3 Types of Primary Sources You Can Use as a Historical Fiction Writer


Photograph of Dundonald Castle, c. 1903.

Let’s face it – historical fiction is easier to get wrong than to get right. When you write historical fiction, you aren’t just writing a story; you’re building an entire 360 degree universe. Your characters likely have ways of thinking, and ways of expressing themselves, that are the result of a time and place very different from our own.

Primary sources can be valuable keys to unlocking past worlds. Mining them for details allows you to recreate a universe that your readers can see, hear, and taste. 
Archival Materials
What they are: Manuscripts, letters, journals, books and documents held in archive or library collections. These are sometimes referred to as “special collections.” Unlike secondary sources, all of these materials date from the period. Sometimes special permissions are needed to access these kinds of collections, but there is nothing like holding a letter written by one of your characters to inspire thrills and chills. These collections may be held in city, state, or national archives, or sometimes at university collections or in research libraries such as the Folger Shakespeare Library or the British Library
What they can tell you: Archival materials are terrific sources of information on details you just won’t find anywhere else. Reading a family’s letters may tell you far more about their dynamics and relationships than a biographer’s account. Census records, or registers of births and marriages, are great place to go shopping for authentic period names. A caveat: you will likely need to do some extensive research in the special collection’s catalog to find what you are looking for. If the material isn’t available digitally, you’ll need to go in-person to take a look. Extra effort, but I’ve always found it to be well worth it.
Digital Collections
What they are: Much like the name suggests, digital collections are digitized versions of “physical” materials. More and more archival materials are being made available in this way. It reduces wear and tear on the objects themselves, and it also makes materials available to people who can’t visit the collection in person.
What they can tell you: You can find much of the same information that archival materials contain. However, touching and seeing an object may reveal things that seeing it on a screen won’t – the quality of the paper, signs of wear like tears or watermarks, etc. The Library of Congress has extensive digital collections of everything from photographs to sheet music to sound recordings.
Reproductions
What they are: Reproduced versions of original items. Not all primary sources are available as reproductions, but when they are, a reproduction may be an excellent and far more accessible version of the original. 
What they can tell you: You won’t get a sense of how the item was originally made or the signs of use it has accumulated over the years, but you will see the tastes and aesthetics of the period in the reproduction. For example, the Museum of Jewelry in San Francisco has many kinds of reproduction pieces representing many historical eras!
In my next post, I’ll share some of my favorite sources in each of these categories and how I have used them.

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