Researching methodologies: primary sources
I am in love with the ability to recall an out of print book free of charge! More than anything else, this has revolutionized research by and large for those of us who write in the civil war time frame.
Two good examples of this are Google Books and Project Gutenberg, even more so for Google since they improved their iPad app. I can now download my bookshelf to my device (it used to only read from an internet connection) and be able to treat the pdf files as a virtual book a la iBook with page turns, etc. Project Gutenberg offers a variety of book formats for any device. What the epub files offer me over Google Books is the ability to highlight and make notes via iBooks.
Though there are some limitations still with Google Books, i.e. inability to make notes or copy text, I’m greatly satisfied with where this technology has taken us. There’s a wealth of primary source material out there that has sat in special collections for decades (one or perhaps a handful of collections depending on the source) requiring travel, working with a curator to navigate the unique file systems, and limited time for study.
I would give a word of caution regarding primary source materials, especially like the ones that I’ve been using for my own particular brand of fiction. One needs to filter out the primary motives of the author. Some of my materials (see my research page) are regimental histories written decades after the war and primarily for the survivors and their families to recount their common experiences. These contain a certain lack of objectivity (not their primary purpose) and may at times contain objective opinions or one-sided information regarding a battle or a prominent figure. These should be used for gaining a flavor of the common experience of the regiment, how they saw what was happening around them, how the author saw it (regimental histories are written by single individuals), and data on where the regiment was at any given time in the narrative. Sometimes this information can be had from other sources, but the regimental history can be relied upon for accuracy for dates and actions engaged in.
War of the Rebellion Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies
One favorite of mine is the Official Records of the Rebellion, a copious collection of orders of battle, field reports, correspondence, and battle reports. Not everything can be found, but one can usually find individual regiments mentioned in brigade and division reports to clarify what a unit was doing on any given date. The same can be said for normal daily operations. What I like about tracking down where a regiment was is you usually get some little snippet of anecdotal data that can only add to the narrative of your story. I like fleshing these out, placing my characters in the regiment and then building a framework of the historical record, adding scenery, characters, emotion, and conversation to build a story around the story. This is one of the best resources for this data I’ve found. These are as close as you can come to real narrative data to the events as they are often real time records.
Personal Recollections of a Cavalryman With Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade in the Civil War
The second, as I’ve already alluded to above, is the regimental history. Written from a designated point of view using collected reports from its time in the war, the regimental historian builds a dialogue, sometimes first person, recounting what he and the regiment experienced. The hard marches, the battles, the politics of army life, and the synopsis of the experience that comes with time, these are the real trademark of the historian. These histories also help fill a void in building the narrative based on recorded fact. They add that flavor of tension at times, recalling events that loomed large with the regiment and giving the story arch needed to place action with fact. It does not do to have a regiment in a battle but in the wrong place (Chamberlain’s 20th Maine behind the stone wall on the third day in the Movie Gettysburg, anyone?) doing things that it never had opportunity to do because it was somewhere else. These experiences built the character of the regiment and I like using that in my novels to not only be factually accurate but to pay tribute to those men now long gone. Having this sense of commitment is important, in my opinion, to the historical fiction novelist as fact is often more entertaining than fiction.