Sunday, May 27, 2012

Helpful Research Tips

 Please Join me in welcoming our second Guest Writer, Craig Schmidt

This a few helpful research hints for you gentlemen that are just starting out. The hardest thing to get, surprisingly enough, is where to start. Who are you? Where are you from? What time period? What profession? All these things will dictate your dress, and accoutrements.
For example, my area of “expertise” is Colonial and Republic era Texas (c. 1821 – 1845). I usually portray a ranger or Republic era dragoon. What makes this a challenge is that the history is so intertwined with legend and myth that finding the truth is a hard thing. But the basics are fairly easy. Fashion of the time is well documented and easy enough to reproduce. But a few notes of caution.
Be sure you know the usage of terms. Many word definitions today do not reflect what they mean it the late 18th or 19th centuries. For example, my first flintlock was a Jaeger rifle. I had seen where a list of stores requested by the Consultation for the People’s Army included Yager (Jaeger) rifles. So I assumed that this was the short German style rifle used by German Jaegers (Scouts/light infantry, literally hunters.). Later in my research I found that this reference was most likely in regard to the M1803 Harper’s Ferry Rifle, or even the M1817 Common Rifle. Just as a reference to a “biscuit” is not necessarily the light fluffy breakfast food, but depending on the usage could be hardtack (aka sea biscuit).
Also, spelling can be tricky. Especially in firsthand accounts (Journals, diaries and the such.) spelling is often phonetic, and sometimes the same word is spelled differently in the same sentence. Names also suffer from this same affliction. So what you think might be references to two different people, are, in fact, referencing one person.
The other maddening thing about using firsthand accounts is that usually there is only detail about the unusual. The common place is just that and there is no need to detail the common as everyone knows it.
Let’s consider sources for a bit. It’s tempting to use the internet exclusively. The internet is convenient, but there’s no substitution for good old fashioned book work. My personal library for specifically Texas pre-state history has a rough total of between twenty and thirty volumes. And it continues to grow.
Whenever possible, firsthand accounts are the best material for really getting a view on the attitudes of the time. As well as an insight into speech patterns
It’s not necessary to buy books like a wild thing. The public library is a perfectly fine resource. I just like to be able to access my references whenever I want. Amazon, Alibris and Powell’s are my friends… And don’t forget periodicals!

Another word on books/articles etc., always check the bibliography. It’s a treasure-trove of new sources and could possibly lead to a nugget that could easily be overlooked. Which explains why my bookshelves are overflowing currently…
Somewhere along the line in your research you’ll run across some really neat accoutrement, or article of clothing that you really like. But you need to be able to justify why your persona would have such an item, or article of clothing. Just because something exists at the time period doesn’t necessarily mean it was available to you where you’re located.
Using me as an example, as a ranger in Colonial/Republic Texas I probably would not have leggings in the style of the northeastern tribes (A recent immigrant might… But I usually portray a person that has been in country for a while.). It is more likely that I would be wearing Mexican style botas. See the picture of the Soldado de cuera below.
Photo courtesy of Armas y armaduras en Espania
Likewise a large clip-point Bowie, while I personally love them, wouldn’t be quite appropriate for an early Texian Anglo. I use an eight inch “Longhunter” knife, or a ten inch Spanish/Mexican Belduque.
Top to Bottom: Mid to late 19th Century Bowie, Spanish/Mexican Belduque, “Longhunter” Knife (Photo: Craig Schmidt, C. Schmidt Collection)
While all three are similar, the correct blade can make the difference between an O.K. impression and a stunning impression.
I hope that this helps somewhat. There are many other pitfalls, and cautions, but you need to take the first step. Make your decisions on your era, and profession, and go from there.
Happy hunting, um… researching!

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