Your Guide to the 50 Books to Look for,
in Learning Order.

These are the subjects you probably need to cover. In some cases, a big fat book on life at the time may cover several of these topics. Odds are, reading it will be like reading three or four regular books, but it gets you out a little faster, and ties the parts of life together better for you.

Think of this as both a guideline and a checklist. If you aren't used to histfi research, it's good to have someone remind you to check things like the lower classes (which are sleeping in doorways) or travel means, rather than assuming you know it already. Unless you can think of the book that should go there, odds are you don't know and will often get it wrong, as I know from my own further research making revisions required.

Also, please note that I don't assume books on violence are necessary, for all that they are useful in most histfi. Weapons and warfare may play very little part in your schemes. Ditto music and dance, for a different book. Consider this part of the thirty "other subjects" books you will read that are still necessary books, depending on your story.

1). A general history of the time, not over 200 pages.
Yes, a skinny little dickens, just so you can see if you're in the right place. Something called "an outline history" is probably perfect. Like George Fox Mott & Harold M. Dee; An Outline History of the Middle Ages: From the Decline of the Roman Empire through the Reformation (1933-1950; B&N, NY) which covers European history from 395-1564 CE. That's a lot of history checking in one place. Look for the same sort of thing in other eras. Often, reading one or two fat encyclopedia articles on the period will do. Look for ones called "Nineteenth century" or whatever your century is.

2.) An "everyday life" book of the period.
Look for one written for Young Adults, not children. The latter are so simplified they give too erroneous a view. Think 300 pages, preferably with lots of pictures. Like Rhys Carpenter, Edith Hamilton, William C. Hayes, E. A. Speiser, Richard Stillwell; Everyday Life in Ancient Times: Highlights of the Beginnings of Western Civilization in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome (1951 as book; National Geographic Society, Washington, DC). I'll tell you right now the art here is full of errors, and the text is largely obsolete, but this is the kind of book you want (still, details I could pick out were good, but I had to know a lot to sift out the nonsense). This covers ordinary life, athletics, travel, costume, religion, government, medicine, warfare, food, etc., in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Crete, Greece, and Rome, 3000 BC to 200 CE.
You can even do your first research in something like Everyday Life Through the Ages (1992; Reader's Digest Assoc, London) which hits the top on everything in the major cultures from cavemen forward, through not only Europe but occasionally Asia, India, Africa, and the Americas. This can be useful if you guessed wrong about when or where you want to write: you find you really wanted the Renaissance rather than the Middle Ages, or Korea instead of China.

By this time you should have a more solid idea of where and when if you had a plot idea and needed a setting. If you are simply intrigued by an era and place, you may be waiting for a good idea to jell out of your research. Get yourself well grounded, and research will hand you "sand for pearls" and grow you a plot.

3.) General transportation
One good book on this across the ages will do for many projects, like Transport Through the Ages by Peter Bray, updated by Barbara Brown (1971, Taplinger Pub. Co.) if you aren't doing a lot of travelling. You might also use the free A Book about Travelling, Past and Present (1877, London and Edinburgh, Nimmo) by Thomas Allan Croal, if you're working in earlier times.

4.) General costume
The Costumer's Manifesto
is a free online resource for this. Most of the lap-breaker "Costume Through the Ages" books will focus on Europe and forget all Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Okay, Europe has a lot of changes in a short time, and it's what English-language authors are immersed in, but Japanese didn't always put their obi knots behind them. Other cultures have changes over a century, if not every ten years. If you don't mind something Germano-centric rather than Franco-centric or Anglo-centric, you can get a free copy of A History of Costume by Carl Köhler, edited and augmented by Emma von Sichart, and translated by Alexander K. Dallas (1930; New York, G. Howard Watt). For a big lap-breaker full of colour art, if you travel to many periods, you might want to invest in a copy of Boucher's 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment.

