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Creative Writing

Primary And Secondary Sources

One can spend a long time researching a particular time and place. The following suggestions come from a variety of sources.

  • Memoirs, literature written in your time period or contemporary historical fiction, old songs, sermons, out-of-print books, diaries and letters. These provide information on all elements: attitudes, language and idiom, household matters, material culture, everyday life, historical timelines, diversions, regulations, vehicles, travel, meals, manners and mannerisms, beliefs, morality and so on. Project Gutenberg and Fullbooks offer interesting selections of out-of-print books.
  • Make sure to cover primary sources. They provide details for a historical backdrop including wars, revolutions, major events, prominent people, and the news of the day. Find primary sources in libraries, archives, and online.
  • Secondary sources include non-fiction accounts, biographies, academic papers, interviews with historians and experts. These too add understanding to the world of the past.
  • Historical Blogs - Such as Colonial Quills and Heroes, Heroines, and History
  • Local sources, local historians and newspapers allow you to capture localities and neighbourhoods, to understand how much things cost, how long travel took, how international events affected local citizens, the things people worried and gossiped about, politics and scandals of the day.
  • Old maps situate the streets and buildings of your setting and help ensure accuracy in your story. Remember, a street or building from long ago may no longer exist. What was once a footpath may now be a major roadway.
  • Personal travel offers a feel for the landscape your characters inhabit. Such personal physical connection is compelling. If that’s not possible, guidebooks and tools like Google maps and Internet photo searches are virtual ways to travel.
  • Paintings give perspectives on clothing, class differentiation, social preoccupations, physical geography, architecture and other matters.
  • Financial accounts help you understand what things cost.
  • Transcripts of old court cases provide interesting ideas to enhance your plot, while also providing insights into the legal system and laws of the time.
  • Weather records enhance the accuracy of your story with details about floods, extremes of hot or cold, monster storms.
  • Museums, Archives and Universities are incredible sources of information and there are museums for just about anything. Even if you cannot personally visit a museum, some offer online exhibits, research papers, and search capabilities.
  • Military records and museums are a rich trove of details.
  • Newsreels are more relevant to historical fiction set in the 20th century.
  • Movies about historical figures and times are a wonderful way to see and hear history. Most are carefully researched and offer ideas on fashion, morality, diversions, travel, politics, war, and home life, as well as the sounds of chariots racing, cannons exploding, the guillotine dropping. Be sure to check their accuracy.
  • If you are writing about more recent times, vintage magazines, postcards, cookbooks, and brochures can also be useful. (Adapted from M.K. Tod's blog on Historical Fiction research)

Subject encyclopedias, timetables, handbooks and dictionaries - excellent sources to find background information on paintings, animals, costumes, etc. Furthermore, with a variety of subjects and excellent illustrations and photographs, encyclopedias may serve as inspiration.

Research tools in the Library:

Find a book - use Summon Search or Library Catalogue

Find a Journal Article - use Library databases, e.g. JSTOR, Project Muse, Academic Search Complete, Canadian Business and Current Affairs

Find a newspaper article - use Newsstream database

Find reputable website - use Google Advanced search. Search online collections in Museums, Archives, Libraries' digital collections, blogs, etc.

Research Databases in the Library:

The importance of image resources to creative writers cannot be overemphasized. Images can be used for visual reference and accuracy checks for countless settings, characters, and historical events. They can also be used for inspiration in much the same way as subject encyclopedias.

Library Databases

Web Sources


Library Film Databases

  • - Streaming video and audio content from CBC and Radio-Canada in both French and English.
  • Films on Demand
    • - Academic, career, and technical streaming videos. KPU's largest streaming video subscription.
  • National Film Board - Streaming videos from Canada's National Film Board (NFB).

Web Databases

  • Google Video - Searches other web video sources like YouTube and Vimeo.
  • IMDB (Internet Movie Database)  -This free database is good for identifying useful films (you can even search by plot - see Advanced search for more search options) as well as getting additional information (director, producer, cast, release date, etc.) that may help you buy or borrow a copy.
  • Music

Historical research

Research sources on historical periods, settings, styles of clothing, etc.

Period collections

  • American Memory from the Library of Congress - This web site is an online collection of "written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience."
  • The Victorian Web - "The Victorian Web, in contrast, presents its images and documents, including entire books, as nodes in a network of complex connections. In other words, it emphasizes the link rather than the search tool (though it has one) and presents information linked to other information rather than atomized and isolated" (from:
  • Shakespeare



General research:

Library Search Tools and Databases

Selected sources on Immigrant Experiences 

Writers' Resources

  • Cindy Vallar's Favorite Research Links - Thorough list of historical resources; topics include costume history, food and drink, the history of science, etc.
  • Infoplease Almanac - It won't provide information in great detail, but is good if you need to know what crops are grown in a country, the name of a city's pro basketball team, etc.
  • Prices and Wages by Decade - links directly to data tables in historic U. S. government documents showing wages for common occupations and retail prices for typical consumer purchases

Immigrant Experiences - tips on doing research

Library search tools and Databases


Selected sources