Four useful websites for the historical novelist (not including Wikipedia)

by Jude Starling

Don’t get me wrong – like virtually everyone else with an internet connection I’m a big fan of Wikipedia in general, and I use it a lot to answer simple history-based questions that come up in the course of my work (when a building was constructed; when a certain law was passed and/or came into effect; how contemporary fashions generally looked at a particular time etc.), and as a starting point to lead me to more specific and detailed sources of information. There are also some excellent websites and blogs dealing exclusively with specific eras (being largely Victorian-focused, two that come to mind for me are The Victorian Web and Victorian Gothic), but there are some less obvious resources too which are worth considering. Here are four I refer to regularly, all of them free to use:

Online Etymology Dictionary
Applicable to/from: the English-speaking world; timescale is broad.
You want to use a particular word, but aren’t sure whether it was in use at the time and/or place (before the advent of the Hollywood film industry, Americanisms didn’t travel anywhere near as far or fast) in which your story is set. This site doesn’t always recognise some of the more obscure British slang terms, but generally speaking it’s good for avoiding most linguistic anachronisms.

Met Office Monthly Weather Report
Applicable to/from: Britain from 1884 onwards.
A recent discovery for me, this is good if you want to get an idea of the weather across Britain from 1884 to the present. Granted, it’s hardly the most heinous of authorial crimes to throw an atmospheric covering of snow at your characters when in fact the weather at the time was simply frosty (or that favourite of British weather patterns, rainy), but if the time in which your novel is set is covered in these archives, they add an extra level of historical detail and authenticity.

Applicable to/from: globally from 1 AD; some American bias (and a considerable Western bias) in the holidays listed.
The most obvious way to keep track of the progression of time throughout your story, this site allows the user to print off calendars for any year from 1 AD onwards. This is useful for tracking things such as pregnancies (and therefore avoiding any howlers such as women being pregnant for eleven months) and flagging up days such as Sundays and holidays which would have interfered with your historical characters’ ability to work, go shopping or travel on public transport. Religious holidays such as Easter would also have been more prominent events in the lives of many historical Westerners, who would be more or less expected to attend church on those days.

British Surnames 1881 Census
Applicable to: Britain; specifically 1881 but somewhat flexible.
Regional variations in surnames interest me quite a bit, and although such variations can still be found throughout the country today, with certain names being more common in particular cities or counties, the increased ease of travel within and between countries has diluted this somewhat. Characters in historical novels, though, would as a rule travel less and settle in or close to the same area in which they were brought up (especially if they were working class), and so the 1881 census, organised regionally (click the relevant county first and then through to the specific city you’re interested in), is helpful for giving an author an idea of the most common surnames in a particular area in the late Victorian era, and you can click through to see expanded lists as well.