If you want to be a historical novelist, buy more bookshelves. Now I’m not talking about the weak little particle board ones. The kind that bows under the slightest pressure. I’m talking about the thick ones. Real wood. The kind that if they fall on you, you’re gonna think a polar bear sat on your chest (polar bear — not my words really. One of my favorite lines from the movie Road House – careful some graphic violence here). You’re gonna need all the support you can get. I don’t know why, but when it comes to historical research, often times the best sources are the real heavy ones.
Several years ago I bought a membership roster of the Wakonda Club at a flea market. I thought it looked really cool (a few books I have give an overview of the country club, but they’re limited and the place’s website’s even more vague). One of the best tidbits I found was on the second page where it described an incident in 1932, when the sheriff raided a gambling club set up at Sayers Nursery near by. Several of the boys fled across the course with the sheriff in hot pursuit. He shot over the heads of the escaping boys and nearly shot a club member. I scanned the document and put it away, thinking I may never, ever use it. But the source is cool to have on hand anyway.
Then came my latest frustrating chapter. I struggled and struggled with it for over a month, watching it ramble to and fro, irritated with myself that it lacked any semblance of direction. Fine. I’d just let it marinate in it’s own juices for a while and come back to it. Then it hit me after a couple of days of separation, why not use the incident of the shooting in my latest scene.
Ok. Things started to click and the scene finally had direction. But questions kept nagging me. Where in the world was Sayers Nursery? The Wakonda roster only mentioned that it was nearby. Where exactly? I needed my characters to be in somewhat of a believe position to be shot at. I was lazy and went to Google first. A quick search of “sayers nursery & 1932 shooting” landed zilch. I switched and looked up “Sayers Nursery & Des Moines, Iowa”. This time I got something. A park near Wakonda. That was a start. Well, if it was around in 1932 and I did have a humongous 1931 Des Moines City Directory on my shelves. Okay. I dug that out. Toward the back of the obese thing I found where the nursery had been located: 1302 Watrous. A quick Google search gave its past location.
Bam! Scene finished. But another scene popped into my head. What was the punishment of discharging a gun within city limits? I knew it’s illegal now. But was it in 1932? So out came the big, fat, paper monsters again. 1931 copy of Iowa Legal Code. A Des Moines City Ordinance volume from 1932. Yep, it was illegal then too, only it didn’t give the length or fine to be enforced. Zilch on Google for 1932. Managed to find something from an article published in a Mason City online newspaper in 2012. In Mason City, Iowa, discharging a firearm within city limits is a $625.00 fine or 30 days in the county jail. Wasn’t Des Moines, but it worked for me. While it is historical. It is fiction. And sometimes ya just gotta make things up ($625.00 – 2014 = $$36.12 – 1932).
Having the city directory, the Iowa Code, the city ordinance and the Wakonda roster on hand saved me a trip to the downtown library. They’re big bulky things. I might just keep them around when I’m finished with this manuscript. Who knows. I might need to use them again.