Research – In Too Deep

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Fun fact:  research can also be a slow slog through half-frozen mud three feet deep, while a light sleet coats everything.

But Zora Neale Hurston is right about one thing:  research IS about curiosity. It’s the curiosity that keeps you going. No one has to research anything. Just ask Trump supporters. But for some of us, there is a deeper need to know. An itch about something that won’t leave us be. Benjamin Franklin, wondering how electricity is conducted. Louis Pasteur, wondering if there was a way to keep milk safe. That random weird guy, thousands of years ago, who looked at an oyster and thought, “Hell, yeah, I can eat that!”

Of course, sometimes that research becomes quicksand. You take a step off into it and . . . suddenly, you’re sucked in, with no end and no rescue in sight. You’re curious – you’re burning with it, in fact – and so you have to dig . . . but in the digging, you uncover more than you thought.

Truthfully? It sort of becomes your neighborhood dealer. That initial thing, that first question, was the freebie. We did a little digging, and we found something! Suddenly, we’re excited, because we think we’ve hit the jackpot. So we go back. We dig deeper. We get sucked in. The research starts to say, Hey, good to see ya! Back for more? Sure. Ah, but this time, it’s gonna cost ya. Cost what, we ask? Time. Effort. Frustration. (Yes, at times, actual money.) Your sanity, too.

At some point, the doubts start to manifest. Sure, you found something, and it was fun. But it didn’t answer your question. Or worse, it only spawned more questions, which you must answer . . . By the time we realize we’re in too deep, it’s too late. We wake up one morning and realize that initial question, that first mystery . . . that was the gateway, my friend. Now, there’s no escape.

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

newspaper clippingWhenever I talk to people about my research into George Kimmel, the inevitable question is:  how did you find out about this? I explain the story of seeing those little tidbits in the newspaper, those dozens of clippings that littered my desk for months and months, the fact that those clippings eventually weren’t enough. Those were my gateway, those tiny scraps of mystery that begged and enticed and mocked. Others saw the same thing. But I was the only one who followed them.

I’m currently reading a book by Australian historian Shane White called Prince of Darkness. It’s about Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American man to become a millionaire on Wall Street – and he did it in the 1800s. I’ll review it when I’m done, but one reason I picked it up was because of the extensive research White had to do. Like me, White stumbled across his subject almost by accident. His subject, like mine, left almost no written trace of himself; we know our respective subjects not from what they said, but from what others said about them. There are no other biographies to rely on, no other secondary sources that mention him. Hamilton moves in the shadows of New York in the 1830s and 40s, a man walking between two very distinct worlds, fitting into neither. George Kimmel – at least, the more I dig and the more I discover – seemed to do the same.

So how do you write about them?

In fact, this is the very question White asks himself in the introduction to the book:  “Is it possible to recover the story of someone who, for well over a century, became all but invisible?” (7)

And it’s the very question I ask myself almost on a daily basis.

White, at least, does have quite a lot of primary source material in Hamilton’s hand; letters and articles he wrote, court cases he was involved in, testimony he gave. He knows how he spoke and wrote; he can extrapolate some ideas about him. Me? Not so much. I am seeing Kimmel completely through the eyes of others – and everyone involved in this case had something to hide.

For instance:  George built a grain elevator and mill here in Arkansas City. They existed. Of that, I have no doubt. I have a newspaper article in which George is looking for stone masons to build the foundation. There are advertisements in the papers. It existed, it operated. I know it did. But the insurance company claims that this was nothing more than a dummy corporation to cover up George’s illegal speculating on the grain market. And the men who served on the company’s board all testified – later – that they didn’t think it was a real corporation; they invested no money in it, and recalled no meetings. Yet it did exist. And in the very next breath, they testify that George made money from it. I’ve even discovered advertisements for the elevator published months after George disappeared – advertisements made in the names of the very men who denied its existence.

Here’s the thing:  You don’t advertise something that doesn’t exist. You certainly don’t advertise a business that doesn’t exist, in a small town, where you are a well-known and respected man.

So what do you believe?

Sometimes, historians try to determine what someone may have done based on what kind of person they were. With George Kimmel, this simply doesn’t work, because I don’t know what kind of person he was – because I can only see him through the eyes of others.

When I read the affidavits and testimonies, I get two ends of a spectrum:  on one end, friends and family; on the other, the insurance company. According to his friends, he was social, friendly, honest; a good businessman; loyal to his friends and more devoted to his mother and sister and uncle than almost any other person on earth; the kind of man who could never, ever leave them without a word. According to the insurance company,  George was a consummate con artist – a charming, sly embezzler and forger who got in over his head and orchestrated his own disappearance. An 1890s Neal Caffrey, if you will. And while it is possible for a man to be devoted to his family and a con artist . . . where, along this spectrum, did the real George Kimmel lie?

And, if I keep going, can I find out?

When you study someone at a distance, you may never know them, not really. Historians spend two years, five years, maybe eight years, researching a particular topic, a particular person, and never feel they get the entire story. There’s always a curtain of distance and history separating us from them. Thanks to the newspapers and their intrepid reports, I have a better idea of what some of the other key players were like. They’re described at the trials. I can see their reactions in the transcripts.