5.) Specific transportation
The later in time you are, the more this matters, as you have more choices. Even so, there's way too much reliance on horseback and wagons at the wrong time. The actual preference of the time, for someone not a peddlar going village to village, may be river boat or sailing ship. In the later 1800s, everyone who travelled out of town by land went by rail, and only switched to coach or saddle where the rails hadn't gone to yet. In Near History, check period magazines to see what's a family car and what's for execs, and what's a "secretary's car" (the original image of the Mustang).

6.) Etiquette, and I don't mean morals for maidens.
Who bows first to whom? Who goes up the stairs first? Hint: it wasn't until 1914 or so that men stopped leading the way up, as "ladies first" became engrained as a general rule after that date. What sort of calling cards say well-bred, and which reek of vulgarity? By the 19th C, this decade's fashion is next decade's folly, and vice versa. How is seating arranged at dinner? "Promiscuous seating," men and women together, was not the rule even as late as the 1700s. Check the Library of Congress's American Memory site for their Dance Manuals, of all things. It isn't all American, in fact none is until the early 1800s, and foreign books continue strong after that. However, before 1830 or so, the etiquette manuals change slowly

In earlier periods, you can learn as much if not more about etiquette reading the fiction of the day, like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

7.) Spectator entertainments, a general overview.
Whether theatre or sports, holy day processions or boat races, any real civilization, not primarily a village culture, has things where most people watch and those specially selected perform. Will characters see a play? You need to look into their presentation, because in 1804 they don't have fancy lighting effects and the house cannot be darkened (yes, I'm thinking of a particular novel's opening and I was not surprised the author's grasp of period law and costume was just as poor). In 1600 Milan, you will see something different, with players of a different sort, than in London in the same year.

8.) Self-entertainments
These, like card games, lawn games, and children's games, are the pastimes as well as the learning games, and often games equal gambling. Very primitive people bet stone arrowheads on whether a wood chip thrown in the air will land wood side or bark side up. All your professional gambling can be put in here.

9.) Food and dining, including what sort of public dining was available.
Restaurants are modern. This area includes table manners, as in some times and places you do eat off your knife at a noble's table, and especially you need to know what time of day meals are expected. For much of Western European history there were only two meals a day, for starters.

10.) Recipes for period food.
There's no longer an excuse for thinking the medieval Doge of Venice ate spaghetti with tomato sauce. There are period re-creation recipe books for all periods, starting with ancient Greece, and you can build back to some of the others. Then, really, go eat some of the stuff! Get the most authentic ingredients you can (take the gourmet grocery bills off as research) and don't modernize it or change it for your family prejudices, or even your own. You aren't trying to see what would be popular now, but what was standard then. If you have pre-adult children, don't include them unless they insist. Just make it for yourself and a friend or two (fun for your writer's circle!) and keep down the cost. I can tell you that I would far rather eat in Sparta than Athens, and that authentically Renaissance food uses herbs like strawberry leaves that I can't choke down even in a sauce. On the other hand, boiled garlic is a lovely vegetable side dish if you don't boil it mushy and you give it some flavor with a sauce or gravy: it's surprisingly quite bland. Time travel fiction absolutely requires this!

11.) Marriage and family.
Modern marriage laws and attitudes shouldn't be applied in periods when married women had hardly any rights short of not being murdered on a regular basis: they could not own real estate, they did not own the clothes on their backs, they could not sue for divorce under any circumstances, their husbands controlled the children's fates and could forbid her to have any contact with them, domestic beatings that did not cause maiming, as well as marital rape, were both legal, etc. The last one only became even a topic of discussion in the last quarter of the 20th century! Yes, most men were pretty nice to their wives. But there's always the possibility one won't be, and there's no recourse to the law. Catch S. B. Kitchin, B.A., LL.B.; A History of Divorce (1912; London: Chapman & Hall, Ltd).

12.) Specific dress styles, for your decade, including specialty costumes for clerics.
In some cases, clerics have huge wardrobes for various ceremonies. You also don't want to be misled by a general costume book into putting a lady in the wrong headdress for her period. There's old-fashioned and there's author slippage, and many readers can smell the difference.

