Research has changed in the 21st century. With the internet and an ever-expanding collection of online resources, the ability to learn about events, people, and places has never been easier.
These changes were obvious when I began research for my novel, The Stonemason’s Secret. With degrees in history and art history, I want to be sure what I describe is as accurate as possible. I do not want someone finding inaccuracies when I describe an area or relate historical details.
What I Am Researching
I needed to research various medieval churches in East Yorkshire along with several local villages and towns. Having lived in the area, I knew much of the basic information, yet there were villages and churches I had not visited or didn’t remember much about in the 30 years since I last saw them. I was also curious to see if there was any new information about places and events I was familiar with.
I visited York Minster many times when I lived there and had a good sense of the space. Then I learned that the mason’s loft had been studied and opened to visitors in the intervening years. It was the perfect detail to include, having my protagonist go there to search for clues. Thanks to the internet, I was able to see photos and read details about it.
There were also things I needed to research that were new to me. I needed to find a historical object that my main characters would search for. From a few online searches, I discovered the Cup of Jamshid, a legend from Persian pre-history. Since it is only a legend, I could make up the Cup’s journey from Persia to England, but I wanted to tie that journey into actual historical events as much as I could. Online resources filled in the details I needed.
How Research Has Changed
When I lived in England, I researched the medieval minstrel carvings in Beverley Minster for my Master’s degree thesis. This was 1988 and 1989. There was no internet. Research was done from books and periodicals, and I took advantage of all that the library in Beverley had. Back in the States, the only way I could access these sources was through interlibrary loan.
Are you familiar with interlibrary loan? It is a wonderful service that still exists. Your local library requests resources it doesn’t have from a library that does. However, it takes time to submit the request and have the item(s) shipped to your local library. There can also be charges related to some requests.
Even with the wealth of information provided online, not all questions can be answered. I searched and searched to find when William de Malton, Master Mason at Beverley Minster in the 2nd quarter of the 13th century, died. My plot revolves around how and when he died, and I searched to see if the date was known. I have not been able to find it in any of my research, so I’m assuming that it isn’t known. This lets me create the date and circumstances to fit my novel.
Resources to Digitally Visit Places
Another challenge for any writer is describing places we have never visited. How do we put in the little details that create an accurate picture of a place when we have never seen it with our own eyes? In the 21st century, we have the internet to search for photos, descriptions or even videos of different places.
For villages and churches I had not visited, I used online photos and descriptions to let me see them and even discovered details that I could use to add depth to the plot. There aren’t always as many detailed photos as I would like to have, but I appreciate the ability to “visit” without buying a plane ticket.
Google Maps let me get an idea of the best route from one place to another, whether getting characters from town to town or plotting out chase scenes. Once I had a route plotted, I could switch to Street View to see what the characters would see and describe it with authenticity.
For a foot chase through York, I wanted my main characters to use the snickelways – small passageways between buildings – to try to escape from the bad guys after them. Again, I used Google Maps to figure out the route, then Street View to actually see what was there and if my planned route would work.
Ready access to information can have a down-side. If the information I found didn’t match what I had in mind, my story had to be reworked so it was accurate.
Cautions with Online Research
As with anything on the internet, you must consider the source. Google Street View shows the date the images were taken, so even if it was only a couple of years ago, things can change. For historical information, try to verify everything through multiple sources. A tourist posting a photo is helpful, but their descriptions and other information may not be accurate. Take the time to check and double-check what you find.
The ability to research events and places for writing novels is much easier in the 21st century. We no longer have to retrieve books from distant libraries or travel to see places in person. The changes have been tremendous and we can only imagine what the future holds.