I wrote recently about how we can use historical weather data to write more accurate historical fiction. But that is just one of many resources. For my project that is set in Texas in 1940, I’ve also used data from the 1940 census that the National Archives has released. And let me tell you, it is invaluable.

Historical Census data tells its own story

My project is based loosely on a terrible event in my family history – my great-grandfather killed his estranged wife and himself. In what will be a surprise to no one, this isn’t an episode that is readily discussed by members of my family. In fact, I don’t remember having even heard about it until I was an adult. The byproduct of that is that any details of the murder-suicide and surrounding events have been lost in the intervening years.

Fortunately for me, in 2012 the National Archives released the 1940 census records. Because of this available census data, I was able to learn who was living in the household within months of the tragedy, everyone’s ages, and the occupations of the adults. Below is an excerpt from the page that shows the data about my paternal family.

But not only that, there are also maps available that show the townships and other details relevant to the census. Particularly important is that the maps identify the census pages on which the data for various districts can be found.

You’ll have to be patient and have a good idea of where to start geographically to navigate the available information. It’s not always easily searchable. But it can be very rewarding.

Using Current Census Data to Inform Your Writing

Using census data from the U.S. Census Bureau can be an effective way to supplement your knowledge. The Census Bureau maintains available data about every city, county, and state in the country. And they make the information available to us on their website. Navigating this website is much easier than using census data from the 1940 surveys.

I haven’t yet used the modern census information in my creative writing, but I use it fairly regularly in my legal work. While the present-day census information is not at all personalized, it is valuable for other reasons. You can access data about populations, relative wealth, racial demographics, education levels, and much more about any state or municipality in the country.

Using census data for your writing becomes practical when you need to write about areas that you may not be intimately familiar with. For example, if you are writing about events that occur in both Madison County and Bibb County, Alabama, it would be important for you to know that Madison County (in which Huntsville is the county seat) is one of the fastest growing areas in the country and is relatively wealthy. Meanwhile, Bibb County has a stagnant population and is comparatively poor.

Accurately portraying distinctions like this can be difference is your writing being authentic or inaccurate. I am an advocate of using as many resources as possible to improve my writing. Of course, I’m accustomed to doing this for my historical and legal writing, but I’m still learning about all the ways historical records can improve my creative writing.