For example, one of the characters in Orphans and Inmates owned a seed company. A point here and a click there and I had the history of seed companies in the United States, where and when certain varieties of flowers were imported from Europe and what varieties people were cultivating in the early nineteenth century. These details helped give life to the character and his story.
I have particularly enjoyed having access to historic maps via the internet. As a result of the completion of the Erie Canal in the early decades of the nineteenth century, the city of Buffalo grew rapidly. Street names changed as the city expanded to accommodate the increasing number of entrepreneurs who flocked to Buffalo to make their fortunes. It is simply brilliant to have the ability to download a map and use other software programs to plot your character's movement around the city!
Although online research has increased my productivity as a writer, it can't replace good old fashioned leg work (not yet anyway!). I have still spent plenty of time in research libraries with my old friends the leather bound ledgers and the microfilm machine. Nothing replaces a detailed study of the lives of the individuals you are writing about. For me, that means examining the Erie County Poorhouse Inmate Records, Hospital Records, Mortality Ledgers and the Annual Reports of the Buffalo Orphan Asylum.
In these reports I read the names of the people who spent a part of their lives there as inmates, or perhaps even died there. I learned about where they were born, what they did before they came to the poorhouse, and why they came to the poorhouse. I know what kinds of clothing they wore, what kinds of food they ate, and what kind of medical treatment was provided to them if they were sick or injured. I know that they were assigned chores if they were able to work. Women did domestic chores such as laundry, cleaning and meal preparation. Men worked the farm and kept the buildings in repair. I learned that they made a variety of clothing and often sold surpluses of food produced on the farm to defray the cost of their care.
From the administrators reports I learned about many of the challenges the Keepers of the Poor faced in trying to provide care for a rapidly growing impoverished class. They faced over crowding, sanitation issues, food shortages, and shortages of able-bodied inmates to assist in the running of what was supposed to be a self sufficient farm. There was the ever present threat of diseases like cholera and influenza, in addition to the ever increasing frequency of mental illness and alcoholism to manage.
Some inmates were lazy and apathetic, while others were hardworking. Similarly, some Keepers of the Poor were benevolent and some were greedy and cruel. By carefully studying the primary source data, I can weave the experiences of real people and events into the story and provide readers with a more compelling (although fictional) account of the history of the social welfare system in America.