Craft: Research

Research – First Hand Accounts

When I began researching Papa’s Bones eight years ago, I did an over view of the period by using recent publication about the time period. For something more specific, like what kind of bra women wore, if any, with backless dresses, I tried to find this information with primary sources.

What are primary sources? Yale defines them as: “Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later.”

Now, that I’m diving into my next YA thriller/mystery set in the 1950s, I’m attempting to follow the same procedure. One primary source = two seconary sources. One thing I’ve noticed while mining for historic facts, there are a lot of lamenting nostagia pieces. Maybe I’m noticing it more because the early 1930s and mid 1950s were two seperate words. There are more people alive now that grew up in the 1950s than those who were in their twenties in 1932. As I’m reading these diary’s or reminices, a voice in the back of my head keeps whispering, ‘now come on, really, the 1950s really were that wonderful?’ I don’t think so.

Primary sources are great for discovering the additudes of the times. You get an ‘in the moment’ feel more so than a second hand source. But like authors and editors of secondary sources, primary sources have agendas too. I thought I’d ask a friend of mine, a retired homicide detective, who dealt with first hand accounts everyday while on the job, just how valid are they? The numbers he gave surprised me.

Stranger viewing a stranger, an eye witnesses testimony is usually right about 50% of the time. Now, if that same crime involved friends or relatives, that number jumps to 90%.

L. said: “It’s all in the follow-up. Start out by figuring everyone is wrong, but trying to tell you what happened. Then it’s door to door, witness to witness, ask much, ask often, sort lies, learn what you can and get lucky with the Ident stuff to make it work.”

Kinda sounds like the art of historical research, L. Maybe I should have been a cop. But thinking on it, maybe not. I’ll leave chasing the criminals to the more qualified pesonale. There are no guarantees, but at least from where I’m sitting, in front of a computer screen clacking away, I won’t get shot.

Oh, if you do want to know if women wore bras with backless dresses, you’ll have to listenfor yourself.

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