Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Sources for Anywhere and Nowhere

Discussion on finding research sources for military history, history of technology, castles, ruins, and ships. While the Internet has become a valuable research resource, there’s nothing like being there and touching the bones.

1. Living in the history

2. Books and used bookstores

3. Who’s online?

4. Museums, Re-enactments and battlefields

5. Techniques, sharing sites, and questions

2. Books and used bookstores

I found a couple of prize military research books in a used bookstore in Exeter, Devon. The older is “Manual of Field Engineering” 1911, the other is “Field Service Pocket Book” 1914. Both published by the British Army of that era for their officers in the field.

In “The Wildcat’s Victory”, Gisel needed to get two of her squadrons of light cavalry across an unfordable river, The answer was in the field engineering manual, item 81. Tackle for Swimming Horses. An officer and 35 men are sent across the river by commandeered small boats. There they help deploy a continuous rope over pulleys on two posts they plant solidly in the ground, while the main party constructs the same on their side. Horses take their turn, tied to the rope at intervals of about ten yards with head collars and head ropes. When the continuous rope is pulled around the posts (by manpower) the animals are driven singly into the water, which obliges them to swim across. When they reach the other side, men are waiting release them from the rope and lead them away. I figured at a rate of one horse a minute, Gisel’s squadrons could get all their animals across in a little over four hours.

Once I even used the handbook’s calculations for constructing timber bridges in the field to determine if an old logging bridge was safe to carry three tracked drills weighing 15 tons each across a river. It was; nobody fell in the river. The Field Service book is invaluable for determining times of march, ration scales, camp cooking and fuel and forage for my characters on journeys or campaigns—although I often supplement it with a book on “The Imperial Roman Army” I’ve owned for years.

It took me visits to a number of used bookstores to finish my collection of “Weapons and Warfare” a set of 24 encyclopaedias, out of print since 1980, that cover almost everything a writer wants to know about the ships, tanks, planes, rifles, guns and what have you from the 20th century. I bought a book called “The Medieval Fortress” from the Military History Book Club ( a good source if you have shelf space for all the tempting books) but a couple of used books, library discards, “The Palaces of Medieval England” and “Castles from the Air” filled in some of the blanks in the coverage.
What about non-warlike research? When I ran steam plant I had to take qualifying exams, and I still keep the course material to hand to fill in the inevitable memory blanks. A visit to a liquidation store supplied me with a copy of “Jane Austen; A Family History” that is well thumbed now I’m venturing into writing about Regency times. Of course having the collection of contemporary classic novel reprints that my Mother collected (another book club) are also a valuable resource. When we had a good choice of smaller bookstore chains a few years ago I often visited one to pick up their used university textbooks, and still refer often to an old copy of “European Economic History” to check on credible figures to use for coinage, rates of exchange at different periods, the growth of cities, etc for my alternate history novels. Then there are the two physics texts, the chemistry, biology and economics books I use for reference...not to earn an academic qualification I must point out, but to be able to write fiction with credible backgrounds.

I’m sure your interests have governed the kind of material you have collected. While the topics you want to collect will be different than mine, the principle holds true. Your life experience and books you have collected will inevitably channel your writing into certain genres. Look out for the regular library discard sales and snap up anything that seems remotely connected to something you may write; visit used bookstores regularly to see what they’ve recently acquired—talk to the owners and let them know your interests. While I’ve never gone to estate auctions, my Mother used to haunt them and I still have copies of books from earlier years that she picked up for a few pence. How about “Memoirs of the Crusades”, including the Villehardouin translation from the thirteenth century and the de Joinville one of the fourteenth? I’ve also got a copy of “Conquest of Peru”, a mid 19th century reprint by Prescott.

What prizes have you found in bookstores? What other sources of research books would you recommend? So, don’t hang back, start collecting the books that will give you a more solid grounding in the kinds of fiction you want to write. Note that I said fiction—for non-fiction you must be completely up to date and that requires more academic expertise than most fiction writers want to jump into. For that level of research you need to have a friend or two in the academic field, and guess what—I have one of those too, as long as I don’t waste too much of her time. That suggests another source of research that I’ll mention next time.

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