Sunday, 5 February 2017

Researching Old Newspapers
A few weeks ago, my writing buddy, Helen, invited me to accompany her on a visit to Bargoed Library to look at archived newspapers as part of some research for her novel. The library is housed in an old chapel and what struck me when we entered the building was how well they'd preserved the heritage of the place. Beautiful wooden panelling and high vaulted ceilings have been retained along with the organ pipes and even the organist's chair. In the basement, you will find the original altar and pews. Everything sits well against the modern colourful areas of a busy library.

The Theology Room
Bargoed Library is home to two microfilm readers that were provided as part of Newsplan 2000, a project funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Regional Newspaper Industry. The reels of micro film stored printed material from archived newspapers and journals. We were met by Steve Kings, Senior Library Assistant, who set up the machines for us and helped us load the film strips. Helen chose to look at The Merthyr Express, a local weekly newspaper in 1908 around the time when she has set her novel and I looked at those editions from the early months of 1947.

We noticed straight away that the language of the reporting was very different. It was narrative rather than journalistic and the vocabulary was quite 'flowery' and often formal. The text on the page was very dense, in a tiny font and would take considerable effort to read each article. For example, The prisoners were charged with that on the 15th December they did feloniously and burgulariously break and enter the dwellinghouse of one John Edwards, of No.20, Glancynon Terrace, Aberaman, and steal certain articles therefrom.

Each edition had news from the local regions and a regular gossip column. I thought readers may like to read this entry. An American whose wife presented him with twin daughters, decided to call them, Kate and Duplicate. Several years later twins were again born into the family - this time boys, who were duly named Peter and Repeater. When this pair were followed by a third, the father was not found unprepared. As they were boys also, he named them Max and Climax. The column was signed POLONIUS. I'll let you make your own mind up about this snippet of gossip!!

Helen's novel is a ghost story, involving a six year old child who died as a result of a traffic accident in 1906. She searched for news of motor accidents at the time and was lucky enough to find one. The way the announcement was worded will help her edit her version of events and give the writing more authenticity. She also looked at the way announcements of deaths and coroner's court reports were worded.

I was looking at crimes just after the war. There were many cases of drink related incidents and thefts. The headings alone could provide a rich source of materials for short stories. Here is a selection:

  • No Shillings, No Candles But He Had Light - a man fraudulently diverted electricity by inserting wire into his meter. He was fined £3-00.
  • Blamed The Kids - a man allowed a horse to stray and was fined 5s., claiming he was at work so his children must have let the horse out.
  • Bad Language - a man fine 10s. for having used indecent language. What would magistrates think of things today, I wonder?
  • Wrecked Wife's Home, Beat Up Her Brother - man fined £5-00 or 29 days imprisonment for assaulting his brother-in-law after committing damage to windows, pictures and furniture. Ordered to pay £10-00 compensation.
  • One Mistake, Three Fined - three men, charged with stealing coal from railway goods wagons, waited until 11.30 at night. Magistrate: You chose a strange time to look for coal. One of the men: To tell you the truth, it's the only time we think the police may be around the pubs. Magistrate: You made a mistake then. The inference is that you've done this before. They were fined 40s. each for stealing 24s. worth of coal.
The morning flew by and it was fascinating to experience life through the archives of a different era for those few hours. I would like to thank Steve for his help and extensive knowledge of what social conditions were like at the times we chose to research. A special thank you, as well, to Helen for inviting me to go with her. We enjoyed a lovely lunch on the way back, too!
Steve was a great help
Thank you for reading. How do you carry out research for your novels and short stories? Do you prefer to visit libraries, museums and places or do you mainly use Google? I'd love it if you left a comment. Thanks.
You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.


  1. I was having a conversation with a writer acquaintance some weeks back. She maintains she never does research... (!!!) Says she doesn't need to. Fair enough...

    The joke now, when my writing group friend, Janey & I discuss our own research is: *Make face* 'Of course I never do research ... anyway, when I was checking out the stuff about WW1 American aircraft (Janey)/Victorian asylums (me)...'

    And so forth!

    I have nothing but admiration for research - it's vital of we want out stories to be authentic. I did most of mine (for asylums) online thank goodness but nevertheless, detailed & it took up a lot of time.

    Very interesting to read this, Jan - sounds as if you had a brilliant day. :)

  2. Deary me... 'IF we want OUR stories...' :(

  3. Thanks, Carol. Yes, I agree if we want our writing to be authentic I think we all need to do some research. Normally I use Google but this was a good day. My WiP is set in Greece, so I think I need to go back to Greece to research it properly! I'm working on it!! Thanks for popping by. :-)

  4. Great to hear how the research trip went, Jan. I use Google but have been known to wander the streets (hastily rewording!) have been known to look at a row of houses in London, or wherever the novel is set, and choose one for my main character to reside. I also like to draw on my own experiences but only as a backdrop for the fiction. Long live the libraries....

    1. Thanks, Sandra. I agree about the libraries and it's tragic when we hear of them closing. Don't forget if you want company on a trip to London to look at streets and houses, you just have to say.

  5. Those headings are a lot more intriguing than most modern headlines.

    1. Yes, Patsy. As I was reading them I was thinking of ideas for short stories. :-)

  6. Glad you had such an enjoyable and interesting day, Jan. Research is vital. It is so frustrating and disappointing to read a novel and come across something that is incorrect. I agree with Patsy - the lines you quoted are far more intriguing than today's headlines.

    1. I agree, Sue. I think you can always tell when a novel has been researched well. Thanks for popping by.