13.) Religion for the time and place.
Modern Catholicism is extremely different from medieval Catholicism, starting with no papal infallibility so church authority is not as powerful as many modern Catholics like to fantasize it was. Vedic India does not have the religion of modern Hinduisms. Religion, though, is always underfoot, from how people curse to what they think in times of peril to when they have festivals. Consider the movie, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, having Mardi Gras in Venice in high summer, when it's a late-winter holiday. However, the closer to our time and your place, probably the less you need this. Often other books will fill in enough for you to know, whether the travel books or the etiquette books.
However, this should also include learning about religious institutions like monasteries, nunneries, ashrams, and live-in temples. They normally have some effect on their neighborhood, so you need to decide whether you want one nearby. They are also often a society's system of public hospitality (you can sleep there if you can't afford or don't want to chance the inns, or there are no inns) and of medical care (they run or are the hospitals).

 Notice that we are over a dozen books into research and we have paid barely any attention to wars, kings, and other usual matters of history. This is all historical anthropology, which is more important for you to find the kind of world you need. But that's going to change right now.

14.) A fat history book of the area and century as an introduction. If you are researching Europe, anywhere from Constantine the Great to the start of Victoria's reign, you can usually go to Will and Ariel Durant's History of Civilization series for starters. They aren't strictly political but make sure to include the philosophers, scientists, and artists of all kinds. (They have earlier volumes, but they draw a very inaccurate picture of the times.) I bought the full series in hardback, but it's now online to download for free.

15.) A history of the most influential country at the time (country A).

16.) A history of its rival (country B).

That's because these influence culturally and politically what's happening in any area within their influence. In 1810 Europe, A would be France and B would be England. In Asia in 1239, that would be China and the Mongol Empire, even if you are setting in Japan. These can be thin and full of pictures. You just need to be familiarized, and preferably from that country's point of view.

17.) A biography of the leader of country A

18.) A biography of the leader of country B

These will show you the general behavior of the powerful. In other countries, leaders will often try to imitate these major wheels. However, as I said, if you are not going anywhere near courts and major cities, you can put something more useful here, like period agriculture or falconry.

19.) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
This lets you see if you want to adjust your era a bit, or a lot.

20.) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
A large encyclopedia article may do (Wikipedia). You want to see with what general society and what historical events your characters have grown up with. That means that you want a book that covers up to your era, not from your era forward. That is, if your setting is Spain in 1810, you are helped more by a book about 1760 up to the Napoleonic invasion, than by one on the entire 19th century in Spain.

21.) A biography of the leader of the country of your setting.
This will often give you the celebrity gossip of the day. If you are not going to court or sitting in the government, a bio of a social leader will do nicely to tell you more what people aspire to be.

These categories were picked on the idea that you might be doing Italy in 1825, when England and Russia were the powers in Europe. If, on the other wing, you're setting your story in country A or B, say, Napoleonic France or Britain, you can get away with fewer histories. Instead, you will need to look more into how the position of primacy (which often involves wars) affects the characters in these areas in matters like military recruitment, taxes, political involvements, and so on.

Of course, there may not be a whole book in English available on, say, particular rulers of Spain, Sardinia, the Byzantine Empire, the Gupta Empire, and so on. These are only guidelines, and we have to fake through the best we can. Most of you will be writing protagonists with the usual British Isles, Australian, and North American backgrounds, with perhaps a European setting now and then. Anything else -- I feel your research pain, because I've been there. For more tribal societies, you will want to simply hunt more books by different authors giving you a broader view of them, and different details.

The reason for this big chunk of history is that I have read far too many would-be historical novels where the writer seemed to think that the Three Musketeers went away to fight the Crusades, Richard the Lionheart fought Napoleon, WW2 happened in the 1960s, and that sort of gross error.

Of course, the people who need this most will be the most certain they don't.

I recommend it for everyone just to get your temporal ducks in a row -- you could be off a year on that war, or when a prime minister was or wasn't in power -- and to let history hand you part of your plot. I could have chanted you the whole list of Crusades to Outre-mer, but if I hadn't re-read Runciman I wouldn't have known about the time the prisoners being held for ransom took over the castle where they were imprisoned. Now that's a plot!