But for George, I have none of this.

So when I doubt my ability to find the truth, I have to fall back on curiosity. It was curiosity that got me in too deep to back out, after all. And hopefully, curiosity will keep me in the game.

 

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/wall-streets-first-black-millionaire-shane-whites-prince-of-darkness – More information about Shane White and Prince of Darkness. Yes, White is Australian!

When Research Becomes Obsession

missing ad 2If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that one of my obsessions is with a disappearance that occurred in 1898 – that of George Kimmel.

And it is an obsession. I freely admit that! For about ten years, I’ve tried to discover what really happened to this guy. Here’s the bare-bones of the case:

  • On July 29, 1898, Kimmel took school bonds to Topeka, deposited them, and then went to Kansas City.
  • On July 30, Kimmel checked into the Midland Hotel. He withdrew precisely $530.20 from his accounts, got into a cab . . . and disappeared.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. After  that, there are at least five different options. Sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sadly, at least three of those options end with Kimmel being murdered on or just after July 30, 1898.

Okay, there’s more. I didn’t tell you about the fact that Kimmel had worked with his uncle, Charles Johnson, in Niles, Michigan, at the First National Bank of Niles, or that Johnson asked Kimmel to come to Arkansas City, KS (my home town) to become cashier at a bank Johnson managed here. I didn’t tell you that Johnson was later found guilty of purposely failing and defrauding banks, possibly to cover gambling debts. I didn’t tell you that somewhere along the line, someone – Kimmel? Johnson? – insured Kimmel’s life for nearly $30,000. (In today’s terms, this is hard to convert, but is somewhere between $850,000 – $970,000. In short, the guy was insured for nearly a million dollars.)

And I didn’t tell you about the court cases – three of them – to decide if Kimmel was alive or dead, because I didn’t tell you that in 1905, a man in Matteawan Asylum in New York suddenly announced that he was the missing George Kimmel.

And then . . . It never ends! That’s why I have to take so many breaks from this research, because it literally never freaking ends!!!!! I’m a historian. I’ve done loads of research. Written loads of papers. None of it ever prepared me for the sheer lunacy of this project.

What makes it more difficult is that I’m sort of feeling my way in the dark, on several levels. First – I don’t have colleagues who care about this. I teach at a community college. What that means is that my colleagues don’t do research. It’s not even encouraged by the administration. So when people come into my office and see the big pages tacked to my wall that have calendars and bubble charts and a Who’s Who of confederates and allies and possible suspects . . . they just sort look past it, like it doesn’t exist. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure if they resent that I am doing it, or if they are afraid of guilt by association, or if they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that I’m a bit of a freak. But it’s hard not having anyone to bounce ideas off, to brainstorm with, or just to commiserate with. I hate that. A lot.

It’s not just that the research itself is difficult, although it can be. Documents disappear – sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposely. For example, I discovered that if a case did not go to appeals, all supporting documents, testimonies, evidence – everything! – was discarded when the case was over. So although I had the summary and sentence for Charles Johnson (for failing the Niles bank), I had nothing else. Whatever evidence was entered into the record, whatever he might have said on the stand that may have shed some light on my own mystery – it’s all gone. Nope. That’s tough enough to deal with. It’s also the fact that every single time I turn on my computer, look at the court documents, read the newspaper stories, it all changes. 

Questions never get answered. Literally. Questions. Never. Get. Answered. They just beget more questions! I’ve been researching this, off and on, for years, and every single time I pick it up again, I find new things that put a new spin on what I’ve learned before, or take my research into a totally different direction. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and I keep wanting to put a ‘villain/victim’ spin on it, like we would in fiction. But I can’t. Every stone I turn over reveals a new clue, something else that changes how I see this case. For instance:  did Charles Johnson pay off Kimmel’s debts and hide the fact that he was missing because he was covering up crimes of his own . . . or because he was trying to protect a wayward nephew? Two days ago, I would have absolutely told you the former. No question. But after reading some testimony last night, I’m no longer so sure.

Yet another reason for the long breaks!

The obsession is tough. I’m following in the footsteps of a very good lawyer, a man named Ed O’Brien. Every single suspicion I’ve had about Kimmel’s disappearance, he had. Every single question I have asked, he’s asked. I find myself staring at the charts on my wall, trying to piece it all together, wondering if O’Brien ever did the same. Wishing I had access to his private notes, his papers, anything he might have collected about the case. Sure that the answer might be in there. Somewhere.

But there’s other things about it that make me – hesitant.

For starters, I am never immune to the fact that these were real people, and they have real descendants somewhere. Well, George doesn’t, not direct descendants, anyway. But his sister does, and Charles Johnson does. One of the potential main players, Robert Snyder, was a major figure in Kansas City. How can I even begin to talk to them about the things I need to ask? “Hey, I’m researching your great-great uncle’s disappearance. I suspect it might have something to do with your very corrupt great-great-great uncle. Can we chat?”

Yeah. Probably not.

