Newspapers can be a valuable research tool. While I’m writing the following from the viewpoint of a historical writer, most of the tips can apply for those who create contemporary stories.
Over the past few years, libraries, historical societies, and archives from thirty-seven states and the District of Columbia
have contributed to a partnership between the National
Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress to form a national
database that makes historic newspapers public. That database can be found on
the Chronicling America website.
|Image Courtesy of Grafixar at morguefile.com|
Since these organizations submit digitized issues to Chronicling America, not all newspapers are listed on the site. The available dates range from 1836 to 1922, though there are search mechanisms for finding additional papers in various archives. Search by date or keyword.
To illustrate some tidbits of what you’ll find and reasons why searching newspapers will add authenticity and uniqueness to your story, I’ll use examples from one page of an actual newspaper found on Chronicling America: The Madisonian from Richmond, Kentucky, February 3, 1914.
- Story Ideas – Has your well run dry? Do you need something to stir your imagination? Try this headline: “Post Office Robbed at Crab Orchard.” Twelve hundred dollars in money and stamps were stolen from the post office after nitroglycerin was used to blow the safe. No one heard the explosions because the perpetrators used mail bags to muffle the sound. It was assumed the robbers got away on an early train. But what if the thieves didn’t blow the safe for the money? What if there was something in the post office they wanted or wanted to destroy, something incriminating, perhaps. Who? What? Why? When (it could happen today)? Historical and contemporary writers, are the creative juices flowing?
- Cultural/Social Attitudes – On Wednesday, Edward Baxter Perry gave a highly touted classical programme and lecture to a “large and cultured audience.” On Sunday, Dr. E. B. Barnes sermonized on “Marriage and Misery” at the Christian church and expressed his view that those who were miserable in their union should be allowed to divorce through the civil courts. The next week he would preach on “Marriage and Happiness.”
- Weather/Farming Reports – Unlike today, most early newspapers did not have an official section for weather reports and forecasted temperatures. However, sometimes we’re given an indication of the weather through a particular article. A small paragraph about the groundhog seeing his shadow advised people to look out for “squalls, bursted water pipes, and plumber’s bills.”
- Political News Both Local and National – Presidential executive orders have been in our news quite a bit in recent months. The Madisonian ran a paragraph stating that President Wilson signed an executive order for a permanent government for the Panama Canal Zone and gave the person he named as the first civil governor.
- Prices – A three-line tidbit advertised signs for sale through the newspaper. Available were “For Sale,” “For Rent,” and “Furnished Rooms for Rent.” Prices for the cards were ten and fifteen cents.
Here are some additional facts I’ve uncovered in the past while looking through old newspapers:·
- Railroad schedules that have come in handy when I want a character to travel from one location to another
- The yearly subscription cost of a newspaper
- Advertisements for various businesses and products (including the infamous patent medicines)
- Period names/Terms/Turns of Phrase
- Businesses of the day and some of the goods they carried, along with prices
- Jokes and humor of the period
- Parenting/Marriage Advice
Even if you’re writing a contemporary story, scour the newspapers in the vicinity of your setting for little tidbits that make your story come alive. It could be local businesses or products, parks, local government, etc.