The research side of writing.
- August 27, 2021
- Tracee de Hahn
Tracee: Research. We’ve all done interviews, read material, and done lots of things to get details right. What’s the most unusual (or unexpectedly helpful) place you’ve turned to for info?
Connie: What a great question, Tracee. You know I love research more than anything. I read articles, interviews, contemporary letters and other manuscripts for the historical stuff. One interesting source I found for my book coming out next May were the archives of Holloway Sanitorium, a Victorian mental hospital. There I found patient records, photographs, as well as the doctors’ notes on their condition and treatment. All now in the public domain.
I always like to have actual human sources for information in England—like my D.I. Tamlyn Burgess in the Suffolk Constabulary and Harry Bowells at the National Trust. But one of my most helpful human resources has been Henry Heath, assistant priest of Holy Trinity Church in Long Melford. He loves to answer my questions and goes into some detail. I can ask him anything—like the difference between a vicar and a rector, what kind of pollarded trees line the pathway to the church entrance in Long Melford, and what the traditional wedding vows say in the Church of England. He is a font of information.
Diving into History
Keenan: For my historical, I accessed old census records via ancestry.com to find out where people lived, what they listed for occupations and how the households changed after the Spanish flu epidemics tore through the Berkshires.
Tracee: I’m a huge ancestry.com fan and have discovered so many interesting things about my own family here, kindling the more mundane misspellings, lack of consistency about birth places, and the occasional ah ha moment about name changes (yes, my great grandfather did re-marry after his wife died of Spanish flu…. what happened to the new wife, we think she succumbed to a second round. Either way her three sons went on to live elsewhere.).
Emilya: I once had to download the Anarchist Cookbook because that’s how my characters rolled. I wondered how many government agencies were flagging me as I was doing that, but now I know how to… well, never mind.
Before everything in the world was digitized I was a photo editor for a book packager. That kind of research was
phenomenal and I got to spend days at the physical Library of Congress going through archival photographs (for a book on the Wild West), and newspaper archives (for a book on car races. Of course I only chose pictures of crashes and near crashes).
I wish I had the kind of time to go and physically research locations and people!
Tracee: Emilya, you are so under surveillance now!
Connie: Emilya, I love the Library of Congress. I was once writing a journal article on a Civil War soldier and found the Death Register for Andersonville Prison there. They actually let me see it–and I found the exact date my Vermont soldier took over the writing of the death register from the famous person (forgot his name) who was paroled and sent home. After poring over his hand-written letters for months, I had no trouble recognizing his distinctive cursive. So much fun. I love original research!
Susan: I did a lot of research for a story I wrote about Anne Boleyn, including visiting Hever Castle and talking to Alison Weir (and reading all her books, of which there are many.) One of the best resources is QueenAnneBoleyn.com, which is an incredible resource that brings together historians and every fabulous person you could think about relating to Tudor times. One of my great honors was to write two articles for them, one about Anne Boleyn’s mother, and one about Anne Boleyn Poisoner? There’s also the Tudor Society, which is another great resource.
Tracee: Susan, we have to get back to in-person conferences so I can quiz you about Alison Weir! I love her books.
Alexia: My boring answer is “the internet.” I was amazed at the volume of detailed information I found online when I first started research for Murder in G Major. An actual research trip to Ireland was, sadly, not in the budget or schedule. But I found enough online–school schedules and menus, Irish naming guides, Irish pronunciation guides (with audio), maps, train schedules, airport layouts, poison garden diagrams, classical music, old movies, distillery offerings, lighthouse history, photos of cottages, and on and on–that I had no trouble creating an entire Irish village without leaving my desk. (I did manage to schedule a trip to Ireland the week after my book came out but I still supplemented my travels with online research.)
My unexpected (and less boring) answer is the GAA–the Gaelic Athletic Association. I stumbled across the GAA online, subscribed for a season, and discovered that I like Gaelic football. I’m not a sports fan, so I’m surprised that I like it. Can’t explain the rules to save my life, but I like it. Watching live-streamed games gave me the opportunity to listen to the announcers in English and Gaelic. That helped me hear the proper cadence in my head while writing dialogue. I’ll let others decide if my characters all sound like sportscasters. Bonus: I was able to follow the GAA finals on the TV at a random pub I wandered into during my trip to Ireland.
Tracee: Alexia, I agree about the power of the internet. While a trip to just about anywhere is certainly more fun (okay, not always) there is no excuse anymore to get details wrong.
The irony of research at our finger tips is that now we can refute those who should ‘know better.’ The way a place looks in reality which is sometimes different from the memory of a friend who used to live up the corner from the sign/monument/street. I’ve had a “no that’s not the subject of that statue” argument which ended after a visit to google earth. On the other hand, smell remains an on-site in-person experience. I can recreate the flavor of a specific dish, but not ambient smell, even the smell of the preparation of that same dish.
In person accounts
Michele: I interviewed people who personally experienced the terror of Hurricane Irma, which was a category five- plus, for the third Sabrina Salter mystery, Tropical Depression. I was amazed by how much weather can traumatize people. The distant look in their eyes, their words spoken in monotone. These are never captured on the Weather Channel like they are in person.
Tracee: Michele, I remember the first time I met people who had lost everything in a tornado. Growing up in tornado country I’d seen plenty of destruction, but those who had their house ripped away while they were inside had an entirely different perspective.
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