Every book starts with an idea, and in most cases a book starts with a great many ideas. So, next to my desk I keep a basket of notebooks where I write down ideas. A lot of my ideas come from my husband and I discussing things together and coming up with ideas together, so when I have a good idea that I think will work well in a story I'll take the notebook for the appropriate story that I think it will fit into and I'll jot down whatever the idea is in the back of the notebook. I draft all my manuscripts by hand and when I actually get down to writing the manuscript I'll start from front to back, but for my notes I always go back to front because that way I've always got the notes handy when I'm writing the story and they're right there. I don't have to go digging for them. And in terms of writing everything by hand whether it's the manuscript itself or the notes, there have been a lot of really good research studies that show that the human brain actually engages differently with things when it's mechanically doing things by hand as opposed to reading things on a screen or just typing things. Now, I know that typing is a mechanical action as well, but it works a little differently. And again, it's engaging with a different part of the brain.
I find that I come up with ideas better when I'm writing things by hand, and also that I remember things better when I'm writing things by hand. But to come back to these notebooks: in the back I not only jot down ideas, things I think might be cool, but I also make myself a reading list of interesting information sources that I think will be useful when I go to write that story. This particular one is a story about Sophie, if you're familiar with the Tales of Chetzemoka, so I've got a whole list of books that have helped build Sophie's character that I'm going to be reviewing before I sit down to write that particular book. And in addition to my list of books that I want to read, I've also got my list of various quotes that I've come across in primary sources that I think will help, that I can crib from ninenteenth-century sources so that the book seems a little more authentic when I sit down to write it.
So, what is a primary source? An example of a primary source from the 19th-century is something that was written in the 19th-century and it was written by someone who has first-hand knowledge of what is being described. So for example, on that shelf over there I've got Jennie Churchill's memoir. That is a primary source about Jennie Churchill, because she herself wrote the book.
A secondary source is what you get when someone reads a primary source and then extrapolates their own ideas from it. These can be useful, but always be sure you know how to distinguish facts from opinions. To do that, it's important to read as much as you can. Remember: the more you read, the more you know.
One of my favorite ways to use secondary sources is to mine their bibliographies for primary sources. I'll look and see what primary sources an author used to make their case, and I'll add these books to my own reading lists. After I've read the primary sources that the secondary source is based on, then I can form my own opinion about whether or not I agree with what the secondary source said and go from there.
Anyone who's listening in America is probably familiar with a game that we here call "Telephone". It's got different names in different countries; a lot of different countries have this game, and you've probably got your own name for it if you're listening somewhere else. It's a game where everyone sits in a circle and one person whispers something into someone's ear, then that person whisper's —hopefully— the same thing in the next ear and it goes around the circle. Now, usually by the time it gets to the last person the story has been changed significantly. And a lot of things that get written wind up having something similar happen to them. Stories get changed with each person that tells them. And that's not just true of historical stuff that's true of modern media as well: this is why you want to be careful about your sources.
In the case of historical research it's generally best to get the most first-hand material you can.
When you're ready to go beyond printed materials, antique diaries and letters can be a pretty amazing way to get primary source information that's not available anywhere else. Your best bet for these is a public archive or an academic archive.
And while you're on your treasure hunt for information, by all means don't forget popular sources of news and information from the time you're studying.
In here I've got my magazines. And so these are the sorts of magazines that were actually being read by people in the time in which I'm writing, which helps me to get a really good understanding of what they were experiencing and what they were thinking about at the time. And that's very useful for a writer.
And then I've got other books for all the different subjects that I study or write about or just want to know about.
So, how can you find primary sources? You can buy them, whether that means buying an antique copy or a reprint and there are advantages to both - I'll go into those. You can borrow them - and again, it could be antique, it could be a reprint. Or, you can get them for free -and that's usually going to be a reprint. And that requires a little bit of work on your part. But let's go into all three of those options a little bit.
I could do a whole video on the pros and cons of antique sources versus reprints, and I probably will at some point. For now, though, let's just touch really briefly on a few basics. With an antique source you know in a really bone-deep and tangible way that you're getting exactly the same information that someone else did in the period you're studying. Also, antique sources will often contain notes or marginalia that tell you things about their former owners, which is really fun.
On the downside, antique books are often quite fragile. You shouldn't take them into the bath tub with you or haul them around just anywhere, like you can do with a reprint. Also, with a reprint you can write notes right on the pages, which has its advantages.
The big question, of course, is how to get hold of any source, whether it's antique or a reprint.
The most straightforward way to acquire a book or magazine is to buy it. The materials available in used book stores and antiques stores are usually drawn from the surrounding area, so if you're studying a specific place then these sources of used books might be a good option for you. I've been fortunate on several occasions while hunting through the book room of the antiques store near my home, and I was lucky to find some delightful school books that had actually been used in the local school.
If you're looking for a particular rare book or a specific author, chances are you might have to go online to find it. Websites like Amazon and abebooks (that's abebooks.com) —these are basically to modern commerce what the Sears & Roebuck catalog and the Montgomery Ward catalog were to commerce in the late 19th-century. Technology is a good servant but a bad master: I don't recommend getting too dependent on it, but it does have its uses.
The best way to borrow a source, primary or secondary, is through a library. To give you an explanation of some of the more advanced services offered by libraries, I followed my favorite librarian to work.
