What sites, libraries, or other organizations have strong, easy-to-browse collections of letters, diaries, and other primary sources that are great for authors doing research for historical fiction characters?

If you know of any specific libraries, archives, or websites to recommend (for instance, the Library of Congress and its website), please include them.

  • 2
    If you are a student or an Alumni of a (at least half decent post secondary school) you should have access to their library and research database which has various academic journals, biographical pieces and other resources that may help. I know I have used my Alumni access in the past. Not an answer - due to how many variables there are in something like this.
    – J Crosby
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 15:27

2 Answers 2


In my answer to your second question I propose literary writings as sources for historical "voice", so any larger public or university library should have a selection of what you need.

University libraries are public where I live, and I have used them since my late teens to find all the knowledge that I need. Universities usually have a historic and a literary department, so they collect literary works from ancient times onwards as well as editions of historic documents (laws, deeds, etc.). These are usually arranged by literary or historic period, which makes it easy to find a few shelves full of books written in the time that interests you.

If you need unpublished documents, you will have a hard time accessing them as a non-scholar. Documents such as letters by historic persons are collected in different places all over the world and not accessible from far away. So you have to travel to whichever library or other institutions holds whatever you may want to read. And since those documents are usually delicate and cannot be replaced, you will only be able to read them if you can produce some proof of a scholarly interest (e.g. a position at a research institution and a research project).

Sometimes, digitized versions of documents are available online. But I have found that I am usually unable to read handwriting from past times and have given up on accessing them, instead focussing on published editions (as explained in my other answer).

If you do want to search for documents from historic times, you'll need to persuse relevant bibliographies. Most universities offer free introductory courses in how to do research in specific scholarly fields such as history or literary studies. Some research tools are public, but many are only accessible from within institutions that pay for their use.

If you really want to write historic fiction, enroll in a university and study history or historic literature. I'm not joking. Many writers have studied historic fields or languages or ethnology. Knowledge is hard work and not just a Stack Exchange question away.


Here's a thing you need to consider, a frame challenge if you will.

When setting your story in the 1950s, or in the 1920s, or even in the 1800s, your characters can speak the way people spoke back then. In fact, we rather expect them to.

But if you set your novel in Shakespeare's time, and one uneducated street child tells another "thou art a boil, a plague sore" (King Lear Act 2, Scene 2), the readers would struggle with it. The thing is, back in Shakespeare's time, a child might indeed have used just these words. But to your modern reader, they are perceived as antiquated, and for that reason - high-brow.

What you want to recreate is not how a character of the given period would have sounded, but how he would have sounded to his contemporaries. Which would imply using language that is perceived as "normal", "vanilla" rather than period-specific.

But a character's "voice" is not just the language he uses. There are other elements - how he thinks of himself and of others, how he perceives the world around him, what his reference points are, what metaphors he would use. Relevant to this is not only the character's time period, but his position in society, level of education, his opinions (from within the range available in any given time and place).

To get an idea of those elements, you can look at literature written in the time period that interests you. You can look at scholarly works about that period, if you find something relevant. You can look at literature that was written slightly later, to see how that period looked at the previous one - what changed would emphasise what was before. From some time periods, there's published correspondence of famous figures. In later periods, there's newspapers and interviews. There's an ongoing effort to digitise those sources, which makes access easier. You might also find it useful to visit museum exhibitions: there's a lot objects can tell you about the people who used them - about what they deemed necessary, and therefore how they viewed the world.

As @B.L.E states, getting access to actual letters, diaries etc. would be extremely difficult: since those sources are very fragile, you'd need to attain permission to view each individual source, which is a complicated process even for accredited scholars who work in the field, much more so for someone coming from outside.

  • 1
    Yes, I think those primary sources could be valuable to all aspects of developing a character. I agree that voicing in dialogue should be a compromise to keep it accessible to a modern reader (in-story written communications could be much less so), but I have a strong interest in linguistics and want to know my target voice, even if I don't push my characters all the way to it. I think my profession would smooth the way to accessing archives, so that isn't a major concern apart from being able to make the trip.
    – wordsworth
    Commented Aug 7, 2019 at 13:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.