22.) An everyday life for the commoner/lower classes of your time and place.
This may be peasants, serfs, slaves, factory workers, midwives, labourers, robbers, pickpockets, actors, whores, surgeons, and the rest of the masses that are assumed to be a bit dirty or worse, whether they are respectable or dissolute. Look for the word "underworld," like the books The Regency Underworld or The Elizabethan Underworld.

23.) An everyday life for the upper classes of your time and place.
This may be kings, nobles, voting citizens, politicians, robber barons, plutocrats, socialites, tyrants, dictators, archbishops, and the rest of the folks who run things. Don't forget their hangers-on, like courtesans, court painters, and fashion designers.

24.) An everyday life for the middle class of your time and place.
This is usually merchants, craftsmen & artists, scientists & inventors, bankers and investors, guild members, physicians, scholars, and the rest of the people who have to show up for work but are assumed to know how to be civilized. Some cultures don't have a middle class, like most invading barbarian hordes. Most Everyday Life books focus here, like Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard (2005, St. Martin's Griffin).

25.) An everyday life for women of your time and place, because the other books are often too busy talking about the men being scribes, warriors, and farmers, to tell you what their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters do from day to day.

Unless you are setting your story in English-settled countries, you will have a harder time finding this in English. At this point, you may have to quit being afraid of university libraries. There are hardly any subjects in historical anthropology that have not been somewhat addressed in master's and doctoral theses. Some of these are written very poorly in thick jargon ("neonates" instead of "newborns," say) and ridiculously torturous sentences, by academics who think that is how you show off that you have done your classes. Others are much better written. Pull one out, start at the beginning, and give it a shot. Not being able to understand what is written, if you have done these introductory books, says more about the writer than about you.

As you can see, getting a full idea of any of these four classes will probably take more than one book. These give you enough to decide which classes you want to show, and their bibliographies will give you some books for the last twenty of the fifty.

26.) An auto/biography of someone like your protagonist, or a book as much as possible focused on people like that.
For example, many translated diaries of people from the Middle Ages forward have been published. If you think there isn't one, look harder. There were women who left their husbands and families to travel halfway across the world on their own to suit their inner cravings, and they left their records. But, yes, sometimes you have to do without.

27.) A book on houses and furnishings of the period, if possible.
Is there glass in the windows? If so, how do they open? If not, what keeps the rain out? Can your sleepy character find a long upholstered couch if it can't get to a bed, or is it a choice between a wooden bench or the floor? Illustrated History of Furniture from the Earliest to the Present Time by Frederick Litchfield (1903; London: Truslove & Hanson Limited; New York:; illustrated by John Lane 1892-1903) will get you through a lot of the basics for free.

28.) A book about courting, romance, and sex of the time.
Will someone write this series, please, for most periods? This may or may not be partly covered in the etiquette books, and often you can only reconstruct it by reading the love poems or novels of the time. You may have to take books that bracket your time by a fair piece and reconstruct from that. However, I notice that an 1890 book on courting has a list of rules that "strongly echo" the old courtly rules of love from the 1200s. If you remember that 21st century sexual mores only date from the 1970s, except as a minority that gets smaller the farther back and higher in class you go, you find that you can guesstimate real behavior based on other reading.

29.) A book for naming historical characters properly.
Baby name books are so wrong for anyone not born around the date they were published. They are all modern names, including that what were male and female names may have changed. Most online sources are as bad or worse, the exception being for the period 300-1600 CE, that the Academy of Saint Gabriel covers with academic rigor for members of the Society for Creative Anachronism naming their personas. Otherwise, I can't help but always suggest People's Names: A Cross-Cultural Reference Guide to the Proper Use of over 40,000 Personal and Familial Names in over 100 Cultures, 1997, McFarland.: I originally collected it for histfi writers. At present, the McFarland edition is OOP and 2nd hand is starting near $200 (I am so proud), so look for it at the library until I come out with the revised edition as an easily-searchable ebook, in 2015.