Gabriel: We can get books here that aren't just in this library system; we can actually borrow books from other libraries as well. Interlibrary loan is, pretty much almost all libraries in the U.S. do it, academic and public libraries, and we can switch materials around. And that way we can get books that aren't even in our normal collection. We've done it a lot for historic books and for older books that our library system might not have but that academic libraries still do.
Sarah: To give you some tips on getting sources for free, we retreated to the library's back room.
Gabriel: There's sort of a hidden thing from Google Books: that's the Advanced Search, and it actually does function pretty differently than the standard Google Books search. It allows you to specify a lot more and it allows you to find things, especially historical things, a lot more easily. So: I've just typed "Google Books Advanced Search" into the usual Google search page, and gotten the link to Advanced Book Search Google Books. So if we click on that we can search for a bunch of keywords. So, let's think of something that we want to find. Say I want to find something involving bicycles. So let's try "bicycle lock". And I'm going to search —there's a date range here, "Publication Date" and I'm looking between say, January of 1880 and December of 1899, for instance, if I'm looking within the time range that we typically study. And I can just hit "Google Search". And we're going to find "U.S. Patent Office - Annual Report"; we're going to find "Hardware", which is a magazine devoted to the American hardware trade; "The Iron Age", a similar magazine there, "The Gazette of the U.S. Patent Office", "Chicago Journal of Commerce and Metal Industries", and a bunch of other ones. "Digets of Cycles or Velocipedes with Attachments" - that sounds promising. So this is the sort of things we're going to find - there we are, "Locks and locking attachments." So this is basically a bunch of different inventions from the period and there are specific ones here to do with bicycle locks. So that's a good example of the sorts of things you can find in terms of real primary sources by using Google Books Advanced Seach.
Sarah: Once you've downloaded your free pdf of a work in the public domain, you can print it out and bind it as nicely as you like, or as quickly as you like, depending on your particular needs and circumstances. Here are some leather-bound books I made for Gabriel as gifts for birthdays, anniversaries and other holidays, and here are some cloth-bound books I made for myself for my own research. And… here's the bookshelf in our guest room made of cardboard fruit boxes. This is where I keep the public domain books and magazines that I printed out so that I could read them for research, pleasure or both, but in which I didn't want to invest the resources to bind them in a really fancy way. If you want some tips on how to hand-bind a book, you can find instructions for the process on our website, ThisVictorianLife.com You can go straight to the bookbinding instructions by typing in the URL you see on your screen right now. http://www.thisvictorianlife.com/recipe-for-reading-how-to-make-a-hand-bound-book.html
There are a number of advantages to working with a physical copy of a book as opposed to only dealing with materials on a screen. Technology is a good servant but a bad master. Online databases can be very useful for accessing things, but you might be cheating yourself if you don't take the extra few minutes to print out your materials.
In the first place, just because a file is in a database today is no guarantee that it will be there five years from now, or even tomorrow. Databases clean house occasionally, and it's not terribly realistic to assume that your personal needs match up exactly with their collection maintenance protocols. Even after you've downloaded a file, if you really care about the information in it it's still best to print it out. The human brain evolved to move and learn with a physical space. A physical book has a front, a back, a top and a bottom, and while we read a physical book there's a part of our brain that's actually mapping where in the book we accessed important pieces of information. This is part of why so many people find it easier to recall information learned from physical books than information seen on a screen. Beyond that, it's far easier to take notes on physical books, and the action of your hand while writing aids in memory as well. Various software companies have been trying for years to come up with programs that allow notes to be taken on on-screen texts, but statistically very few people take advantage of them - they're just too cumbersome. For more on the subject of screens versus paper, here are some books to add to your own reading list.
Bringing it all together.
I get the information I use to write my own books from sources I've gotten hold of through all of these methods: buying what I could afford, and borrowing or finding free copies of things that otherwise wouldn't be available to me. The book that I'm working on right now, Book VII in my series, takes place mostly from the perspective of Felix here. It concentrates on him. And because he is a journalist -he's a writer- a lot of the books that I've been reading lately are about journalists. So I've got a memoir of a 19th-century journalist, and he published this in the early 20th-century but it's about his experiences in the Victorian era. This has been a great resource. And I've also got some other books about writers from the 19th-century written by writers. I've got How to Write for the Press, from 1884; I've got The Great Scoop, which is a nice novel about journalism in the 19th-century; and The Making of a Journalist, that's another memoir. Along with The Trade of Authorship, which is a book that was written by a writer, for writers, about how to write and make a living at it. And for any of you who are writers or want to be writers, I highly, highly recommend this book. It's out of print, but you can get a free digital copy off of Google Books Advanced Search, and it's well worth it. This is one that I downloaded off of Google Books, and then I bound myself.
This has all been just a very brief overview, but I hope it's given you some ideas. The main takeaways from today are:
—The more you read, the more you know.
—Read as many original primary sources as you can.
—You can get primary sources by buying them, borrowing them, or accessing free copies.
—Technology is a good servant but a bad master. It can help you get hold of books, but you're still going to have to engage with them and read them if you want benefit from them.
—Our brains evolved in a three dimensional world. Most people engage more deeply with things they read in three dimensional books.
We'll go into more details about a writer's world some other time, but we had to start somewhere!
I hope you enjoyed this video. If you did, please give it a nice "thumbs up", and don't forget to tell your friends about my books! Happy reading!Transcription of audio from the video: