Because it takes so long to do archival research, and because even after many hours of work there’s still a low probability of yielding as much useful information as you may have thought, I recommend that your first research be to seek out local historical publications.
Professional historians and academics spent hours, weeks, months, years even – combing through archival records to track down enough documentation to be able to make blanket statements about historical events, people, trends, and movements. And they add context, maps, and illustrations to supplement the information that also comes from a great deal of research.
Libraries pride themselves on housing books on local subjects – books that are usually unavailable anywhere else .
For background, and substantial information, these local historical and geographical publications can’t be beat and may give you all the historical information you need to write a story, paint a picture, or design an ad campaign.
Be sure to note the citations for photos, maps, and footnotes; as well as taking a look at the bibliography to give you ideas about the source of similar things you might want to take a look at.
It was a thrilling discovery for me to find an article a couple of days ago, about a real man who had the same thing happen to him as my novel’s character Ron – namely being pressed (forced) into the service of the navy.
I was researching the town of Androssan, in southwest Scotland where Ron came from to deepen my understanding of his early years, when I came across a news-article from 1899 about the town’s harbour.
The article was in a section of a local historical society website called, “This day in Androssan” that posts historical news-stories from Androssan for every day of the year.
And right below the article about the harbour was a short biographical piece from 1899 about the death of the city’s oldest resident, William Robertson who lived to be 97 years old.
But the part that really grabbed me was that at the age of 16, Mr Robertson was taken by a press-gang.
A press-gang was a gang of naval men who would hang around pubs in harbour towns in the 18th and 19th centuries, plying unsuspecting victims with liquor and shillings.
When the press-gangs had their victims good and drunk, they’d strong-arm them onto a ship waiting for the tide to change to work for the crown.
They Royal navy resorted to this method of recruitment because few went into the navy by choice. There weren’t many who were interested in a life-time of service onboard a naval ship, becoming involved in battles far from home, and earning low wages that life in the royal navy promised. Who would?
Many of those pressed into service never saw their homes and families again, though abandonment was common despite the penalty of execution or torture if the fugitive was caught.
Although press-gangs had largely been eliminated or outlawed by the time of my story’s setting, it was still in occasional use and I will plead artistic license to stretch the date so that I can work it into my story.
And seeing William Robertson’s obituary gave me evidence that this indeed happened in that region where my character lived, and at about that time.
But more than anything, it opened up a well of emotional feeling that will help me imagine Ron’s experience, an almost transcendent connection to a real-life person.
Maybe that’s why I enjoy finding out about my own local history so much. It gives me a direct link to people who really lived here where I do. To people who walked the same streets, went to the same parks, withstood the same weather, and marveled at the same beauty as I do, whether they were figures of notoriety, or rows of nameless children out of an 1892 Strathcona School class picture.