J. Kathleen Cheney — Historical Research



 Over the last few years I’ve had to do tons of historical research for my writing, quite a bit of it in foreign languages.  I’ve even spoken about this at the DFW Writer’s Conference.  I’ve had to wing a lot of it.  But we writers have one major advantage that didn’t exist twenty years ago. If you’re reading this, you’re looking right at it: The Internet.

(Now don’t dismiss the first line of attack, the public/university library system.  Via the public library system, I can get my hands on almost any book/DVD/map in the statewide system.  The library also has one thing the internet does not: Research Librarians.)

Even so, when looking only at the internet, there are several resources that might not occur to the newer writer.  Yes, there are search engines and via those you can find specialized web-pages that deal with your time period (always take a website with a grain of salt.)  People all over the world have slapped up sites covering their little niche of interest.  The one I’ve used most over the last few years? A site on the trams of Portugal that has maps of tramlines at various dates so I know which tram existed when, and whether it was electrified or mule-drawn.

Here are five internet sources that surprised me with their usefulness:

1) Facebook Groups

I wish I had discovered these far earlier. There are, amazingly, FB groups post photographs and paintings of my setting in my time period (Porto Desaparecido is my favorite.)  If you search in FB for your setting, you’re likely to find a fan somewhere is maintaining a FB page full of photos.  In my case, most of the text is in Portuguese, but between the machine translation offered on FB, my own feeble linguistic skills, and an amazing friend in Brazil, I’ve been able to decipher it. 

2) Google Maps/Earth/Street view

In older cities throughout the world, sections of the cities haven’t changed.  If your characters walked, like mine, along the twisty old streets of central Porto, you can pull up a map on Google, go to Street view, and see the buildings and cobblestones much as they were in the past.  (One must be cautious here because cities do change.)

3) Wikipedia as a portal

Now, say what you want about Wikipedia, it’s been a very useful tool for me. However, I often use it in a far different way than is normal, as a portal for foreign language research. If I search for a topic/place/name in English Wikipedia, I may not find much because I’m researching Portugal or Catalonia.  The trick is to glance over to the left sidebar and see whether the page exists in other languages.  (Example here: http://jkathleencheney.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/historical-fudgery-using-wikipedia-as-a-portal/) Often those foreign language Wiki pages have far more information. In addition, those pages have links to external web-pages about the same topic, which is an easier way to find them than trying a google search in a foreign tongue. 

4) Machine translation (backed up by a real person.)

Again, it’s a tool. I’ve you’ve ever read anything translated by machine, sometimes the translation is spot-on. More often it doesn’t make sense.  It takes a bit of practice to recognize whether you’re not getting a good translation or not.  I actually like the Bing translator, but the Google auto-translate on Chrome is also very nice (and faster).

5) Google Books/Project Gutenberg/JSTOR

If you’re researching a period prior to 1923, there’s a very good chance that books about your setting have been scanned up into Google Books or Project Gutenberg. JSTOR is now offering all academic journals in their database (written prior to 1923) free as well.  These are great resources.  (Also, if you’re considering purchasing an old book, you might be able to check it out first here for free before you shell out the money.

Now these aren’t the most common ways to use the internet to research. However, I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve used them over the last five years.  They may be unorthodox, but give them a try!


J. Kathleen Cheney is a former teacher and has taught mathematics ranging from 7th grade to Calculus, with a brief stint as a Gifted and Talented Specialist.  Her short fiction has been published in Jim Baen’s UniverseWriters of the Future, and Fantasy Magazine, among others, and her novella “Iron Shoes” was a 2010 Nebula Award Finalist.  Her novel, “The Golden City” is a Finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards (Best First Novel). 

The sequel, “The Seat of Magic” will be out July 1, 2014.

Social Media Links:
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/CheneyJKathleen  
Twitter: @jkcheney 
Website: www.jkathleencheney.com

The Seat of Magic (buy links) 
Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Seat-Magic-Novel-Golden/dp/0451417763

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-seat-of-magic-j-kathleen-cheney/1117229968?ean=9780451417763

Powell’s:  http://www.powells.com/biblio/62-9780451417763-0

BLURB  for The Seat of Magic

Magical beings have been banned from the Golden City for decades, though many live there in secret. Now humans and nonhumans alike are in danger as evil stalks the streets, growing more powerful with every kill….

It’s been two weeks since Oriana Paredes was banished from the Golden City. Police consultant Duilio Ferreira, who himself has a talent he must keep secret, can’t escape the feeling that, though she’s supposedly returned home to her people, Oriana is in danger.

Adding to Duilio’s concerns is a string of recent murders in the city. Three victims have already been found, each without a mark upon her body. When a selkie under his brother’s protection goes missing, Duilio fears the killer is also targeting nonhuman prey.

To protect Oriana and uncover the truth, Duilio will have to risk revealing his own identity, put his trust in some unlikely allies, and consult a rare and malevolent text known as The Seat of Magic….




8 comments to J. Kathleen Cheney — Historical Research

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Hello Kathleen, and thank you for this great list! The research aspects of writing historical, or even contemporary fantasy always sound *so* daunting, but there are just too many good story ideas in those categories to ignore them forever. This list is a great resource in itself that I’m really going to have to remember when the time comes to take that plunge!

  • “Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.”
    —Neil Gaiman

  • J. Kathleen Cheney

    @Wolf Yes, I think people have gotten away from using the library and librarians, but they can cut through all the clutter with ease!

    @Hepseba I agree. It can be really daunting, and no matter how hard you try, you are going to get things wrong….and usually not the things you thought you would! But we should still try anyway ;o)

  • […] the guest over at Magical Words today, talking about some of the weirder uses of the internet I’ve done for Historical […]

  • I love google translate! Research is often interesting in itself, but do you ever find it slows down your writing? I think I’m a little too easily side-tracked at times 😉

  • J. Kathleen Cheney

    @Aderyn Yes, Research is a deep rabbit hole. I try to be reasonable about things. My general rule is that if I can’t find it in an hour on the internet, then it’s probably obscure enough that I can fudge it. I bend the rule sometimes, but given that there’s about 9 month turnaround between books, I simply can’t chase rabbits for too long. I think as writers we just have to force ourselves to put it aside at times…

  • Mrs. Cheney, have you ever used a research assistant whether it be as general use or something specific?


  • J. Kathleen Cheney


    Sadly, no. I haven’t yet reached the stage where I make enough money to pay anyone out of pocket. I will, however, say that I’ve contacted research librarians before about little specific points. (For example, I was trying to find out whether gambling was allowed -in- Saratoga Spring’s hotels in 1909….I contacted the RL at their public library for that question!) So if using a research librarian’s skills count, then that’s an instance. ;o)

    Also, I can always ask around in a couple of my writers’ groups. A large group will always have a strange assortment of people who can answer all manner of questions. Usually if you pose a question to your fellow members, if they don’t know the answer itself, they can often steer you in the right direction.