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I'm currently writing a story taking place in the recent past in which (aside from the main plot) my characters get to spend some time in a big city. They end up visiting the tourist joints but also visit some museums/concerts, go to the cinema etc. In my first draft, I've left all that terribly vague, and on rereading it's painfully obvious that I have no clue what kind of events they're supposed to be attending. Now obviously I could make something up, but I thought I'd try to incorporate real events instead.

I'm keeping this question deliberately vague as I'm not looking for specific suggestions, but merely some guidance on how to find the information I'm looking for. So let me rephrase my question to be more general:

How can I approach researching 21st century every-day cultural events (cinema, theatre, concerts, exhibitions) online?

Restrictions:

  • The place is fixed and is in another country, so I can't simply hop over to the local library.
  • However, it's a big city in a country with an official language I can speak/read. (I'm assuming that makes it easier to find relevant information.)
  • The exact time frame is still open for change but the story takes place over the span of a few months some time between 2000-2015. (In fact, I'm hoping that this research will help me nail down the time frame.)
  • Similarly, the venues and event types are similarly fluid.
  • While I've visited the city, I don't know it well enough to know which venues/events might be generally interesting beyond the obvious tourist targets.

FWIW, I've already made some progress on this research and may in fact end up posting an answer myself, but I'm interested in other people's suggestions.

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I don't know if it exists in your country, but as a graduate student in the USA, I once researched 3 years worth of newspaper headlines in four "national" papers (e.g. The New York Times), and I found those all in free online archives. My goal was different (looking for major news stories headlined in all four on the same day), but the idea is just to see if you can find (online) old newspapers for the days you have in question.

Any cultural events should have been advertised, either as a public service or by the organizers to get people there. Sometimes newspaper websites will let you find their headlines for a specific date (like your birthday).

If your characters are adventurous enough, they might go attend a free park concert, or a play in a local playhouse, or some band they never heard of that was advertised by a club. Perhaps a sporting event.

Look through a few weeks in the papers for some event, and you can either make their visit on that day, or take some liberty and relocate the event to a date you need; nobody is going to fact-check you. All you are interested in is the kind of events that city really has, it doesn't have to be a specific real-life event that happened.

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Nailing down the type of event you're looking for may help, just by defining what role you need it to play in the narrative. Do the characters need to be able to have a long conversation? Rock concert probably not an option, but a museum, art show, gallery or restaurant opening may be good. Larger cities also often have yearly events like film festivals that happen at around the same time every year, and you can ground it in the year by referencing the theme or other centrepiece of that year if necessary.

Slightly out of date guidebooks may be of help- some large cities release one every year, and your local library may have them or be able to get them on loan from another library depending on turnover. You can also change the settings on Google to show only results within a certain timeframe or before a certain date, so searching for events within the time period you're aiming for may also be helpful. Since it's a big city there will probably be listicles of fun or weird things to do in the city, and you can also search for concerts or major events in a given year in the city.

If you end up searching for something in a particular area of the city, just looking at maps or streetview to see what looks interesting may also be useful, since they're not updated constantly as far as I know. Looking through Instagram tags for the city or year may also be an option depending on what kind of timeframe you're looking at and how many tags there are.

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  • I like the idea of looking for outdated guidebooks. Usually, those are completely useless, but in this case, that would be exactly what I need. Thank you! – Llewellyn Nov 11 '19 at 18:05
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There are several problems here. I need to

  • narrow down the time frame
  • find out what events were available
  • details about these events (if available)

Step 1: Check Wikipedia to get a rough overview of the recent history of a) the country and b) (if available) the city. Often, major events are listed by year. Knowing the political (e.g. elections), social (e.g. protests) and general context (e.g. weather anomalies) may already help to narrow down the time frame.

In my case, I was lucky in that the article mentioned some annual events that I could then research further.

Step 2: Use a tourist guide (or similar) to learn about events that take place annually. Then search specifically for these events. If you're lucky, there's a dedicated website with an archive of programs/photos/articles. Otherwise, you might find newspaper articles about these events (though you'll have to search by year).

Step 3: In the same tourist guide (or similar), check for recommendations of (current) events. Ignore the events (unless annual, see above) but make a list of interesting venues. To get a wide range of venues, it helps to check several guides. All those "top 10 lists" of "best whatever" are really useful for this. Then, again, search for these venues to see if there's some kind of archive of past events.

Now you should have a sizable list of events per year. Some of these might already catch your interest and might lend themselves to the story. That should help narrow down the time line even further, possibly down to months, although by now there's a good chance of several conflicting options, too.

Step 4: Search for online newspaper archives of the interesting years/months. Scan the headlines for a) major events that might impact (or enhance) the story, and b) reviews of e.g. concerts, movies, performances etc. Add those to the list.

Step 5: At least for big-name movies, you can check Wikipedia again. I was able to find a list of movies by year along with their US release date. The release delay into other countries may differ, but that, too, can be researched to get a rough ballpark estimate of how many weeks/months of delay to expect. Finally, searching for specific movies (or their translated title) along with a keyword like "release date" or "review" might give more information about when a movie was released in a specific country.

Step 6: Do some further research into the events on your list. The results could either give some information on whether the characters might be interested in an event, or (if they go in blindly) their reaction to the same event.

Step 7: If available, check the weather archive for open air events.

Step 8: Review your list and choose whatever you need. If historical accuracy is not too important, you could shift events by a few days, weeks or even months, or otherwise adjust the events.

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