's clothes and
certainly not one's boots. I developed a stinking cold.

It may also not have helped that I had been in the company of one
who imagined that if he sat outside in cafes, all day, drinking
quantities of cafe au lait and watching the city go by, he would
turn into Hemingway. (A word to the wise--this method of writing
does not turn one into Hemingway. Oh, and I don't drink

So, you will imagine my reaction when my niece phoned from the
other side of the Atlantic to propose that she and her daughters
and we and our daughters should meet for a long weekend in Paris
in October. Yes, you're right. In a word, hostile.

But there's one thing I hated even more than Paris and that's
nagging. And my niece has held, for at least the past two
decades, the Gold Medal in World Championship Nagging. Hence
several nagging phone conversations later, I had begrudgingly
agreed--if only to shut her up--that we would indeed take the
Eurostar across the Channel and meet them in Paris.

(Stupidly, it never occurred to me that the reason my presence
was required was that I have fluent French and my niece has it
not. At all.)

So, grumpily to Paris.

The first indication I had that I had not been signed up in
absentia for the week from Purgatory was outside Les Invalides
where I had gone to refrain from spitting on Napoleon's tomb and
to kneel at the shrine to the Unknown Soldier there.

Because out front there were posters proclaiming a city-wide set
of exhibitions celebrating the bicentennial of Napoleon's
coronation as Emperor on 2 December 1804. Yes, yes, of course
the fact that they were celebrating the Bijou Corsican's
self-aggrandisement elicited a resounding harumph, but what of

So, inside to pay one's disrespects, to jeer at the hyperbole of
the shrine belowstairs and eventually on to view the exhibition.

Now, it's true, at that point I may have been, as an historian,
less than charmed by Monsieur Buonaparte's Mafioso manners. But
nothing could have prepared me for the reality of his chavvy
obsession with bling. Remember, this is the era when Englishmen
are learning to dress as subtly and elegantly as possible in
navy, tan and black...And even the first step inside the
exhibition area and a quick glance about caused the jaw to drop.
And dropped and gawping it remained.

The items on display in Les Invalides had mostly to do with the
procession aspect of the coronation. So there was a model of the
specially built Coronation carriage. This little jewel bore so
much gold leaf, it made Her Majesty's carriages look positively

There were also several of the engraved and coloured plates of
the various liveries Napoleon has designed himself for his, er,
attendants to wear. One sees them as a bit of a blur in the
famous Coronation painting by Jacques-Louis David.

But individually, each of these little 'ensembles' took the
breath away--it was Tudor bonnets meets the Sun King's breeches.
The making of these hundreds of costumes must have kept France's
seamstresses busy for a year. And as for me,blinking stupidly was
quite possibly the only adequate response.Certainly, it was the only
response I could manage.

But even these many displays didn't prepare me for what
was across the room.

Now an ordinary stirrup is essentially a thick bar of metal upon
which one rests the ball of one's foot in order to give balance
and a platform in the rising trot. They're not, for experienced
horsemen, strictly necessary, though they do provide a certain
function, as I say, in rising trot. In walk or canter, they're
not really needed; they're just there.

However, for Napoleon's Coronation stirrups, forget all that.
These were solid gold. The shape was not that of a modern
stirrup either. No, these were formed from circles of precious
metal, etched and decorated with filagree. The decoration meant
that they were entirely useless and anyway, gold is a soft

But as I stood staring (mouth agape) at these splendid artefacts,
my whole perception of Napoleon was forced to shift. I mean,
these stirrups--they have a practical use--but they are where one
rests the soles of one's boots, which are coated in that which
the horses have previously emitted. So, solid gold filagree?
For that? Beggar a nation for that? What goes on in the mind
that demands such a thing?

My mouth still ajar, eventually I gave off staring and went to

The next day brought the visit to the Louvre, where now, in the
great hall generally reserved for the vast murals of historic
significance, the famous mural of the Coronation by Jacques-Louis
David was in pride of place. And at the centre of the room, in
glass cases, the long tunic and embroidered booties that Napoleon
had worn beneath his coronation robe. Beside it, Josephine's
coronation gown.

