Anybody got a time machine?
April 3, 2007 10:36 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn everything about a historical place and time?

I'm planning on writing a novel set in the past (Missouri, 1932, to be exact). It won't be my first or even second novel but, I'm at a loss as how to tackle the research. I have read James Ellroy say that he hires researchers for his novels. How much does this cost, and how do I find the right researcher? I'm pretty poor, but if I think I can purchase significantly better researched and organized facts, I'll drop the dough.

Alternatively, of course, I can do all the research myself. I'm looking to collect everything from: biographical data on real people who will be involved in the plot, speech patterns of Ozark natives in the 30s, life inside Leavenworth prison back then, and just the general details of life that you could effortlessly place in a novel that occurs in your own time. I have some books, and I have interviewed some of my relatives, but need to get a lot more.

(BTW, I'm not looking at starting writing for at least another year, so I have the time. But I want to have a nice collection of facts before starting.)
posted by Bookhouse to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Could you find someone who's already fascinated by this topic? I'm an armchair historian focusing on my own hometown. I've read 20 or 30 books on my city in hopes of someday (maybe this summer?) running a walking tour.

I bet there are a bunch of someone's like me in Missouri who can at the very least, point you to the best books, films, and other source material, along with sharing some great anecdotes.

Actually, come to think of it the public library there seems like the best place to start.
posted by serazin at 10:52 AM on April 3, 2007

What about the archives of local newspapers?
posted by iconomy at 10:54 AM on April 3, 2007

If you've got time, take a relevant history class at a local university.
posted by The World Famous at 11:01 AM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: I assume you're hyperbolizing when you ask how to learn EVERYTHING about a historical place and time.

Writing is about engaging the senses, right? You want the reader to taste, hear, smell, feel and see this other period, right? You want him to say, "that book really transported me to Missouri in 1932!"

So you need to engage YOUR senses. LOOK at art books (comic books, poster books, photos, etc.) from that period; LISTEN to recordings; get an old cookbook and whip up some recipes from the period -- TASTE them. Go somewhere where there are collections of stuff from then (e.g. a vintage-clothing store) and TOUCH it.

Make notes about these experiences. What struck you? These details will be worth gold in your story!

You can also get tons of good second-hand info if you're always on the lookout for the sensual. Look for first-person accounts of events from the period. As you make notes, pull out quotes that are sensual: "I could hear grandfather's pocketwatch ticking..." More gold!

I'm against using assistants, unless all they are doing is gathering sensual material for you. But you must read (touch, hear...) it yourself. Otherwise, how is it going to pour from you onto the page?

By the way, I'm not suggesting you should ignore factual (but non-sensual) stuff. But I'm not focusing on it, because it's much easier to come by (via census reports, encyclopedias, etc.)
posted by grumblebee at 11:04 AM on April 3, 2007

You could contact the Kansas City branch of the National Archives. Their brochure includes pictures of Leavenworth prisoners (see page 7 of the PDF)
posted by grateful at 11:08 AM on April 3, 2007

contact a library in that place and see what kind of archives they have. a lot of libraries have collections of local (or other) historical stuff that isn't necessarily on display but you can get access to see it. i'm thinking of things like personal journals and government and business records, as well as of course periodicals.
posted by lgyre at 11:08 AM on April 3, 2007

Response by poster: I assume you're hyperbolizing when you ask how to learn EVERYTHING about a historical place and time.

Of course.
Another clarification: I don't currently live in Missouri, so while I can take trips there, I need to be in NYC most of the time.
posted by Bookhouse at 11:15 AM on April 3, 2007

Friend of a friend recommends these people. No idea what they charge, but apparantly you would not be the first to darken their doors.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:30 AM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: One thing you could do in NYC (aside from read every book in the NYPL about Missouri) would be to immerse yourself in the local newspapers offered by There are probably other, similar services out there.

