For NaNoWriMo 2008, I wrote Dancing with Velvet, a story set during World War II in my hometown. Even though the places I wrote about were familiar to me, I still needed to do some in-depth research to make sure I had my ducks in a row. The following resources provided enormous assistance:
(1) City directories, found in your local library, will give you a street-by-street look at what businesses were located where and when. (Also residential areas)
(2) Old yearbooks, hopefully still retained by local high schools, tell you about current styles and trends for the period about which you’re writing.
(3) Vertical files in the library are wonderful collections of periodical clippings sorted by subject. Unfortunately, these files are going the way of the typewriter, so if your library as one, hint that you’d be glad to take possession of it rather than see it go to the dumpster. If you live out of the area, a phone call to the reference librarian with an offer to pay for copying might yield a real treasure.
(4) Some newspapers still keep their own vertical files in ‘the morgue’—but you may have to do some wheeling and dealing to gain admittance these days. Once upon a time, ‘the morgue’ had its own librarian, but that’s changing.
(5) If your town is home to a college or university, you may find a special collection of materials donated by the citizens who want to make the past available to future generations. When I moved, I left quite a few things with my local university—acquiring a receipt for the items and with the understanding I could ‘visit’ them at will.
(6) Because genealogy has been a popular pastime for many years, you may find county histories available for research or purchase. Books detailing burials in local cemeteries are also a handy tool, though they depend on volunteers to keep them updated.
(7) And don’t overlook checking out your recollections of places and events with others of your own generation. A now-demolished hotel with a ballroom on the top floor figured in my novel, but though I had been there, I couldn’t remember many details. A mass emailing to members of my high school class who had also danced the night away at the Roof Garden brought more specifics.
Fictional settings work, but when you read about a place with which you are familiar—either intimately or in passing—the whole story takes on new dimensions. So check out your own town. You might be surprised what you’ll find.