Super Sneaky Victoriana Research Tips

by Gail Carriger

[In honor of her new book Soulless, which impressed me with its groundedness in the Victorian world, I asked author Gail Carriger to blog about the art of finding good research sources for Steampunk writing. This is her contribution - thank you very much, Ms. Carriger! -JDS]

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: nothing beats primary sources. I hate to be a traitor to the Author Guild’s justifiable objection to the Google Book settlement, but Google books does already have a number of good primary sources from the 1800s available.

* One of my personal favorites, with recipes and other interesting tidbits about domestic management in 1876, is Things a Lady Would Like to Know

* Floote’s Medical Common Sense is another wonderful resource for a historical perspective on the Victorian attitude towards medical science, not to mention a window into scientific, social, and psychological theory. This is an American classic (if non-fiction can be called such).

There are other useful primary sources as well, that you might be able to order through Amazon or a rare books dealer. My two favorites are:

* Baedeker, Karl. 1896. Baedeker’s’s London and its Environs. (or any Baedeker’s dated to the Victorian era) for maps, railroad time tables, popular museums and visitors areas, not to mention names of shops, clubs, restaurants, news papers and more.

* Edwards, Amelia B. 1877. A Thousand Miles Up the Nile. For language and the Victorian adventurer abroad feel.

As for secondary sources, what you need may depend upon what you’re writing. I write comedy of manners, so my needs reflect this more pedestrian interest level, someone with a more military bent probably has a different list. Never the less, I find myself constantly reaching for the following:

* Pool, Daniel. 1993. What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. For the basics.

* Cunnington, C. Willett. 1990. English Women’s Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. For anything to do with women’s clothing

* Flanders, Judith. 2003. The Victorian House. For domestic life questions. The information is not well structured, but it is there.

* Farwell, Byron. 1972 Queen Victoria’s Little Wars. For the quickest insight into the Empire Building mentality and military history of the age.

Aside from Wikipeda, which can be an okay place to start, there are some good, if not particularly well organized, research tools dedicated to the Victorians online as well.

* By far the biggest and the best is the Victorian Web which is a great spiderweb of all sorts of useful information

* The Victorian Dictionary offers up primary newspaper articles on different topics

And here are a few interesting individual offerings online.

* Victorian Slag Dictionary

* Victorian Etiquette

* The Illustrated London News (starting in 1842)

* Victorian servants

* The Ladies Journal

* Godey’s Lady’s Book

* Naval Ships of Victorian times

* Nick Names of Cavalry regiments

* Some ways to tie a cravat

* La Mode Illustree LiveJournal group

Other tips:

* If you have a DVR or Tivo trigger in keywords pertaining to your topic of interest. You never know what the history channel might be dealing with next. It will at least give you a jumping off point.

* Watch BBC costume dramas, and or, rent the DVD and check out the extras, they often have interviews with historical experts.

* Having a really hard time answering a research question? Cold call a local university history department. Experts love to talk about their expertise, perhaps there is someone in the history department you can ask. They may at least give you a book or article to read.

Lastly, of course you can keep an eye on my website, I often put up bits and bobs I’ve discovered around the net.