By Christina Rich
What was the last thing you wrote? A blog post, a magazine article, an auto-biography, a short story? It doesn’t matter what kind of project you’re involved in you either have or will be doing some sort of research. Yes, even for that auto-biography, unless of course you can remember the exact time and year certain events happened in your life. If you’re like me, that’s not the case.
Some research can be done with just a few words typed into Google or bing, especially if you’re doing a general search for a specific day and time. For example, I can remember where I was and what I was doing when the Space Shuttle Challenger happened, but without looking it up I wouldn’t be able to tell you the exact time and year. A quick search tells me it was January 28, 1986 at 11:39 a.m. I was in the high school library watching it on television with the rest of one of my classes. I remember all sorts of details, ones that I will never forget, and now thanks to good old Google I’ll be able to recall the date and time if I should ever forget. But something Google won’t tell me is a list of the 114 semi-finalists, one who had been my middle school pre-Algebra teacher, which means I’d most likely have to check the microfilm files at our local library.
Although the Internet is a great resource and makes researching so much easier than it was even ten years ago, the fact is you can’t always trust the information you find. Of course the same can be said about biographical books. Just because it’s in print doesn’t make it true that is why my first go-to, if available, is always a primary resource, that is a first hand account.
I write Biblical Romance and 19th century Kansas set romances. Researching for the Biblical romances is a bit harder than the ones I write in Kansas. As much as possible I try to use the King James Bible as well as a Jewish Study Bible. I also dig through archaeology articles, websites and universities who focus their studies in the Mediterranean and Middle East. I also research poets and historians of the era.
As for Kansas I’ve found a great site, called KanColl that has a compilation of digital resources of diaries, letters and books written by folks who experienced Kansas during her early years.
Look at this excerpt from a diary of a teenager in 1870.
Tuesday, February 28 – In the morning we all started for New York bag and baggage. When we got there all the girls got into the horse cars and rode up to 8th Avenue. The girls got their pictures taken. Then we went back to the Astor House and stayed until night when Aunt Abbie, Lamartine, Viola, and Genelia wentback to Staten Island and the rest of us went over to Jersey City on the boat and took the cars for Kansas. We had a car to ourselves.
Wednesday, March 1 – I was sick of riding in the cars this morning. I vomited on my handkerchief. We stopped at Harrisburg three hours. We girls all took a walk. We crossed the river before noon, then rode nearly all day by the Juniata River and past the Blue Ridge mountains and through the Alleghenys. We passed through two tunnels — one a mile long.
Thursday, March 2 – Pleasant our of the cars but not inside them. It is so smoky and dusty. . . . I do not eat more than a spoonful of victuals a day, and that does not taste good. The cars stop quite often.
Friday, March 3 – Every day is the same, only each is more tiresome than the last.
Saturday, March 4 – Uncle Ephraim and Gena stopped at Junction City. We got to Solomon City about 7 a.m., washed up, and had breakfast. We had buffalo meat. We do not like it very well. Gena and Uncle Ephraim came at dark There are eight of us to sleep in one room. There are three beds in it.
Sunday, March 5 – The weather is just about perfect. We all took a long walk up the river this morning. Some people went to church this forenoon. We have been to see two or three dugouts. . . .
Wednesday, March 8 – There was quite a severe snow storm this afternoon. It makes it very muddy.
Thursday, March 9 – This afternoon we came about three miles from Solomon and put up the tent by a creek.  We built a campfire and made tea. Uncle Howard and Henry Everett each shot a rabbit. We are all to sleep on the ground. We all went to a store in Solomon City and were weighed. I weighed 106 lbs.
It may not seem like it says a lot, but to a fiction writer trying to make a realistic story it does. The first thing I noticed was how uncomplaining this young girl was. The other was the language; cars (horse and train), pictures, victuals and dugouts. I also noticed that they had their pictures taken before they left, they traveled through tunnels, the pollution inside the cars, the sickness while riding, the taste of unfamiliar buffalo, the fact that once they arrived in Solomon City they were weighed.
I have discovered many things reading diaries. I’ve also discovered that, if need be, they used the stars to find their way at night. One of the first settled towns has streets named after the founders’ wives. And one of my favorite finds– Rattlesnakes were very common all over Kansas and there were several remedies for snake bites, including killing a chicken, splitting it’s breast and placing it on the wound to draw out the venom.
These diaries aren’t just filled with great information but are entertaining, and can be addicting as well.
What are some of your favorite primary sources?