3 Ways to Use Movies for Research

Little Women Movie poster 1949

If their hair looks more like when the movie was made than when it was set 1880’s Girl recommends extreme caution about using it as research

When turning to Hollywood it is vital to keep in mind the sometimes free and liberal use of artistic license but even so here are 3 ways to make the most of what a film has to offer a novice researcher.

1st–Visual Inspiration

I think all of us look to the movies to take us back in time so that for a couple of wonderful hours we can immerse ourselves in an other time and place. If however you are using a movie as research you want to check its credentials. Generally the older the movie the less attention they paid to historical accuracy.

A well researched movie with plenty of attention to window dressing can supply useful information about clothing and hair styles, what modes of transport actually looked like, the architecture, gardening or interior decorating of the time.

2nd–Making of Featurettes

This is the most useful resource. BBC movies on DVD have especially good featurettes on how the sets and costumes were researched, and how the time period was brought to life. There is lots of information to glean so settle in with your pen and paper and prepare to take notes.


This is the poor cousin of featurettes. Some movies desperate for extra features to attract buyers but who for reasons of money, time or taste did not make a featurette so they settle for a Gallery. These are usually for clothes but can include buildings and gardens as well.  Pay attention to the sources they just might lead you to new lines of research.

Movies are also really good to get you in the mood, to inspire you to sit at the computer or take up your pen and finish that work of historical fiction.  

Or maybe it has made you curious wanting to know more, raising more questions than it answered and that’s good too.

Happy Researching!



3 Ways to Start Your Research–When You Don’t Know What Your Doing


You may not have three questions but I have three answeres.

You may not have three questions but I have three answeres.

Today is all about research.  Now you may remember at the outset way back several posts ago I said there would be no scholarly examination of history or words to that effect. I am merely a curious amateur in the field of history, a novice,  a rookie,  a greenhorn–you get the picture, I don’t really know what I’m doing.

A few years ago I was deep into the first draft of a novel set in 1838. My first difficulty was in researching clothing of the time. There are endless sources for the 1840’s and later and for the teens or earlier, but with my limited expertise there was this great gaping blank from 1820-1840.  It was during this time that woman’s figures changed dramatically.

They went from having the high loosely-corseted waist and slim figure associated with Jane Austen….

Dress for a Hall Dance 1810.

Dress for a Hall Dance 1810.

to the tight lacing and enormous skirts we associate with the duration of the Victorian Age.

Evening Dress 1840

Evening Dress 1840

This was pretty much all I could find out in books.

But what happened in between? How did we go from one extreme to the other? Was it a sharp delineation marking the ascension of a new monarch? Was it a gradual change reflecting the shifting moral clime and increased strictures on women? In the regency women experienced an increased freedom of movement  (in their clothes) a mini women’s liberation that led to other freedoms, these however were severely clamped down upon during Victoria’a reign  the strictures on women becoming ever more regimented and complex.

Thanks to Pinterest which is an entirely different rabbit hole the in-between fashion looked something like this…

1830's Fashion

1830’s Fashion

But I digress. Who me? Never!

The issue at stake is…

How to do research when you can’t find any leads to get the ball rolling

Here are three places to start that have nothing to do with Google or Wiki-anything.

  1.  Novels–Not novels written 100 years after the fact but novels published during the period you are researching or shortly there after. For example Cranford was published in 1853 but set in the late 1830’s and contains memories form the authors own life. In other-words it is an eye witness view on the time.
  2. Biographies–Find someone really famous or at least interesting enough for someone to have written a book about: a monarch, a scientist, scandalous duke you get the idea. It can be anyone from the time and place you want to write about. They do not have to be even slightly related to your topic. The thing is Biographers have sources, they have research passes and special access that mere mortals on the opposite side of the planet can only dream of. This means they have details. Details that might take you hours of fruitless research to glean elsewhere. Details about fashion, inventions, ideas, scandals, what people ate for dinner etc, etc, etc of your target time frame.
  3. Movies–This comes with a caution. I wouldn’t trust any visual representations of past centuries from any movies made pre-1980 unless you have it on good authority that it was well researched. For instance in the 1970 BBC version of Little Woman all the girls are sporting hair styles much closer to the 1970’s than the 1870’s.  The best movies are the ones on DVD that come with making of featurettes and extras. Why are these helpful? Because again movie magnets have researchers. Researches have those magic resources known as connections in the business.

Over the next few posts I  will delve into each of these three resources and reveal what to look for what to avoid and how to sift for the details that will enrich your own story or  deepen your understanding of history. Or maybe you just want to one-up that know-it-all in your life.

Now go find those threads and get your ball rolling.

Happy Delving!