You know me – I’m all over the place with my interests. And yet I am not. All my interests overlap so that the sum is greater than the parts.
The British Newspaper Archive is something that I have held membership of for a few years now. And I love it. I use it for a number of my interests. This article will address two of those, namely writing and genealogy.
Suspension of disbelief is one of those catch phrases that new writers continuously stumble across in course of learning the craft. The idea is to create an experience so real that the readers/viewers get caught up in it and forget that much of what they are reading/viewing is make-believe. I’m including the term “viewing” because this applies to screen writers too. I mean, if you were reading a book set in medieval Scotland or watching a film set in ancient Rome and a character made some coffee in a modern clear glass and plastic plunger while discussing a battle, this would grate a bit. It would drag you out from the story and make you go “Huh!”
Getting details correct is important. The British Newspaper Archive is a great source of accurate details for writers looking to write stories about the last two centuries (maybe even a bit beyond).
Firstly, it has news stories about major and minor events. Say, for example, that you are writing a story set in Victorian London. Maybe imagine that it’s the ultimate Jack the Ripper story (um… OK… that’s novel). A quick Google search can tell you a whole range of basic details about good old Jack. Wikipedia (source of all knowledge) tells us that there were eleven murders stretching from 3 April 1888 to 13 February 1891. BUT it also says that the last canonical murder (definite Ripper murder) was Mary Jane Kelly, who was killed 9 November 1888. How can we make a clever twist? What if we make Jack hand over the murders to an apprentice while he skips town.
OK. So we check the possible suspects and identify a misogynistic lancer named Dick Austen. Hmmmm. Could we play with that idea. Let’s use the archives to find out about his troop. So he was a member of the 5th Lancers and voila! A bit of searching the archives and I find that the 5th Lancers left for India on 21 November 1888 – 12 days after the final canonical killing. It also says that they travelled aboard the HMS Euphrates. Maybe I could change the story to being some sort of on-board ship murder and get some other soldier to first be accused and then solve it, ending with the traditional struggle and falling overboard?
So there. The archive can provide information about events to use in our novel.
But wait, there is more: the whole suspension of disbelief thing. The other great thing about the archive is that it is full of advertisements. Just like today’s newspapers, these papers made a living from selling space to those who could pay. So let’s say that our hero is an army surgeon. So I need to know about Victorian medical practices – maybe topics of discussion. I go to the archive and do a search on blood (why not?), filtering by the tag “Advertisements & Notices”. I look at a few pages and find this:
Can you imagine that! The troops leaving a London terrified by Jack the Ripper and suddenly this surgeon is enthusiastically discussing this “Blood mixture”. No wonder everyone suspects him as the culprit, and he is too caught up in himself to realise that he is making himself look bad.
Note that I have no intentions of writing such a tale, but I did want to demonstrate the ease of using the archive to find out all sorts of facts, ideas and even commonplace products. So any of you historical writers out there, or even fantasy and steam-punk writers, take a look at the archives.
Genealogy (if you have British ancestry)
Truth be told, genealogy is how I first discovered the British Newspaper Archive. I’ve been into genealogy since I was a teenager. My very first use of the internet was for genealogy. I mean BEFORE Mosaic and the world wide web. Back at the very end of the 1980s, when the internet was text-based. I was lucky then because I worked for a University, so I had access to their network.
Reminiscing aside, I like the British Newspaper Archive because it fleshes out my ancestors. I mean, with most genealogical sites and programs you get information like births, deaths and marriages. You get parents and children. Perhaps you get census data that tells you that they were a shoemaker born in a particular town. It’s all very antiseptic. I want to know more. I want to know something about who they really were. The British Newspaper Archive with its trillions and billions and zillions of stories (OK – deliberate exaggeration, but there are quite a few stories) will help you with that (assuming that you have British ancestry).
So far the Archive has revealed a great wealth of stories about my family. I discovered that my maternal grandfather once left a horse and cart obstructing a street while installing some electric cables in Cambridge. He ended up in court. Another of my ancestors won lots of flower contests in Suffolk and was also known as a bell-ringer. And there were a whole lot more. One that really impressed me was that one of my paternal ancestors solved a major murder back in 1837. I discovered this while looking at the obituary of my great grandfather’s brother (which appeared in one newspaper). It mentions his own grandfather as solving the Hannah Mansfield murder case. So I did some searching and found a fair bit. Here is one clipping:
Another article talks about John Long acquiring an immense amount of evidence and using the chain of evidence and all that. Wow! So I am getting the idea of a very methodical and intelligent man.
I honestly think that the British Newspaper Archive is a great tool. If you think that it can be useful to you, then I encourage you to purchase a membership and use it.
Thanks for reading