30.) Medicine of the time and place.
Someone is bound to get ill or injured, on stage or off, in the characters' past if not in the story. You need to know who were doctors, how people thought about health and medicine, and that those stereotypical herbalist heroines of histrom couldn't do all that much, really. For general use, try the freebie, A History of Medicine, 1945 Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd;. London, Edinburgh, Paris, Melbourne, New York; it covers around 500 BC to 1940 CE. There's a nice history of the treatment of bone fractures up to the 1500s from 1936: it includes information on the Winnebago and Dakota tribes, along with the expected European.

31.) Climate, weather, and seasons.
By this time you should know where and when you're working. It's not that we presently have climate change that makes the current weather and seasons very different from those in the past. It's that we have always had climate change, so that you need to look up both articles on historical climate by climatologists and books by people of the time talking about weather. As an example, the Los Angeles weather of the present is not entirely that of my years there, but both are very different than the weather of the 1930s, when it rarely got into the 90s (F), instead of getting above 110
° every year. However, Richard Henry Dana (Two Years before the Mast) describes seasonal storms rolling into Los Angeles that in his lifetime ceased to come any more. The Renaissance into the early 20th century, or perhaps the late 19th century, is called The Little Ice Age because it was so cold in Europe and North America. Not just the Thames would freeze over solid enough to drive beer wagons across: the Seine at Paris would, in the late 1600s. The Middle Ages were warmer than this. If you are going ancient, you need to check the data on the deforestation and soil loss in Greece or Gaul, and the salinization of Mesopotamia. This changes what food is available, what the country looks like, and even where a character can lose pursuers. This may be one book on climate history that most of you can use for many periods: The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850 by Brian M. Fagan (2001, Basic Books) as it covers what are often considered the most popular centuries for histfi, 900-1900.

As well, it's not necessarily a book, but you need period maps by this time (you might be lucky and find an atlas from the time if it's after 1600). You can't use the modern Parisian boulevards in the First Empire, let alone the Middle Ages. Some maps you will find over and over, like the changes over time of the Holy Roman Empire or the Roman Empire, and some you will find as illustrations in books on a specialty subject, like medieval trade routes or divisions of Japan in 1500. I recommend copying or scanning them to print, to put in your research notebook. This being the 21st century, I actually keep 90% of my notes on the computer, so they're handy wherever I'm writing, so make sure you can really zoom in on the maps. Scans below 300 dpi may have severe problems in keeping data, as opposed to just being decorative on a website. 400 dpi is better.

A good historical atlas for free is Historical Atlas by William R. Shepherd, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1923.

The Cultural Atlas of the World series is usually very good to excellent with providing various maps of an area down the centuries. A great source of old and historical maps is the Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection at the University of Texas. Oddin's map links are more chaotic, but huge.

The Library of Congress map collection is flawed by being available only as JP3, which are incompatible or unknown to many programs. This is an improvement on when they only had them in Lizard format. LoC, will you please contact reality? (Note: the format choices of the French equivalent are even worse.)

Some things you might often want to check:

  • Violence: not only warfare, but personal combat or martial arts. Please do not assume that last is only modern or Asian. Late medieval fechtbuchs (fight-books) survive, and there are now a large number of people recovering or re-creating European martial arts techniques from the literature. Which means there are even more who read about it, and you will get disdained for having a character lunge with a rapier in 1590 (rapier, yes; lunge, no) or having a rapier or fencing at all in 1350.
  • Music: Of course you need the songs of the time, from the courtly to the drunks-at-the-tavern stuff. You can get recorded Western music about as far back as you can think, though it's spotty before Gregorian chants: Sumerian; Bronze Age Irish/Celtic horns; proto-Germanic lurs; pagan Classical Greek hymns. You can read about the rest.
  • Dances: This overlaps music and etiquette, because sometimes the only etiquette books we have are the sections relating to the dance. We have dance books of Europe and America at American Memory back to 1581, and their essays link to some vids. Elsewhen, you can read about historical dance. I am weary of writers who assume all pre-rock dancing is like fox-trot and waltz and stuff, and have their white-wigged or medieval hero holding the heroine tightly in his arms when they ought to be doing a minuet or pavanne where they barely hold fingertips and can't possibly carry on a really private conversation.
  • Economics: Stone-Age hunters had a hunting economy: it isn't necessarily about money. What you want to understand for your era/area is how characters get the things they need or want. The high Middle Ages were exceedingly not a time of great self-sufficiency: trade was heavy, and you need to understand that while women everywhere spin, very few weave or dye: that's Guild secrets applied to the yarn and thread they buy from the women. An occasional woman might have a room-sized loom to weave 14"-wide plain linen. On the other hand, a remote keep in the early Middle Ages may see a trader ship or caravan once a year, and if they can't make it, they don't have it. At different periods, very civilized people may never have seen silk or cotton cloth, and you can't mortgage a house, only sell it.
  • Farming and food sources. Really, you don't want your characters riding through the standing corn in March in France. In early periods, some foods simply aren't available at certain seasons, no matter what, because they can't be brought from the other hemisphere and they don't grow them in greenhouses. Also, if your characters are outside the cities, they're usually in farmland at that point. Equally, a crop may not be grown anywhere in the area: raspberries were not domesticated until the later 1800s.
  • Travel by water. Don't ask me why everyone forgets that until the late 1700s (and the mid 1800s in a lot of places), travel was usually by river and canal inland. There's a reason they built canals instead of roads. I think writers have a reluctance to get into what looks like a complicated business of terminology, but if your characters are just passengers, they'll talk about the front and back of the boat, and its sides, however much this amuses or disgusts the ship's crew. (I have a whole page of book suggestions on boats and ships powered by muscle or wind.)
  • Posts and other communication. You could get a private letter carried in official bags for the right bribe in the Byzantine Empire, but how do you get a letter to Rome when you're in Roman Egypt? Most societies didn't have a postal system. At what point may your characters have phones to use (things with cords and wires, OMG), or telegraphs? Don't assume: check. Telegraph wires may not have reached that area, even if the thing has been invented and set up in major cities.
  • Treatment of minorities or oppressed majorities: There's a reason we're still fighting for civil rights for various groups. Don't forget: heretics in the Byzantine or Holy Roman Empire were putting their consciences ahead of their lives. You may find Jews are not allowed to live in certain areas for centuries at a time, or only under great debility, and with no protection of the law. Cross-dressing is a crime in certain times and places, as is "indecent dress," so, no, your London Victorian heroine is not going to go to town in trousers or a corset worn outside unless she's courting jail time. France is different: the Catholic Church always allowed women to wear men's clothes if their work made women's clothes dangerous or indecent, so a Second Empire painteress could wear a suit and top hat to the horse markets to sketch -- but not necessarily in the Bois de Boulogne just for the fun and shock of it. And so on.

The remaining specialty books will depend on where and when you are, and what you want to cover. One can no longer assume that a novel isn't going to be set in Asia or Africa, which means very little connection to the rest of the world until the last few centuries.

If you decide you want falconry as an activity, that will probably take a book on the natural history of falcons and one on falconry today, and hunting up a book on falconry then, if it can be found. You may have to settle for Victorian falconry.

Many topics will expand for you. You have read the introductory books, and now you want a deeper understanding of the areas most relevant to your story, so you need a more advanced or detailed book. As examples I can give you those I compiled for some of my own projects, or that I got from some friends. In some topics I jump in deeper at the start because of, say, my familiarity with historical costume because of my decades as a costumer or my huge collection (and use) of historical cookbooks. If I know I'm going to the Victorian period, I can start with Victorian reference I have in the house. I don't have to look up whether or not I want the Victorian era, only which part. You may not have to check anything but maker names on period firearms, or you already know the exact terrain of pre-Columbian trade trails, or whatever your particular background is. (Still, notice that some bibliographies I collected only to find out I did want a different decade.)

