Let’s start with a simple proposition: there is no one right way to do historical research.
Then again, there are a lot of wrong ways. But I’m not here to talk about those (at least not today). If you want to discuss wrong ways, chat up just about anyone who teaches history courses.
One thing about doing history research is that it’s highly idiosyncratic, or peculiar to each individual person. In short, how you research–your choices of where to search (assuming you have choices), how to search, and how you navigate results–will all affect what you find.
There are a lot of good books and websites out there on how to do historical research. I’m not here to replace them. Rather, I’m here to talk about some of the ways I go about finding relevant material when writing historical fantasy (i.e. this is not necessarily how I go about doing research when I’m working on a scholarly history project).
Most of my fiction historical research falls into one of two categories: fact or ambiance. By ambiance, I mean general information and overall circumstances shaping the specific times and places in which I’m interested.
When I’m looking for ambiance, I tend to head for my local academic library catalog (I work at a university, which helps!). I prefer physical books when I can get them for a variety of reasons which include finding it easier to flip back-and-forth among them. I’ll use e-books when that’s all that’s available. I do check for articles in journals as well, but I tend to go for books first.
Since I’m searching a catalog for books, I go wide. I tend to start with a keyword search — this means generally combining a geography term (such as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, United States, Mexico) with a broad chronological term (such as nineteenth-century) and maybe a topic (such as women or race or transportation) and see what I get. Catalogs tend to return results in “relevance” order, but I usually change this to most recent first. Whenever I find a book which seems of interest, I plumb subject headings (those are the terms a cataloger somewhere, often at the Library of Congress, decided describe a book’s overall contents). Clicking on subject headings and navigating them is a good way to find other books on the same subject. And, of course, when I actually go retrieve the books from the shelves, I take a look at what’s nearby.
Ambiance reading helps me learn about who was present in a given place at a given time, what kinds of things they were doing, what kinds of things they resisted doing, and all manner of story ideas and background. Usually these are scholarly or popular history books–secondary or tertiary research (i.e. someone who wasn’t there writing up an account based on documents of people who were).
When I’m looking for facts, on the other hand, I’m usually looking for very specific information. For example, “Drinking Unhappiness” is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. I wanted to know, as much as possible, what that experience would be like for someone in the 1850s–sights, smells, sounds, activities. Any detail that might help recreate the experience. As it happens, I did find a secondary history book which provided a lot of good information–but primary sources (diaries, journals) can also be of a lot of help. And sometimes when I’m searching for facts, the best thing to do is hop on a good search engine and see if anyone has put up a reliable website with the kind of information I’m looking for (I found a lot of good material on 19th century Chicago in the online encyclopedia).
Of course, this is a very down-and-dirty summary of my research practices–but since I’m writing historical fantasy I thought someone somewhere might find it of interest. I keep bibliographies for the Twisting world and the stories set in it, and will add them to my website as I go along. Just in case . . .