And again . . . part of the problem is simply that . . . the documents, I highly suspect, simply don’t exist. Even things that should exist, I haven’t been able to locate. For example, Johnson hired the Kansas City branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. But those records have evaporated. They are not housed with the official Pinkerton Archives at the Library of Congress. No one can tell me where they are. Did they get submitted as evidence, and misplaced? Were they destroyed? I’ve no idea. I also have yet to locate Johnson’s deposition, which should have been taken in 1905, while he was incarcerated. There’s no way O’Brien wouldn’t have done that. But where IS IT????

I can’t explain why this case obsesses me so much. But I need to figure it out, because I’ve been asked to present on my findings in May.

If they want answers . . . I’m afraid they’re going to be as frustrated as me.

 

For more on my research into George Kimmel, see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

 

 

 

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

When a Historian’s Dream Comes True, part 2

For the first time in a LONG time, I’m not teaching face to face classes this summer. And after the year I’ve had . . . yeah. Let’s just say it’s better that way.

But it gives me the chance to catch up on things I’ve had to abandon this year, and one of those is my research into my nonfiction historical project. I’ve written about this before (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/ , https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/), but to recap:  about 10 years ago, I started to read in our local paper’s ‘100 Years Ago Today’ column about a man named George Kimmel, who disappeared from my home town of Arkansas City in 1898, and then mysteriously reappeared some eight years later . . . or did he? At the time, no one was quite sure if the man who claimed to be Kimmel was really Kimmel or not. And the testimony from the trials didn’t make it any clearer.

I spent days photographing some 3,000 +/- documents from just one of the trials, and some of the things that I found astounded me. I thought I had a good handle on the case and on who Kimmel was, and how things would turn out. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

This week, I started on the testimony of a man named John Boone Swinney, who was a surprise witness in the 1911 trial. And when I say surprise, I mean full-blown, people popping out of cakes with machine guns, kind of surprise. See, before Swinney, everyone assumed that what ‘Kimmel’ said was true:  that he’d been kidnapped from Kansas City, taken to St. Louis, and beaten up. He then lost his memory and had only recently regained it. But Swinney came in with a totally different story, one that for most, put that entire St. Louis story out to pasture permanently.

But this is what I love so much about this case. Every single time I go back to it, there’s a surprise. Not Easter eggs; Easter bombs. 🙂 I’m not finished with Swinney’s testimony – I have more than 200 pages to print and read – but I’ve already got two pages full of notes of things I have to chase down.

I think what I love most, though, is that through this testimony, I can see the trial. Hear these people. I know precisely what kind of gun Kimmel was carrying (a 32 caliber designed by Otis Smith, if anyone cares). I’ve even laughed out loud in a couple of places – for example, Swinney said he was in Utah, ‘doing nothing’ and staying in hotels. Of course, I’m thinking in the back of my mind:  Wait. You’re a part-time farmer, you’ve been convicted of attempted railroad robbery . . . um . . . where was the hotel money from again? The attorney must have wondered the same thing, because he finally asked:

“What were you doing?”

Swinney:  “Nothing.”

Attorney:  “Well, did you commit any train robberies out there?”

Swinney:  “I – at least, I wasn’t charged with any.”

I’m so mad at the attorneys, though!!!! So many places where I want to go back in time and beat the crap out of them! I want to know what the hell happened to George Kimmel. That’s it. I want to know. So when I see testimony like this:

Q:  “Well, how long did you talk with him there?”

A:  “Maybe he was there half an hour. He told me to take this (valise) and meet him . . .”

Q:  “I didn’t ask what he told you; how long did you talk with him there?”

SERIOUSLY????? You can’t wait FIVE BLOODY MINUTES for this guy to tell us WHAT WAS SAID BETWEEN THE TWO OF THEM???? He never does let Swinney tell what Kimmel told him. So I have no idea – yet – why Kimmel was brought in on this ‘treasure hunt’ or what was said between them or why he was convinced to go. I have my suspicions, but as of yet, nothing to back them up. Very frustrating.

Another frustrating thing, for me, is the knowledge that I’m dealing with real people here. Yes, they are all dead now, but – in Arkansas City history, men like Albert Denton and A.J. Hunt are practically paragons. One of the men Swinney incriminates in his treasure hunt story is R.M. Snyder, a banker in Kansas City – and yes, another freaking paragon. What do you do? How do you reconcile what I think they did in 1898 with what they did later?

I’m hoping, in cross-examination, that the other attorney will let Swinney tell more about his interactions with Kimmel. Because so far, this bloody idiot has led us through 20 pages of Swinney being part of an attempted robbery in Oklahoma and a bunch of other crap that has no bearing whatsoever on George Kimmel. I still have about a hundred pages to go. So here’s hoping!

Man. I am so glad I don’t have any classes this summer. 🙂

 

Punctuation: your ‘little drum set’ for better dialogue

There are some things I’m just not good at – or may never be able to learn. Math. My new DSLR camera. Everyone has something like that.