After collecting for many years with an historian husband, I have a better history library than some small towns or branch libraries, which tend to specialize in how-to, self-help, best-selling novels, and celebrity biography (like the one a few blocks away from me that I have been in exactly once, it was so thin on what I consider useful). However, any library may have gems you'll never see elsewhere. I found a few great things in the 20 x 30 library at the USCG's Yorktown ResTraCen. A branch library only thrice that size at the closest high school was two-thirds YA, but had a book, Regency Boximania, I've never found since, as well as a subscription to British History Illustrated. If some of mine seem peculiar or old, it's just that those were the ones I bought, and one rarely replaces something that still nicely covers what later books rehash. I need that money for books on areas I haven't got covered! So you see me listing Boucher as my general costume reference because, with that, I don't need to buy Davenport or most others. Boucher covers the very ancient and the Near Eastern, as well as the Classical, when most others only start at 1066 and never move east of the Rhine. After Boucher, I'm looking for a specific time and place.

If you need your basics on watercraft, try A Little List for Lubbers that I put together for a specfi writing group. I have also built a guide to pages for those of you sharp enough to realize that worlds that are steampunk, dieselpunk, medivalesque, &c start best with some historical background, if only to understand how horses, let alone steam engines, work.

The rise of the Internet "libraries" of public-domain books has been marvelous. The original is Project Gutenberg where everything is proofed and formatted and proofed again so you can really read it. This is the very best source. They generally have all the popular formats, including ePub and Kindle/Mobi.

Automatic text from PDFs is often garbage, sometimes for pages, so pick up the PDFs themselves if you can at the Internet Archive (home of the Wayback Machine, too). They do coordinate from many sources, like PG and the Library of Congress. Not all books are in all formats. Some are only in Deja Vu, which I have not found anyone to be able to run on any machine or ops system.

GoogleBooks mixes free books with pay-for versions of the same public domain text. Look only for those that are "full view" to stick to the freebies. On the other hand, some of the ebooks and tree books here are excellent new research, and you should check them out to see if they are worth the cost.

If you have an ebook reader, check your usual store. I'm on Kindle, and is slowly posting a great deal from PG. This means if you download their (free) version, it will be in your archive for later reference even if you take it off your Kindle. I have no idea how the others work.

 Be warned: the ebook formats of old books on all services except those deriving from Project Gutenberg are more or less hash because they're based on the robot-text OCR version without any proof-reading.

As the last person in the original group with a surviving interest, I am now hosting Historical Novelist's Center, whose unsorted lists may give you specialty books you need. I will add and update links as I can.

Are you researching for "historicalized" fantasy or science fiction? You know, steampunk, dieselpunk, medievalesque. Here's an index for you.


copyright Holly Ingraham



You might enjoy comparing the choices made in my lists between periods you might consider similar. For example, two are both "medieval," but you can see how the books differ because they're nearly 300 years apart, and in two different ends of the Mediterranean. Consider the difference between these and the early Viking list, only 250 years earlier. 1630 France and a French-raised girl in the 1670 Caribbean fall on two sides of a great cultural divide. Two early 19th century Late Georgian lists are only 14 years apart, in the same city and level of society, but I can assure you that there are distinct differences in what you do with your week.

50 Books for:

The Peloponnese, 396 BC 

 Early Viking, c. 850

The First Crusade, Outre-Mer 1098 

 The Hundred Years War, France1352

Richelieuan France, 1630

Pirate Caribbean, 1670 

 Napoleonic London Highlife 1803

Regency London Highlife 1817

Mexico, 1846-8

London Low-Life 1870

 Gilded Age New York 1898


As well, the near-historical (at present, 1920s forward) provides its own problems. It may all be something before your time, but some people lived it who are still buying books, and others just spent a lot of time with Granma and her stories. Mostly, though, there are few cooked-down sources but piles of raw primary data.

Check the Near History sample guides. There's more to read, but mostly lighter stuff, as well as lots more in video. A few appropriate movies from a year are much easier to get through than a detail biography of a president and will tell you more about ordinary life.

For those of you who come here during October, NaNoPrepMo, I now have an article on how to research historical fiction about as fast as possible -- but you still need most of the month!

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