When I was first a glowy-eyed new writer (back in cave days, when I did not have my own internet connection - heck, my first novels were written long hand and transcribed on a typewriter by a better typist than I) I didn't really think about research as I sat down to write my first Regency romance. After all, I'd read every Jane Austen book there was... many times over. Also, I'd read hundreds of Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley and Mary Jo Putney novels. (Among other fabulous Regency writers) That was enough, right?
Well, I rapidly found out it wasn't that easy. When my hero went to light a candle, how did he do it? With a match? When were matches invented?
And that lord... is he a marquess, an earl, a viscount? What would others call him? Who would be introduced first, a lady to a lord or vice versa? I made a whopper of a mistake in titling my first book, Lord St. Claire's Angel, as it was kindly pointed out to me by a knowledgeable reviewer (who liked the book anyway) that the hero would not be called Lord. St. Claire at all. Yikes. If only there had been some way to quickly look up that kind of thing!
A writer needs endless information... my Regency-era heroine is getting undressed as she thinks about the kiss she shared with the hero just moments before... but wait... she'd need help getting undressed, wouldn't she? So her maid would have to be there. But wait... should there be a long row of buttons down the back of her gown, or... not a zipper, certainly - even I know that wasn't invented until... when exactly? Oh, never mind! - but buttons or hooks and eyes? Oh, heck, I needed research, and I needed it to be quick and thorough.
Back then, when I finally did get the internet, dial-up was slow and expensive. Reeeally slow. Achingly slow. Go-get-yourself-a-cup-of-java-while-the-website-loads, slow. And we were limited on our plan to how many hours a day we could use it.
Thank the writing gods for dls highspeed. I don't ever want to go back to pre-internet for research because it was slow, difficult and frustrating. There were a few helpful books that I still have on my bookshelf: The Writer's guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. But sometimes in those books I ended up with as many questions as I started, just new ones! A writer needs much more precise information than any book will be able to give in its limited number of pages.
However... as great as the internet is, there are pitfalls galore for the unwary writer to fall into if they don't watch where they step.
For instance... for my third 'Awaiting' book and my third Lady Anne book (something about those third books!) I needed Gypsy lore, language and customs. Then I found a great site for Gypsy language, everything I needed to know. I started making a list of words that... wait... oh. Hmmm. It appeared that the site I was so excited about that provided an extensive list of Gypsy language really pertained to the Gypsies in a video game. Dang.
What has helped me immeasurably in my research for novels and in every other aspect of my dealings on the internet is maintaining a skeptical mind and requiring at least three sources for every bit of unusual information I find. That isn't always easy to do when I find a juicy bit of info that sparks my interest, but I hate looking like a fool. It's the same when someone sends me one of those hideously ridiculous 'email alerts'. You know the ones, the story going 'round about the vicious criminal that is cutting women off at the ankles as they gas up their cars, or that certain cleaning products are lethal to your pets, or the tale 'told to me by a friend who actually witnessed this' that ends up being a lame retelling of an internet urban legend.
Don't try to get me on those, because I delight in exploding internet myths.
But that's far afield from research. Ultimately, researching novels on the internet is like anything else in life, it requires a healthy dose of intelligent skepticism, diligence, and thoughtfulness.
A few of the best sites I have found and use over and over again are:
Wikipedia: I know, I know, it's open source, anyone can edit the entries, (I've edited entries for spelling and mistakes myself) there are lots of mistakes yada yada yada. However... as a starting point there is no better spot.
Victoriana - Despite what the name of the site would seem to indicate, this site also is a great resource for Regency fashion.
The Regency Collection - What Anne Woodley has done is amazing... this is a great resource for postal history, inventions, writing and life in general in the Regency era. Stupendous.
So... I'm always open to new sites, new interesting places; I spend far too much time on the internet, as you can tell, but I'm ready to spend more time! Do you have any historical research sites of interest? Any place you go on the internet for reliable info? Any place that's just fun and interesting? Clue me in!