But if you want to be published – or just taken seriously as a writer, or even as as a student – you need to know grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

I just read a snippet from Annie Dillard, which put in me in mind of this topic:

Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go. (If you get it wrong, any least thing, the editor will throw your manuscript out.) Punctuation is not like musical notation; it doesn’t indicate the length of pauses, but instead signifies logical relations. There are all sorts of people out there who know these things very well. You have to be among them even to begin.

I’ve never heard it put quite like this – but I love it. Because it’s true. I have little patience for people who can’t use grammar and punctuation properly, in large part because writing isn’t just about the words and sentences; it’s the punctuation that puts those words and sentences together into coherent units that convey the thought to the reader. Especially when it comes to dialogue.

Look at it this way:  you hear the voices of your characters in your head. You know their tone. You know their accents. The cadence and meter of how they speak. You may think you can’t get that across to your reader – but you can. At least, you can give it your best shot. Properly punctuated dialogue gives us those things.

Take these sentences:

“Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

“Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

In this small exchange, there’s two speakers – Nicky, my protagonist, and Bart, the bouncer at a local speakeasy. Can you hear the panic in Nicky’s voice in the second line? If so, I did good. If not, I didn’t. 🙂 Now here’s the scene with the tags attached:

Bart came over to Abby and nodded towards the closing cellar door. “Pretty, isn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I mean, I reckon so. Didn’t really notice. I . . .”

He laughed. “Maisie’s my girl, kid. But you can have any of the others.”

I’m sure you’ve heard this a lot, but dialogue usually doesn’t need tags. If you’re doing the job right with the rest of the writing, then there’s no need for tags. Your characters’ actions should tell us how they’re speaking. Take this example from one of my urban fantasy manuscripts (Erin’s feisty, BTW!): 

When I got to the meeting room, it was buzzing; almost everyone had a copy of that damn paper, and they were all talking about it, showing off photos and pointing out things in the article. I stalked through them, up to the front of the room where Spencer was talking to someone, and slammed the paper on the table.

“Whitfield? That bloody bastard went to Whitfield Abby and got those poor monks to parade around for photographs? How? Why? Why, Spencer?” My voice rose with everyone word, until they echoed from the ceiling. Vaguely, I noticed the entire room had gone silent. I didn’t give a damn. Trembling with rage, I slammed my fist into the paper. “Explain!”

“Miss Carson, perhaps after the meeting . . .”

“No.” My jaw clenched. “Now.”

Here, I’ve kept it neat and clean – again, two speakers, Erin and Spencer – and I hope you can hear the panicked, frantic – and yes, ANGRY – note in her voice as you read this. 🙂 But what you will notice is that there isn’t one single tag anywhere. No ‘said.’ Nothing. Done right, you very rarely need them. Take a look at your own writing. If you’re typing “he said,” or “I said” after every bit of dialogue – what can you do to fix it? Think about these things:

Are you afraid your readers won’t be able to tell who’s speaking? In that case, you need to strengthen your characters’ voices and make them more distinct from each other. Also, make it clear in the dialogue who’s speaking. Here, we know Erin’s talking to Spencer, so it’s clear to the reader that it’s him in that second line.

Are you using tags other than said to convey how your character is speaking? If so, get the dialogue right – using punctuation. Take these two lines:

“Now,” I said. “I want to know what the hell your golden boy was thinking.”

He stared at me, a muscle working near his jaw. “Miss Carson, please. Sit.”

That ‘sit’ at the end is set aside as its own sentence for a reason. Read it aloud. It’s not part of that first sentence, is it? Never was meant to be. It’s an order.

But this brings up another important point:  use your actions between the dialogue! That more than anything tells us precisely what your characters are thinking. Or should, if done right. That fist slamming on the table in the example above replaces any need for tags such as screamed, yelled, exclaimed, or whatever other weak adjective I could have used. But this is strong. This gets the point across.

And the last thing I want to say here is this:  When Annie Dillard says Learn punctuation; it is your little drum set, one of the few tools you have to signal the reader where the beats and emphases go, what she really means is this:  READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. Especially the dialogue. You hear it in your head; did you get it on paper? Are your characters pausing and emphasizing where you think they should be? Better yet, have someone else read it aloud to you. Then, you’ll really hear it (though you have to be careful to get someone who actually knows how to read aloud; that’s an art in and of itself).

Dialogue is one of the most important things in your writing. Use punctuation to make it even better.

 

A Newbie’s Guide to the Archives

Researching at the National Archives, or one of its many branches across the country, is something few of us have the chance to do – or even a reason to do. Unless you’re researching something pretty darn specific, chances are you’ll never need to set foot into one of their research rooms.

The Archives are a whole different experience from doing research at your local library or museum, though! There are many rules to follow, and for good reason:  the files located there are often the only copies in existence. They have to be there, for as long as they last, for anyone who wants to see them. Most of the files are fragile; historic preservation is a relatively new thing in American history, and you may be looking at papers and pages that want to disintegrate before your eyes.

I know I did.