There can be no doubt that the coronation robes together are
amongst the most beautiful garments one could ever hope to see.
Napoleon's robe of white silk, with its gold embroidery, was
indescribable, really. The workmanship was sublime. The stitches
in the fancywork bees (his own personally designed emblem) were
minute and perfect. And the sheer amount of gold thread used in
the embroidery! Holy wow.

But after the obligatory five minute gawp, something else struck
me. Hard. I looked at the painting, measuring where the hem of
his robe ended on his ankle. Then looked back at the robe,
measuring it against myself--shoulder to ankle. And probably a
look of stupid astonishment obliterated all former emotion. For
Napoleon wasn't just just short. He wasn't just little.
Napoleon was diddy. We're talking 5'2".

And something else. Despite the many French accounts that
maintain that he didn't begin to 'thicken' until after 1811, he
was fat. He was a little tub. That gown would fit me
perfectly--that's me plus two or three very full down pillows
placed about my middle.

I duly gaped at Josephine's gown, of course. And thought too of
what an unhappy life I believe she must have had, married to such
a one, ramrodded into this coronation charade. And I admired the
further images of coronation costumes which were on display
too--particularly that of Monsieur de Talleyrand, the Foreign

I pondered the coronation booties much gold embroidery!
Bling, bling, bling. Dazzle, dazzle, dazzle. Beautiful,
exquisite, but for shoes?

Still, the effect of it all must have been near blinding,
stunning even.

But that of course was the point. It was all a poor child's
fantastic dream of what would happen when he became king.

("When I grow up I'm going to be Emperor of France and walk on
streets of gold and you'll be sorry..." "Yuh, right!" Smack.)

Was Napoleon compensating for something? How long have you got?

Was he setting himself up in competition with that great French
warrior king, Louis XIV, le Roi Soleil? The golden beauty of the
Sun King and his glittering court of Versailles would have been
ditchwater dull by comparison.

Napoleon meant to outshine them all. He meant to expunge the
stain of his lowly Corsican birth and impoverished
childhood--even though he did act like a supreme Mafia don in
handing over the thrones of Europe to his feckless siblings. He
meant to stagger Europe's rulers and peoples with the show which
he believed would demonstrate his innate royalty, his greatness,
his immortality, his glory, his divinity even--the crowned heads
of Europe saw it as proof of his vulgarity.

And he was only 5'2". (Though one imagines the boys who'd teased
him in the schoolyard weren't laughing any longer...)

Yet within less than ten years, it would all be for nothing. By
early April 1814, France had been invaded by the armies of three
countries--all of whom had proper 'hereditary'
rulers--and Napoleon would be forced to abdicate, his dreams of
empire nothing now but dust...

And for me, having come face to face with the Emperor's personal
effects, designed by him to project the image of himself he
desired, having seen more clearly than I'd believed possible that
he was a man, a genuine person, (a short fat one) my view of the
whole period changed wasn't just names and dates,
battles and casualty had become people.
M.M. Bennetts

Friday, March 16, 2012

Medieval Studies Conference

Western Michigan University campus, Kalamazoo

It's conference time again. Well, actually it isn't, yet, not until May, but The Book is here. I have before me the conference book for the 47th International Congress on Medieval Studies, to be held in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and can now begin to thread my way through the 574 sessions listed, which offer three papers apiece, on average. There are also the plenaries, the exhibition (medieval ivories, from the Victoria & Albert Museum in London), and the many business and social meetings of the sponsoring organizations. Also, we must not forget the truly amazing shopping - mostly for books, but I've been known to come away with other treasures as well: medieval coins (see earlier blog post about Talismans), t-shirts, icons, jewelry, coffee mugs, casts of medieval seals, an authentic scrap of parchment with an illuminated letter on it, CDs, and a bar of glycerine soap containing a plastic Excalibur. Oh, and a copy of the first Harry Potter book in Italian. Yes, that counts as a book, but not the sort one usually shops for at Kalamazoo.

Over 3000 people attend this conference each year. Attendees range from distinguished professors to eager graduate students to high school history teachers, who may be teaching the American Civil War, but who nevertheless harbor a secret love for the middle ages, as well as members of several religious orders and a healthy contingent of independent scholars. Quite a few people from other countries attend. It can be difficult to decide among the many sessions available in each time slot (as many as 40-50 possibilities per each hour-and-a-half period).

