For Reference

Throughout this year’s travels, I’ve had a few people ask how I research historical fiction. My San Franciscan Detour was the perfect time to chronicle the process. I mean, the internet can get you far, but it’s still hard to beat the old methods:


SF’s Public Library has an unscalable mountain of archives — everything from daily newspapers to fashion magazines to local advertisements. Some of those they’ve scanned for online use, while others line the shelves of their large History Center on the sixth floor. But my favourite publications are on microform — which means using an old machine that clicks-and-clacks with the satisfying feedback of bulky 80s technology. Still, the best resources are the Reference Librarians themselves. Ask about any topic and they’re instantly darting through the archives, plucking the ideal sources from the shelves, as you scurry alongside, catching the books in an ever more cumbersome pile. They’re like Siri, only with a better search algorithm, and less personality. I love them!

For this particular trip, I wanted to explore the architecture of my setting. The internet is filled with San Francisco landmarks, but even staples like the Golden Gate Bridge and Coit Tower hadn’t been built by the 20s. What was there before? What survived the 1906 earthquake? What would a stroll through SF in March 1924 look like? I set to work to find out. Old maps and chronology books got me started, but the best reference was a book on the history of San Francisco architecture, with photos and locations of buildings that still exist today. I knew my next move:


I created a Google Map with all of the buildings listed, including their names and a broad categorization. I then spent my Tuesday hiking through the city and snapping as many photos as I could. No, I didn’t get to all the pins on the map, but I ensured I had at least a few pictures from every category. Now, with hundreds of photos of my own reference, I have a much better idea of SF’s 1920s flavour:

What will I do with this reference? I’d be lying if I said I was certain — I might make game assets with them, I might not. But the important part of the exercise was to better understand my game’s world. I’m happy to just extended that knowledge. The hard part will be communicating it to my players. Wish me luck!