I spent several days (spaced over several weeks) traveling to the National Archives in Kansas City, working with four boxes containing more than 3,000 documents that are all related to the book I’m slowly putting together. Here’s some tips and tricks I picked up:

You can photograph things yourself. Copies are astronomically expensive if you have the Archives do it (though that is an option, particularly if you live far away; you’ll also have to pay for shipping); they’re still expensive if you do it. But if you have a good-quality DSLR or even a good-quality point and shoot camera, you can take all the photos you want for free. I used my Nikon Coolpix L820, and they turned out great. The research rooms have special light tables set up where you can screw your camera into a special ‘upside down’ tripod. They even provide you with the proper settings to get the best-quality shots possible.

No bags are allowed in the research room. Lockers are provided for your coat, camera bag, laptop bag, etc., and you’re given a key to your locker. No purses, either. You can carry your laptop, camera, and cell phone into the research room. You’ll have to open your laptop at the end of the day so they can check to make sure you haven’t tried to smuggle anything out (Yes, apparently this is a thing!).

You’ll have to sign in every time, and you’ll be issued a National Archives Researcher Card. These expire in a year, and they give you permission to do research ONLY at that branch of the Archives. So mine gave me permission to use the records at the National Archives at Kansas City. You’ll have to present it every time you go. If you do research at another branch, you’ll have to get one there, too. Here’s a more thorough explanation:  https://www.archives.gov/research/start/researcher-card.html#orientation

I hope it goes without saying, but no documents can ever leave the research room.

One box and one folder on the table at any given time. If you’ve got a file that has multiple boxes/folders, the rules are simple:  one box at a time, one folder at a time. Put that folder up before you get out another. They will give you an 11 x 14 laminated ‘marker’ you can use to mark your place in the box, in fact. This is so folders don’t become misplaced, and papers don’t end up in the wrong folder.

cover pager kimmel deposition 1Bare hands only! You will never, ever wear white gloves to handle documents. There’s a specific reason for this:  the cotton gloves, no matter how well-made, are far more likely to snag fragile, brittle page edges than your bare fingers are. Don’t believe me? Put on a pair of gloves. Now go pet your dog. How much hair do you get on the gloves? Exactly. For extremely fragile items, you can ask the staff to train you in how to use the ‘spatulas’ to turn pages, but this is tricky too. Honestly, I found the easiest method was to use two hands – one to pick up the edge, the other to help lift and turn. This photo is one of mine; this is an example of just how fragile the documents can be.

The staff are there to help. If you have any questions at all, ASK. Their first responsibility is to the items in the Archives; their second responsibility is to you.

Yes, there really is a Big Black Binder of Bad and Banned People. I’m sure it has an official name, but this is the list of people that are never, ever to be allowed into the Archives. They include people who have destroyed documents and most especially, people – including former employees – who have stolen documents, either for themselves, or to sell online.

And as I found out, not everything is in the online databases. It took me MONTHS to figure out exactly where my case files were, because even though I had the docket number, the case number, and I KNEW where they ought to be, they just . . . weren’t. It took some digging by the Archives staff (more than a month, in fact), to locate them in storage. I picture this storage as resembling the crate-lined cavern at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So if you’re looking online and you know which Archives location your files should be stored in – just shoot them an email and ask.

Documents are fragile! Just to reiterate. Most have not had the benefit of proper storage for their entire existence. Mine had water damage; some were stuck together. Mold and other allergens are a definite possibility. If you don’t feel comfortable handling a particularly fragile document, ASK THE STAFF. They’ll be happy to help you get it sorted. But please, don’t try it yourself and ruin things.

Working at the Archives is a dream come true for a historian – it means we’ve finally stumbled on something that could be career-making, or at the very least, something we’re passionately obsessed with. H0pefully these tips might make it slightly less nerve-wracking if you’re embarking on this for the first time.

Here’s a link to the National Archives’ ‘Research Our Records’ page:  https://www.archives.gov/research/

And here’s a list of the branch locations across the country:  http://www.archives.gov/locations/

Everything you needed to know about microfilm . . .

But were afraid to ask!

If you’re writing anything historical – fiction or nonfiction – research is in your future. It can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re truly in for.

I’m a regular at my local library, where all the Arkansas City Traveler issues are on microfilm. Ever use microfilm? It’s a bugger. When I was in grad school, I had to do several research papers using microfilmed sources, and it was exhausting. It hasn’t gotten easier!

Microfilm can be fantastic in several ways. For instance:

  • If you have allergies, there’s no worries about dry, dusty, moldy papers.
  • And, one of the greatest things:  if you need a newspaper from another town or state, you can usually get them via interlibrary loan. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s fantastic. As with anything, there’s a time limit on how long you can keep them; don’t order too many at a time. You’ll need to get the card catologue number from the library, but then you should be able to take that to your library and in a week or so, have what you need.
  • Conversely, if you know exactly what articles you need and when they were printed, you can probably pay the library to print them for you, and send them.

Actually using the microfilm is fairly simple, and most librarians will be happy to give you the five-minute tutorial. All the machines I’ve worked with were made in the 1960s. You could run over them with a semi and not hurt them, so don’t worry about that. There’s a button to turn it on; you feed the film through the rollers, and voila! Done. There are small wheels you turn to enlarge, sharpen, and rotate the film.