[Henceforth, session names will appear in italics and paper titles will appear within quotation marks, for clarity.] There's a vast range of topics, from the general (Fifteenth Century English History and Culture) to the very specific. A few examples of papers in the latter category include: "The Response to Canon 13 of the Council of Lyons II by Bishop Oliver Sutton of Lincoln (1280-1289)"; "Trinitarian Exemplarism in Rupert of Deutz's Theology of Creation"; "Thirteenth-Century Byzantine Gold Hyperpyra: Stylistic and Technical Problems of Attribution"; "Lifestyle of the Medieval Population from the Bucharest University Square Cemetery"; "Paradoxes of Pitch Content in Franco-Burgundian Polyphony: The Illuminating Case of Liebert's Plainsong Mass (ca. 1425)"; and "Combat Training for the Longsword: The Efficacy of the Proliferation of Options following a Single Entry in to Any Mode of Combat in the Flos duellatorum."

A very specific topic

That last one is also an example of titles so lengthy that you can have no doubt about the topic covered. Others include "Retrieval of the Medieval Sources Underlying the Concept of Tradition as Developed in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation of the Second Vatican Council" and "The Invisible Horse-Eating Monster as Divine Agent in Thebaid Chariot Racing and Consequent Medieval Jousts."

The Invisible Horse-Eating Monster suggests another category that is quite subjective: the titles one finds particularly intriguing. For me, these include "Episcopal-Monastic Interactions under the Early Capetians (or, Bishops are from Mars, Abbots are from Venus"; The Outrageous Middle Ages: Transgression, Perpetration, and the Scandalous II; "It's Not Over Until It's Overkill: Mixed Messages from the Archaeology of Violence"; and "What the Puck? Discerning Demons and Fairies through Corpus Analysis", a paper presented as part of the session called Conjuring Fairies. One that especially appealed to me was this: "Popular Tudor Drama: What We Thought We Knew, What We Thought We'd Find, and What We Think We Know Now." The presenter of this paper can only be someone thoroughly familiar with the Platonic concept of twice-ignorance.

What We Think We Know Now

Sometimes sessions will be scheduled to commemorate a particular event, for example, The Seven Hundredth Anniversary of the Suppression of the Templars. Next year will see the seven hundredth anniversary of Boccaccio's birth, so I expect much hoopla and many lively sessions for those of us who study the Italian middle ages.

The conference does not neglect the modern entirely. Note, for example, The Medievalism of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter Novels; Kindle-ing the Codex: Are d-Books the New Lindisfarne?; Electronic Medievalist Games (A Festive Workshop and Poster Session); and the paper "Reincorporating the Medieval: Morality, Chivalry, and Honor in Post-financial-meltdown Corporate Revisionism". It can also wax self-referential, as in "This Is Your Brain on Medieval Studies."

Your Brain on Medieval Studies

These sessions are sponsored by groups with wonderful names, such as the Societas Daemonica, the Medieval Foremothers Society, the Lollard Society, the Goliardic Society, Tolkien at Kalamazoo, Mens et Mensa: Society for the Study of Food in the Middle Ages, and the appropriately-acronymed DISTAFF (Discussion, Interpretation, and Study of Textile Arts, Fabrics, and Fashion). One of my favorites, Heretics Without Borders, is not in evidence this year, but I trust they'll be back. It is tempting to scan the list of business and social meetings and ponder whether one can read anything into the fact that the International Boethius Society is hosting a reception with an open bar, but the International Society of Hildegarde von Bingen Studies only has a cash bar at its business meeting.

Cash bar or open bar?

Sessions are held in five different buildings on campus, not necessarily close to one another, which makes it extremely difficult to paper-hop. If, for example, you want to hear the first two papers in one session and the third paper in a different session, your success will depend upon each moderator's ability to parcel out presentation time equally among presenters, and on your own ability to cover the ground between sessions quickly enough. It will also depend on everything going as scheduled, with no cancellations or changes of sequence. It helps to have a sense of direction. I once sprinted between buildings trying to reach a session on Dante in time for the third paper, got turned around, and somehow found myself listening to a paper on York Minster. I like York Minster, you understand, and it was a very good paper; it just wasn't quite what I was expecting.

