Now you ned to read the diary or letters to see what they say. Do not be daunted by unfamiliar handwriting. It is amazing how soon you can get used to someone's hand and decipher words you thought totally impenetrable at first. So persist! The best way in my view is to go straight for a transcript of the entire document. If you do not, you will tend to skate over bits you cannot easily read or do not understand, and may as a result miss something vital. A full transcript enables you to know that you have deciphered the document properly, and if you have not, you will know which bits are difficult, and you can return to them later. That name beginning with 'S' which defeated you in the letter of 14 March may reappear in another letter of 16 May and enable you to identify it correctly. An abbreviation - say a reference to someone by their initials - may remain obscure till you have read further and know that it is not, as you first thought 'T. H.' but 'J. H.' and refers to the letter-writer's brother Joseph Hicks.
A word here as to how Victorians (and others) filled a page: it was usual first to fold the paper in two and fill the two outer pages first, before going to the two inner pages, so the page order will often be 1, 4, 2, 3 (if you were to number the pages as you would a four-page book), which is not necessarily what you might expect. You may also encounter `crossed' letters. This is another Victorian technique designed to save expensive paper. When a page was filled completely, it was turned through 90 degrees and then written across again at right-angles to the original text - which is not as difficult to decipher as you might imagine. Again, however, the order of the pages may be as I suggested above - both for the original writing and the 'crossing' - so finding out which bit follows on when you have reached the bottom of the page may not always be straightforward to guardian insurance dental
Making notes on the text
Next, you should try to find out as much as possible about all the people, places and events mentioned in the diary or letters. This should be the really enjoyable part and involves a good deal of detective work.
First, there is the general background information. The admirable edition of the Diary of Samuel Pepys edited by Robert Latham and William Matthews (11 volumes, 1970-83) has an additional volume described as the Companion. This contains articles on relevant people, places, features and events in the Diary. For example, much of Pepys's time was taken up with attending a committee dealing with the affairs of Tangier, which had recently become an English possession. In the Companion there's an article about Tangier, giving its history up to Pepys's time, Pepys's involvement with it, and why it was important to the English. Another article is on health and it enables the reader to understand Pepys's horrific operation for a gallstone (the size of a tennis ball, cut out with no anaesthetic), which took place before the Diary opens. Pepys afterwards commemorated the anniversary of this event with a celebratory dinner for his friends.
Secondly, there are the people mentioned - what historians call `prosopography' . The relatives of a diarist may be well known to you, but bear in mind that friends and work colleagues may have been much more important, just as your friends and the people you work with are to you. Who were these people? Trade and other directories may help you to identify them. If the documents are Victorian, the census will be invaluable, especially the transcript and index of the 1881
Census for England and Wales available on www.familysearch.org. With all these aids to discovery, you should also be able to identify the neighbours. There may be other sources which can help you: for doctors or clergy there are special directories of these professions, as there are to the graduates of Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Recently, I found myself editing a late 19th century diary. The first part was about rural Bedfordshire, and Kelly's Post Office Directories and the census gave me a good start. Part of the diary described a trip around Europe, including a stay of several months at Cannes for the health of the diarist's mother. Here, the family had a constant round of social visits with the British people in Cannes, but of course I had no directories or census to rely on. One helpful source was Baedeker's Guide to Southern France which listed the English doctors there and also the English churches (there were no fewer than three English churches in Cannes in the 1880s!). Crockford's Clerical Directory gave further information about the clergy at these churches in the section about the Bishopric of Gibraltar, which covered all of southern Europe. From about 1860 until 1914 the main English-language guide books for Europe, and further afield, were published by Karl Baedeker of Leipsic. These guides not only describe monuments and contain contemporary maps, but they also give information about hotels, restaurants, transport, the British and US consuls, English churches, doctors and dentists.
Let me give an example as to why you should wish to know who these people are. Some time ago I edited the diary of a Captain John Hatfield Brooks in the Indian Army in the mid-19th century, published as The Diary of an Indian Cavalry Officer (Pagoda Tree Press, 2003). The big event in the diary is the Indian Mutiny of 1857 where almost the whole of the Army of Bengal (the largest of the three Presidencies into which British India was divided) rose in revolt. Captain Brooks's regiment was one of those which revolted. He was able to lead his family and a party of other civilians to the safe port of Bombay. Bombay and the third Presidency of Madras were mostly unaffected by the Mutiny. When he had seen his family off for England, he recorded 'Called on Col Green etc'. Who was Colonel Green? I looked him up in the relevant volume of the Indian Army and Civil Service List (the British Library has these, but the Society of Genealogists also has a good run for the 19th century). Colonel Edward Green was the Adjutant General of the Bombay Army. I think that Captain Brooks was looking to transfer from the Bengal Army to the Bombay Army, whose regiments were still intact. Two days later he writes, 'Called on the Melvilles' . I looked 'Melville' up, too, in the Indian Army and Civil Service List. He seems to be a Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Melvin [sic] who was Military Secretary to the Governor of Bombay. Again, Brooks appears to be sounding out the chances of a Bengal officer being able to transfer to the Bombay Army. To elucidate all this requires two separate types of knowledge: one is the historical background and the fact that the Mutiny affected the Bengal Army and not the Bombay Army; and secondly the identification of 'Col Green' and `Melville'.
As to places, you need a good contemporary map. Nowadays Victorian Ordnance Survey maps for Britain are easily obtained and, again, Baedeker's Guides are a tremendous help with Europe. Even modern maps are of some value (though the habit of renaming streets and squares in Europe can present a bit of an obstacle). Once you look at a contemporary map you will understand why in the 19th century the inhabitants of a particular village had to go to one town rather than another to get a train to London.
As to how to relate your annotations to the text of the diary or letters, I suggest that if you are typing the document up on a computer, you use the footnotes or end notes facility. Footnotes seem the easier system, but I find in practice that Microsoft Word, which I generally use, has a habit of not coping with a long document with a large number of footnotes. The program has a habit of hanging and then crashing when you try to reload a version of the text which you have previously saved. For this reason, endnotes, though not quite as convenient as footnotes, may be a safer bet.
You may also wish to scan in maps, photographs or other illustrations to enliven your text.
The fact that you have transcribed the diary and now (if you have used a computer) have an electronic copy will have one further advantage. You can easily email sections of the document to others to help you identify people and places.
You may also wish to compile a full index to the diary or letters. This will help to clarify who is who, since a bald mention of Mr Smith on one page may not be identifiable, but when you can easily find all the other references to Smith, you may see that on another page it is clear that James Smith is a butcher and on another page that he lives in Bury St Edmunds, and thus you should be able to identify him in a trade directory. An index will also make your task much easier if you come back to the document in a year or so, having uncovered more information.
Do not worry that you cannot know everything. Often, a sequence of letters contains only one side of a correspondence and you will have none of the replies to those letters. It is astonishing how much you can still understand. Sometimes you may not even know to whom the letter is addressed. The fascinating letters of John Adolphus Pope, who travelled over what are now India, Malaysia, Indonesia and China in 1786-8, are addressed to 'Dear George', but all attempts to identify George have failed. This detracts very little from the interest of the letters, and the decision to publish them as Free Mariner: John Adolphus. Pope in the East Indies 1786-1821 (edited by Anne Bulley, British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, 1992).