When you find an article you want, you can print it (they have printers attached). But here’s something REALLY, REALLY important:  make sure it’s set to print black ON white, not white on black. The default is almost always white on black, which is impossible to read. Other than that . . . It’s simple. Almost too simple. 😉

But there’s things to keep in mind:

  • Every library has their own rules about who can use the microfilm. You might have to get a card, or sign you life away in blood. (Kidding. Mostly.)
  • You can’t remove the microfilm from the library (though unless you have a machine at home, who’d want to?).
  • It’s bloody hard work. I’d honestly rather work with real newspapers, despite the fact I’d die of an allergy attack if I did. If you get motion sickness AT ALL, take Dramamine or whatever before you start.
  • Why?  Glad you asked. Because looking at those bloody screens for more than an hour will make you want to poke your eyes out with a stick, that’s why. If you have eye problems, or get eyestrain easily, this might be really difficult for you. Plan on short excursions, and know what you want to accomplish beforehand.

For me, microfilm is deadly. It tends to trigger migraines if I work on it too long. I can be on it for an hour at most. In order to see the articles you’re looking for, you’ll have to enlarge the film – which means you’ll be moving the film up and down and sideways in order to see the entire page. It’s possible to fit an entire page on a screen (sort of), but then the print is so tiny, you can’t read it. If this is a problem for you, plan accordingly.

Alternatively, you can hire people to do the research for you, if you’re not a control freak like I am. Or if you know precisely what you’re looking for. Professional researchers, who often charge $25/hour or more. Retired folk who want something to do. Hungry college kids who’d like to eat protein this week. Libraries may be able to put you in touch; so can local historical societies.

But, I’ll warn you:  this does take some of the fun out of it. You  never know what you’re going to find. When I was researching my historical nonfiction, for example, I kept a file folder on hand just to keep the interesting tidbits that had nothing to do with the research I needed. Serial killers, axe murderers, disappeared children, lynchings . . . small things I want to go back and look at, when I can. And for my YA novel, I keep finding cool things that don’t necessarily have to do with the stories I need (mostly Klan activity in the area), but are just additional bits of color to toss in, like cherry tomatoes in a salad. 🙂

So yes. If you’re doing historical research of any kind, there’s just no getting around it:  you’ll be using microfilm sometime. And microfilm can be your friend in so many ways.

But it can also be your doom.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂

 

Here’s a few other blog posts related to this one:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/historical-fiction-playing-in-the-sandbox/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/down-the-rabbit-hole/

‘Get a Wiggle On’ in your research

You’re reading a novel. You adore the characters, you LOVE the setting, and you know the topic – it’s about one of your favorite time periods or hobbies or whatever. The author has done their job. Everything flows. Everything’s right.

Until it isn’t.

Until you reach that one sentence where your eyes stumble to a stop. You pause, confused. Because surely the author didn’t get that wrong, did they? You re-read the sentence, certain it’ll be different this time.

But it’s not.

The author has screwed up.

It might seem difficult to believe, that in today’s world of Google and online libraries and Wikipedia and multiple editors, that we could still screw up. Historical novels are especially hard to get right, unless you’ve done your research and have an expert or two in your stable, ready to set you straight if you start to go wrong.

I’m working on these issues right now with my young adult novel. It’s set in 1924, and the dialect isn’t difficult to get right – but the language is! So are a myriad of other things that I don’t know much about, and I’m having to research them.

The 1920s had a language all their own. Most of us are familiar with speakeasies, bootleggers, and flappers. But what about all the other things people said? People who grew up in the 80s can recognize each other within five minutes by the things we say. The 20s must have been the same way. 🙂 What trips me up, though, are the little sayings I keep having to look up.

For example:  there’s a scene where my main character, Nicky, needs to get out of town in order to make a run (of liquor, to a speFord17touring1 -- Abbyakeasy) on time. Originally, I had it written as:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to book it to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

I probably left that sentence like that for a year before it occurred to me to wonder if ‘book it’ was even a term used in the 1920s. As it turns out, it wasn’t! But a quick internet search gave me a proper 1920s phrase instead, and the sentence became:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to get a wiggle on to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

There were a lot of terms I could have used there instead, to be honest – but I liked this one.

Then there was the term ‘hot rod.’ That gave me fits! Because it was perfect for the line I had to write when the local sheriff comes to give Nicky the shakedown. But I couldn’t get around the fact that the term ‘hot rod’ didn’t come into widespread use until sometime in the 1930s. So I had to default to ‘roadster.’

On top of that, I have to get the car stuff right, because Nicky’s a car guy. He loves his runner more than life, I think. 🙂 So I had to do a lot of research on that, especially since I love cars, but I can’t tell you anything about the mechanical workings of them. I knew I had a kid with a 1916 Model T and a 1917 Cadillac V-8 and how would he marry them together to form a complete car? I’ve got notes scribbled all over about car dimensions, Cadillac ignition systems, and my Holy of Holies, a 1917 car manual that covers almost every car ever made in that year, including diagrams of all the engines (courtesy a trip to my favorite local antiques store, of all things!). And then there’s the greatest writing trick of all:  vagueness. 