York Minster?!?

Other popular conference activities have included concerts, mystery plays (I recall one in which Mary Magdalene's sandals revealed red toenail polish), a swordplay demo, sessions involving free samples of medieval food and beer, readings of plays, movie screenings (it's Knightriders, this year), and the ever-popular Saturday evening session by Societas Fontibus Historae Medii Aevi Inveniendis, vulgo dictis, "The Pseudo Society", which presents parody papers, often very clever and lavishly illustrated. This last, which also features a cash bar just outside, is so well attended that it spills over into a second auditorium, where the presentations are broadcast live. Some early papers presented by The Pseudo Society are in print; you can find them here. There is also a Saturday night dance, but I've never attended it, so I can't describe it.

A very popular session

And the books. Rooms and rooms of books: newly-published, classic texts, used books. Many major publishers of scholarly works have booths and displays, and if you don't want to burden yourself with heavy books, they will give you a form to send in later, to purchase books by mail and still qualify for the conference discount. The conference even has a mailroom set up for the many people who will buy too many books to carry home, so that they can send them instead. On Sunday, after a certain time, prices on remaining books drop, and there is a stampede into the book rooms for one last shopping spree before the conference ends.

Used books

And that's Kalamazoo. I don't go every year; I don't know yet if I'll be going this year. But it's fascinating, fun, and absorbing, and even perusing the schedule ahead of time can be useful. I've contacted presenters about their work, if it caught my eye in a year I was unable to attend, and the publishers' ads in the conference book are well worth a look to see what's newly published.

If you have an interest in the middle ages, and this conference is a possibility for you, do give it a try. You won't be sorry.

Images in this post are either my own photos (campus, mug) or in the public domain and courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Another Perspective on Research (Guest post by Julia West)

It's a pleasure to introduce my friend and guest blogger, the prizewinning fantasy and science fiction author Julia West. Besides enjoying Julia's richly imagined stories, I've been impressed with the way she weaves research - anthropological, historical, scientific - into her work. I've asked her to write a post for us, so we can take a look at how another kind of writer approaches research, and she has generously provided this thoughtful piece, with many useful suggestions and links. Here's Julia:

Julia H. West

Another Perspective on Research

Thank you to Tinney for letting me do this guest blog. I'm Julia West, and I may be a bit different from others reading this blog. I'm not an historical writer; I write science fiction and fantasy. But I do a great amount of research anyway--both historical and anthropological (I have a degree in anthropology). Since my science fiction is mostly 'soft' (or character-driven), rather than 'hard' (or technology-heavy) science fiction, I don't do nearly as much scientific research (although, of course, I must do some).

In the over twenty years I've been writing (and selling) stories, the face of research has changed a great deal. When I started out, the only way to get the material I needed was to buy books or look things up in a library. I did both. My home library, built up over the last thirty years with books my husband and I have purchased, has over 5,000 volumes--some fiction, but largely nonfiction. We have an eclectic collection ranging from anthropology and archaeology through astronomy, botany, computers, electronics, folklore, history, languages (especially Japanese), and zoology (and pretty much everything in between).

In the past, I would look for material in a local public library first. The best place for beginning research, I discovered, was in children's books. I'll give an example. I'm basing one of the cultures in a science fiction series on the Hopi culture of southwestern North America. In the local library I found a children's book on the Hopi that gave me a quick overview of the culture, with photographs taken in the late 1800s and many line drawings. I also found a delightful book on pueblos, with many clear pictures and descriptions--very useful when describing the places my characters lived. With this basic background, I had enough information to begin my novel.

As I wrote, I'd discover areas where more research was needed. I'd save those up until I had enough questions to warrant a trip to the university library. There, I would dig through the stacks and anthropological journals. I'd make copious photocopies, which I'd put into binders and highlight, often adding sticky note flags to pages that were especially helpful. If the book I needed wasn't available, it was off to inter-library loans, and a wait of some weeks to get the information I hoped to use in my writing.

