I wrote this in a fit of hyperfocus while looking for old LOTR fic for a friend, and figured I’d share it, for fandom posterity if nothing else. So much has changed just in the years I’ve been in fandom! This is how I started reading fic… though I had way fewer broken links to deal with back then.
Quick guide: If you are looking for unread/old fic from an older fandom, go to Part 1. If you know some vague info about a fic you once read but don’t remember the name/author, go to Part 2. If you have a broken link, go to Part 3.
Part 1: New Old Fandoms
1. Just got into an old fandom? Congratulations. Looking for fic for it? ….good luck. But I’m an old hand at this, and I’m pretty good at it. Step one: lower your expectations, and be prepared for disappointment. Lots of fics have been lost from zines, listservs, down archives, the loss of Geocities, deleted LJ’s and dead personal fansites. More than that, you can’t be picky: sometimes only the shit survives. Also, I’ve found that the quality of fic writing has gone up over the years. Stuff that people viewed as masterpieces years ago might look to be cliche or mediocre now. But it’s like Star Trek: they’re full of cliche tropes because they invented the tropes.
2. You’ve probably already looked at AO3, but take a closer look. For old fanworks that have moved onto AO3, sorting by kudos/bookmarks/hits doesn’t work. A work could be remembered as a masterpiece and only have 2 bookmarks on AO3 simply because no one’s thought to look for it there. Check by date: backdated works show when it was originally published. Summaries used to be shorter and vaguer, and most people don’t bother updating them or using descriptive tags other than the pairing when they post them, so sometimes the only way to tell what a fic is about is by opening them all and reading them. You’ll find plenty of shit, but sometimes you’ll strike gold. Now that AO3 lets you exclude by dates, this is even easier. Pick a range of time, perhaps the height of the fandom, and THEN sort by kudos/bookmarks. It’s not bulletproof, but it’s better.
3. For stuff that hasn’t been moved onto AO3 at all, my first step is always checking two places: the Fanlore page for the fandom + pairing(s), and the TV Tropes fanfic rec page. Fanlore often lists popular authors, archives, and even links famous fics. The TV Tropes recpage is just a handy place to start: always organized the same, sometimes amusing, and still updated. (Don’t be afraid to go to fanfiction.net if you get linked there. There are gems there, no matter what anyone says.) If you find a fic or archive you want to read but the link is broken, go to Part 3.
4. Now, my fave: reclists. Personal reclists are easy enough to find: just google “(fandom) + fic + recs” and a bunch will pop up, on LJ, DW, and tumblr. There are rec communities out there too, posting old fics, or just with extensive archives that you can troll through at your leisure. If you find a fic you want to read but the link is broken, go to Part 3.
5. Depending on the fandom, any fic archives might be down or not. A simple “(fandom) + archive” google works, and you can add more specifics, such as “slash” or a specific ship. Some archives don’t allow anything above PG13, some don’t allow anything queer. Most don’t have any form of sorting other than by pairing, either. There’s a commonly-used website form that creates “Top Tens” reviewed, favorited, etc., that may or not exist on the archive, depending on its age.
6. If you’re more about talking to people than lonely googling, you should ask people in the fandom (if you can find them) what their favorite fics are and where you can get them. Sometimes older fans will have them stored in a harddrive and will give them to anyone who asks: but you have to ask.
7. That’s about it. It’s a lot of effort, but it can be worth it if you find what you’re looking for. And sometimes you make new friends along the way.
Part 2: Lost Fics
1. Knowing some vague info without any easily findable keywords is one of the hardest spots to be in. This is the time-sink: google the shit out of it. Any vague term you can think of, any random phrase you remember. Use search operators and quotes. Look through reclists to see if anything looks familiar.
2. Skim fics to see if the writing is similar - or identical. Sometimes what you remember is just a single paragraph in a 7 chapter fic, and if you’re not careful you could skip it entirely. If you still can’t find it, it’s time to get active: it’s time to ask other people.
3. Some fandom history: before archive search functions and AO3 bookmarks, if you lost track of a fic, you could go to a “fic finder” forum or community and make a post describing the fic you were thinking of, and people would comment with a link if they knew what it was. Some of these still exist, but they’re much less trafficked these days (especially since comments on tumblr are such a mess). If you can find a ficfinder LJ/DW community: Make an account, and post a description of everything you remember from the fic. If it’s on tumblr, send an ask/submission.
4. On tumblr, a post in the general fandom tag might also work, though I’ve never tried it myself.
5. If you’re lucky, someone will know the fic you’re thinking of, and you’ll get the name/author, if not a link. If the link is broken, go to Part 3.
Part 3: Broken Links
1. If the website/link is broken, try googling the author’s name and/or the fic name to see if they uploaded it anywhere else. Try googling the username and fic name together and apart, plus and minus the fandom name - authors change usernames but fic names almost always stay.
2. Then try using the wayback machine (an internet archive that screenshots and saves old websites, if you haven’t heard of it. Very handy!) to see if there are any screenshots - sometimes there are saves of some chapters and not others, which is the absolute worst. Always check all the saved dates!
3. Go back to googling. It’s possible someone else has asked for a downloaded copy on some ficfinder forum, tumblr, or livejournal post somewhere. If they did, you can try commenting on the same post or DMing the person to see if they found it/still have it.
4. Wait and see if you get lucky.
If you still can’t find what you’re looking for, wait. Ask around. Sometimes archives come back up; sometimes you run into the right person in the comments or at a con who has it downloaded as a txt file or has a printed copy. And if you do find it, finally, and manage to get in contact with the author: ask the person to upload it and backdate it on AO3. AO3 even lets them orphan it if they don’t want their name attached to it. But if they say no, RESPECT IT. People don’t want their stuff online for many different reasons, and that’s fine. Ignoring someone’s wishes for your own personal gain is NOT.
Good luck, and happy hunting!