Another favorite trick for this novel is newspaper articles. Since Nicky needs to know what’s going on in his world, he reads the local paper constantly. LOVE the fact that my library has them on microfilm! So easy to work them into the narrative – in fact, there’s one very key scene in which Nicky infiltrates an actual event covered in one article. It’s probably my favorite scene in the book, and the speakers’ words are 90% verbatim from the article. (Yes, it will be cited properly if it’s ever published, thank you.)

Here’s a sad fact:  most of your research will never make it into your book. Diana Gabaldon has a great story about this in her Outlandish Companion – when she was researching Dragonfly in Amber, she ran across some information on how the ladies of the aristocracy used the bathroom at lavish soirees, in those enormous hoop skirts. So how did they do it? Let’s leave it at this:  if you have ever wanted a genuine antique carpet, hold that thought. Forever. 🙂 

So don’t let writing history scare you – there’s loads of resources out there. But don’t get complacent, either.

Here’s some links to 1920s – or Jazz Age – language, if you’re interested. 🙂

http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/09/59-quick-slang-phrases-from-the-1920s-we-should-start-using-again/

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/how-sound-bees-knees-dictionary-1920s-slang/322320/

http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

And, because she’s my hero, an interview with Diana Gabaldon about (in part) her research process:  http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/01/08/an-interview-with-diana-gabaldon/

What Can Writers Learn from Movies?

A couple of years ago, there was a question posted on one of the writing forums that I belong to:  can we actually learn anything about the writing craft from watching movies and TV shows?

The person who posed the question was hard-core NO. In fact, the question wasn’t really a question as much as a challenge to prove her wrong. As I recall, it blew up into one of those multi-page virtual fistfights before the mods shut it down, because many people were arguing that there’s a lot you can learn from other forms of writing.

We always say that in order to write well, you have to read. But what about our other guilty pleasure:  TV and movies?

I say YES! If you’re willing to study them, that is.

Here’s some examples.

S1L-CartazLucifer. OMG, I love this show and the reason why is the characterization. Yes, the one-liners are great and I’m sorry, but the Prince of Darkness as a tall, dark, gorgeous Brit is just icing on my fantasy cake. 🙂 But this show takes the basic premise most of us have grown up with and does a 18o with it. Lucifer is charming, suave, elegant. But he also sees himself as both the hero of his own story, and the victim. It’s a coming-of-age story with a twist. He doesn’t see himself as the rebellious archangel gone bad. He sees himself as a son, unfairly treated and abandoned. (The show is also based on some work by Neil Gaiman, so . . . if you needed another reason to watch, there you are!) If you want an example of how the traditional villain views himself – this is the one to watch.

dpsDead Poets Society. My Philosophy class just finished watching this, and I was reminded anew of how perfectly this story unfolds and draws you in. Sure, it can be difficult to do in writing what movies can do in visuals – set the scene, drop a few hints and clues as to what’s going on – but it’s certainly something to strive for. From the opening minutes, we know we’re at a boys’ boarding school; from the cars, we see it’s the 1950s or 60s; and the convocation clearly demonstrates what the school’s motto is:  tradition, discipline, excellence. We know these are going to be part of the plot; it’s a great foreshadowing technique. We also see quite a lot of book-ending in this movie. Take, for instance, the first class in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the boys rip out the introduction to their poetry books, and encourages them to stand on their desks in order to see the world differently. Then – that last scene (that always leaves me in tears!), when the headmaster orders them to read the introduction – which they can’t do – and then, when Keating comes back to the classroom for his items . . . the boys stand on their desks in salute to him, even knowing it will result in their expulsion. The lesson is learned, for them; tradition, discipline, excellence have given way to something else.

indexDirty Dancing. Yes, I hear the groans, but again – the character development! Watch it again, and not because those of us in a certain generation still consider Patrick Swayze to be one of the most beautiful men ever. Study the characterization this time, and how the different plots weave together seamlessly and merge in the ending. Look at the themes and the symbolism, like the lift. The lift is about trust, which is one of the reasons why Baby can never do it – until the very end. And watch how the different characters evolve and change, even the minor characters like Lisa. (For this, you need the full version; I swear I see new scenes in this movie every time I watch it!) And watch how the characters’ internal struggles are actually more important than the external forces acting on them. There are no real villains in this story – not even, I would argue, Robbie the Creep. Yet there’s conflict.

76e94e70-1d77-40c7-83bc-ffdf4ab3a32cThe X-Files, Doctor Who, and Supernatural. Yes, I just love them, but . . . even if you’ve never seen them, go online and read synopses of the seasons. What do you see? Story arcs! (Okay, to be clear, I’m talking about The X-Files the way it used to be, not that 6-episode whatsit that Chris Carter gave us in January.) Doctor Who is probably the best at this, back in the days of Russell T. Davies. Clues left in the first episode were perfectly slotted into place in that last episode. Some carried over into the next season, even. For example:  River Song. We firs meet her in “The Forbidden Library,” with David Tenant’s 10th Doctor. She clearly knows him, and knows him well. The question is, how? We don’t really know . . . until three seasons later! Look at the first season of Supernatural. Sam and Dean have two goals:  find their father, and hunt down the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. Yes, there are stand-alone episodes in which they are hunting monsters, but everything comes back to focus on those two goals.