In the past few years, however, this has all changed. While I often use the local library to find a children's book for my initial research (the simple picture-filled format gives such a good basic overview), my usual first source of information is the internet. Although I don't trust Wikipedia completely (a source that anyone can edit is bound to be rife with personal opinion and cherished theories rather than fact), it's still a good place to start. A quick skim of a Wikipedia article on the subject of interest can give a basic idea on background. If the article is any good at all, it should have a bibliography. The bibliography can be invaluable for further research. Often it will lead to more in-depth internet sources. Often print sources are listed, and sometimes even a link to a book in an on-line bookseller's stock. If all I need is a quick fact--say, how widespread telegraph usage was in Great Britain in the 1850s--checking a couple of web pages against each other can be a quick, easy way to find it.

When I was doing research for my story "Soul Walls" (published in Sword and Sorceress XXIV) I needed a good reference for natural pigments. I already knew a fair amount about plant pigments from
earlier medieval research, but needed to know more about earth pigments. After perusing a Wikipedia article, I found the site Pigments Through the Ages ( in the bibliography, and was satisfied to find the section on red ochre (, which was exactly what I needed for my story.

Increasingly, nowadays, treasure troves can be found on the internet. When I was researching the telegraph question mentioned above, I found Distant Writing, a History of the Telegraph Companies in Britain between 1838 and 1868 (, which gave me all sorts of facts I could use for verisimilitude in my writing. A few pages later in my novel (which is a fantasy novel with a culture based on Victorian England of the 1850s), I wanted a bit of information on railroad schedules. Several websites mentioned Bradshaw's Continental Railway Guides, which had (from 1839 on) combined the schedules of scores of local railways into a cohesive whole. I was delighted to discover that a scan of Bradshaw's Handbook for Tourists in Great Britain & Ireland (in four parts, 1866) was available from HathiTrust ( absolutely free, as it is now in the public domain. Although this scan is for a copy of the guide some years later than I need, it is such fun to read that I almost decided to change the (already nebulous) date of my novel to take in the information found therein. The guide first gives lengthy passages describing London, and then describes town by town along rail lines, with such information as to whether a location has a telegraph office and/or hotel(s), churches, market days, races, stately homes, and often a bit of history. What a great distraction from my writing these books became!

Two other large repositories of absolutely free public domain books have helped my Victorian research immeasurably. The first is Project Gutenberg, ( Often during my search for information, I've found a book published in the Victorian period is available there as an ebook. The proofreading is usually fairly good, considering it's all done by volunteers (although I've caught many a typo), and for quick research or extended reading, it's nice to have the book available when I'm away from the computer. The other is Internet Archive ( What I especially like about Internet Archive's volumes is that I can usually download a scan of the original book, as well as an epub. Since their epubs don't seem to be all that well proofread (are they, perhaps, just raw OCR?), it's nice to have availability of the scan. Also, illustrations (and sometimes advertising) are there in the scans. I was ecstatic to find A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic available at Internet Archive ( I had a partial photocopy of this volume, which I had made sometime back in the early 1990s at a university library, and having the entire dictionary available made the research for one of my fantasy series much easier.

Many libraries and document repositories are making scans of their material available. During my Victorian research I was thrilled to find London Labour and the London Poor, Vol. 1 by Henry Mayhew available from the University of Virginia Library ( Although there are some proofreading problems in the online version of this book, this volume is invaluable in my research on the street culture in London for my novel.

Scans of actual early manuscripts are available online as well. Why settle for secondary or tertiary sources when you can--without traveling any farther than your computer desk--read a primary source document? Travel is more fun, but a download is more economical. A site like Penn in Hand (, Penn Libraries' place for scans of manuscripts, could make your research much easier. Thus far I have used it merely to research handwriting in some of the medieval manuscripts, but there's a lot of interesting content here already, and it appears to be growing.

The internet is making it much easier for me to answer quick research questions without resorting to an hour drive to a university library (and the danger of becoming totally lost in research for the rest of the day--which it's easy for me to do). Although one is more likely to get misinformation through the internet, if you use the same good protocol you would for any kind of research, it's now possible to get answers far more quickly than ever before.


Julia H. West's website is at, and all her previously published stories are available as ebooks through Callihoo Publishing,

A couple of Julia's stories, with covers by her daughter Danica West