Your best bet, though, would be to contact a few libraries around the area where you are setting your novel, and see what they have. There are no doubt some rich local resources, like published and unpublished memoirs or oral history tapes, that would be useful for you. The Missouri State Archives might be another source, plus they might have a list of "researchers for hire" in the area.
posted by arco at 11:33 AM on April 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

Also, some towns in the area you're interested in will have historical societies with a mishmash of photos, newspapers, etc from that time. Google "town name" + "historical society" for ten towns and you're bound to find one with some web presence, or a phone number you can call. Somewhere there will be the helpful, friendly local history buff you want; either they will be able to help you do your own research or you might be able to work out some arrangement for them to get paid to do some research for you.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:33 AM on April 3, 2007

Ditto consulting local libraries' research desks and local towns' historical societies.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 12:23 PM on April 3, 2007

Search for postcards. Great for getting the look and feel of a time and place. Ebay is a start. Also the State Archives.
posted by ahimsakid at 12:31 PM on April 3, 2007

Honestly I think you could do a hell of a lot just off of Google.
Here is a collection of Ozark Folklore at Lyon College.
There is Vance Randolph and the Vance Randolph Collection at the U of Arkansas.
The University of Missouri Press publishes a number of regional/historical books.

My great-grandfather grew up in Powersville, Missouri in the 1910s and 20s. I have his diaries. I wouldn't be surprised if someone you know has a grandparent or two from the area that might be able to relate some more personal type stories to you.
posted by mattbucher at 12:48 PM on April 3, 2007

Local historians are generally passionate about their town, will talk your ear off for days if given the opportunity, and can probably hook you up with some older townies who have interesting personal anecdotes (that you can work from to color your story with tertiary characters and happenings.)
posted by davejay at 1:31 PM on April 3, 2007

Best answer: People do this stuff in a number of different ways depending on budget and time available. As a librarian and sometimes independent researcher I can give you a good laundry list including some of the advice you've already gotten.

1. Start online first. Check local historical societies and state library websites. Check the local universities. Look for links to other sites as well as what they have locally. Look for "special collections" or especially online digital library stuff, or even lists of links to other places. Get a feel for what is covered well and what is not.
2. Check the library of congress american memory project. Browse by location and get an idea of what peopel were documenting at that point in time. Assemble keywords and other topics you want to know more about. Print out photos and hang them up to give you an idea of the time and place.
3. Figure out what newspapers were being published during that time and find ways of getting access to them. This may be online [unlikely] or it may mean interlibrary loaning some bound volumes or possibly going there yourself. If you can somehow get yourself established as a "researcher" at a university or major public library, this may make obtaining these things somewhat easier.
4. Meet people. Strike up acquaintances via genealogy websites/listserv and by talking to peopel in historical societies. I've found that people are involved in these things because they're really INTO the time/place and so they'll likely talk your ear off and be happy to help. Learn to narrow your scope somewhat so you're not just saying "yeah tell me about that place"
5. Don't underestimate plain old books. I bet things like Leavenworth will be easier to track down using standard library catalogs. Find a ton of books, order them or buy them or get them at the library. Read, browse, take notes, figure out, again, what is useful and where the big gaps are.
6. There will be gaps. Figure out what they're worth for you to fill in and whether you want ot fill them in with time [i.e. you go someplace and ask questions and photocopy stufff or archives perhaps] or money [you have someone else do it]. I have no idea what researchers charge for this sort of work. When I was doing low-end stuff I'd charge in the $35-50/hour plus expenses range. I think some people charge by the project. You'll see ads in the NYT Book Review sometimes from people looking for primary source information for books, those ads aren't cheap but they might help if you've got some gap that nothing can fill.

It's good that you're starting all this early. Your options get much more limited if you're in a time crunch. Good luck, feel free to email if you've got more specific library type questions.
posted by jessamyn at 1:36 PM on April 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Best bet... go to Missouri. Failing at that, get some contacts there, plenty of folks are just dying to find someone new to tell about Missouri in the 30s, I'm sure.

Public libraries are generally a good place to start.
posted by dagnyscott at 1:39 PM on April 3, 2007

also, if you make it down to that area, try to meet some old locals. 1932 is just recent enough that you might be able to find some folks who remember it, which would probably be a great bet for any questions you have trouble resolving in other ways.
posted by lgyre at 7:51 PM on April 3, 2007

I am a historian in Missouri. My email is my profile, when you narrow it down to specific questions feel free to contact me.
posted by LarryC at 8:05 PM on April 3, 2007

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