In fact – I think most writers should study how TV series are structured. Study episodes. Look how they open; look at the resolution. Look at all the conflict in each one. Study the flow. Can you make your chapters do this? You should! The best-written chapters, especially for thrillers and mysteries, end on mini-cliffhangers. Never let the reader go. Each chapter should work hard to move the story and all the plotlines forward.

You may not like shows that I do, or movies that I do – but start studying your own favorites. If you’re a writer, chances are that you already like well-written shows with great characters and excellent story telling – you just might not be aware of it. Yet! 🙂

 

Now fifty, now sixty, now . . . My Adventures at an Auction

Yesterday, I went to an auction.

Ever been to an auction? Most people in my neck of the woods have – heck, most people make a hobby of it – but I know there’s a lot of people out there who haven’t. So here’s what happens:  auctioneers, who spend a long time in school learning this craft, sell items to the highest bidder. It goes fast, you may get lost, you may think you’ve won something that you didn’t, and you may end up spending WAY more than you thought on something you only kind of wanted. Or they may sell items “times the money,” which means they’ve got 2 or more of an item, and you’re bidding on the price of JUST ONE . If you want more than one, you pay double the price. They may also do “choice,” which means they’ll line up several sort-of-similar items and you bid on first choice.

In truth, I hadn’t intended to go – but then I looked at the auction site on Friday night, and realized that I had no choice. Because some very rare newspapers – several months’ worth of the Winfield Free Press – were being sold, and I needed them for my research into my YA novel, and they’re not available anywhere else. It felt sort of – ordained. I’d been looking for these papers for a long time, and suddenly, here they were, at this random auction!

I HAD to go. And those papers HAD to come home with me.

Some people go to auctions like that – there’s one or two items they want, and they’re bound and determined to leave with them. Others go because it’s a social activity. Meet old friends, meet new friends. See what’s there. It’s like going to the park, or the coffee shop. They may buy a few things; they may buy a ton of things. My dad went to an auction once where he was practically the only person bidding on anything. He came home with an entire stock trailer full of boxes. I still don’t know what was in all of them.

Some tips for attending an auction:

  • Be prepared to freeze to death. Dress appropriately.
  • Bring cash for the lunch counter.
  • Bring a book or something. I arrived at 9:30am. Know what time the newspapers sold? 5pm. In between there was furniture, pottery (SO . . . MUCH . . . POTTERY . . .), and tons of STUFF.
  • Look through the boxes. You never know what you’re going to find. For example, I brought home a box of World War II letters. But in that box, I found some really great things, including a ration book from WW II and passes to the White House from the Nixon administration! 🙂
  • Set a max price in advance – and don’t go over it. That’s the biggest thing. What are you willing to pay for something? Will you die if you don’t take it home?
  • Prepare to fight to the death! In some cases, you’ll have to fight to be seen and heard, fight to have your bid taken, fight for a spot at the front of the crowd, and fight for what you want. One lady stood on a chair in the back while she was bidding. Like me, she’d come for one thing and one thing only. She bought it. She went home at 10:30am. Lucky.
  • YES, auctioneers really do talk that fast. It’s a learned skill. Pay attention. Sometimes, if they realize you didn’t mean to bid on that particular item, they’ll start over, but you won’t make any friends doing that. And sometimes, they’ll make you buy it anyway.
  • And never, ever bid against someone who just holds their number up in the air and doesn’t ever take it down. They came for that item. Get out of their way. 🙂

So. Yes. I came home with my newspapers. Seven books in total, each spanning two months in the early 1920s. The Winfield Free Press was the KKK-friendly newspaper in my area in the 1920s, and if you want to know what they were up to, you have to have that paper. And since my YA protagonist, Nicky, is up against them, I need to know what they were doing!

The thing was, a lot of other people wanted those papers, too.

They tried to start the bidding at $100 – and then they dropped it to $50 and I started. For a while there were about five of us bidding; then, when we got to about $150, we lost a couple, and when the bidding hit $200, it was just me and another guy. He ran me up to $270, and stopped (after I gave him The Glare – you know, ladies, the one that says yeah, why don’t you just keep on with what you’re doing and see what happens, buddy!) and then . . .

They kept asking for bids!

It was five minutes – FIVE FREAKING MINUTES – before they finally let me have them. Five looooong minutes of them asking the crowd, going back to each of the original bidders – and me giving them all The Glare – before they finally dropped the gavel.

Sheesh!

All I can say is, they’d better be worth it.

As for what I’m going to do with them – well, once I finish with my research, I’m donating them to the local historical society, where they can be digitized and accessed by other historians. I think it’s important that all of these primary sources be available, in some way, to everyone. And because these are so rare, and so fragile, it’s important that they be conserved and stored properly, too.

And now – I’m off to start reading. 🙂