I heard it in both research workshops I’ve attended at writers conferences: “Talk to your local reference librarian. They LOVE to answer questions and help you out; it’s what they’re trained to do.” I kept meaning to try it, but not following through. Last Thursday, I finally did.
For months I’ve been trying to find detailed information on dress of the 1910/1911 period when my novel is set. Resources seemed to abound for the Victorian era immediately preceding it, or the World War I and ‘20s time following it, but all my Googling produced rather scanty results.
A half hour or so with a reference librarian, and this delightfully quirky lady found me more material than I knew what to do with. Books, reference books, page after page of pictures (how had I never thought to search “Edwardian dress” in Google images?). It helped that she is in love with Edwardian fashion; she claims Victorian dress just doesn’t look good on her (oh, and also that she was born in 1592). I spent the rest of the afternoon poring over reference books—I couldn’t take them home with me, but I found myself starting to absorb the flavor of the period’s fashion, the styles and cuts, fabrics and colors, in a way I never had before. I am finding it is this soaking that is most helpful for getting the general feel of an era or culture—the specific details are essential, but all the details in the world don’t substitute for immersing in a sense of the overall picture. And the details are so much easier to summon when they are stored in your subconscious.
By the way, I quite like the dress of 1910/1911. Far less restrictive than the hoopskirts or bustles of Victorian days—corsets loosened and skirts rose to an astonishing ankle length—but still so pretty and feminine, don’t you think? Yes, I’m an old-fashioned girl. ☺
Needless to say, I am immensely grateful to this gracious librarian lady—who is not nearly as old as she claims to be—as well as to those wise writers who kept insisting on the value of reference librarians. They were right; she was tickled pink to have a reason to put her Masters in history to use. I had to finally hint that I thought I had enough to work with! She commented on how she loves finding someone who also loves history, giving me multiple high fives as she discovered that I too had developed my love of history through reading historical fiction…and that we share many favorite books: Little House on the Prairie, L.M. Montgomery’s books, Caddie Woodlawn.
Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson: go to reference librarians sooner rather than later. Now, I have a few questions still outstanding on historical tidbits surrounding my novel’s setting. I think my next step might be to email the librarians near Shiprock, New Mexico…