Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Des Moines Redlight District (1937)

Official Map and Guide of Des Moines. Midland Map and Engineering Company, 1920, Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc.

The Des Moines River in 1937 divided its namesake city into halves. White collar businesses and the wealthy resided on the west. The state Capitol and manufacturing occurred on the east (see Des Moines redlining map for a better look). Vice, mainly prostitution, centered in the city’s industrial hubs such as breweries, meatpacking, and railroads.

White Chapel District:

The district of slum houses along Elm St to Fourth St & Pelton Avenue near the Racoon River, was named after the vice area of London. Saloons and breweries kept the bordellos busy. The area was home to Des Moines’ most famous madam,  Jeanette Allen who was often referred as the “queen of Pelton Avenue”. Rumor had it she moved to Alaska once the red light district closed to make way for the Burlington Railroad switch tracks.

Police enforcement of prostitution was lax. A john arriving in the city could instruct their cab driver their desire for a prostitute and arrive at a bordello’s door. Unbeknownst to the john, the cab driver received a cut of what the john handed over to the house. Hotels such as Fort Des Moines or the Chamberlain did not allow prostitution. However, there were ways around the rules. A john could rent a room and the woman come up later or use the back entrance. Some hotels were stricter and had inhouse detectives to keep out vice.

White Chapel District, Des Moines, Iowa, c. 1930. Courtesy of Des Moines Register.

Black and Tan District:

If one was brave enough, one could venture out alone in search of vice. By 1937 the old White Chapel District had been razed. Vice moved north of city hall, east of the police station, and half a mile from the Capitol. The neighborhood was rank and noisy from the near constant railroad activity and the meatpacking plants. Most prostitution occurred in derelict homes on East Des Moines Street from East 2nd to East 5th. There, prostitutes solicited customers by sitting on front porches or tapping on windows to get their customers’ attentions.

The statistics for V.D. rose to such an alarming rate, the State Health Inspector requested the aid of the American Social Hygiene Association with the hope of getting the infection rates of syphilis and gonorhea below the 6,834 reported cases in the city.


  • Behind the Badge: Stories and Pictures from the DMPD. Des Moines, Iowa: Des Moines Burial Association, 1999.
  • Churchill, G. W. “City Moves to Wreck Grim Reminder of Old Red Lights.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 14 Oct. 1928, p. 13.
  • City Map of Des Moines, Iowa. Des Moines, Iowa: American Lithographing and Printing Co., 1931.
  • “Gone Is White Chapel District But Old Signs Recall ‘Glorious’ Days.” The Des Moines Tribune-Capital. Des Moines, Iowa: 21 Aug. 1929, p. 13.
  • Landeck, Kendyl. “The Legacy of Redlining and Segregation on Des Moines, Iowa.” 01 January 2019. Iowa State University Digital Repository. Accessed: 19 December 2021.
  • Mills, George. Looking in Windows: Surprising Stories of Old Des Moines. Ames, Iowa: Iowa University Press, 1991.
  • “Passing of Old White Chapel District Recalls Palmy Days of Late Nineties.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 31 Oct. 1931, pp. 1, 11.
  • “Old White Chapel District Being Leveled.” Des Moines Tribune-Capital, Des Moines, Iowa: 30 Oct. 1931, p. 1.
  • Redlining Map.” Redlining Des Moines. 2020. Accessed: 19 December 2021.
  • “Signals ‘War’ on Vice and Disease Here.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 05 September 1937, Section 6, 1, 4.
  • “White Chapel Homes Defended in Council.” Des Moines Tribune-Capital. Des Moines, Iowa: 18 Oct. 1928, 1.
  • “White Chapel Faces Destruction.” The Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 16 Oct. 1928, p. 10.
Craft: Research

Myth vs Fact

I love Daniel Delis Hill’s American Menswear. It’s one of my go-to sources for men’s fashion in the 20th century. However, I came across an interesting myth this author chose to perpetuate.

Clark Gable in the movie: It Happened One Night (1934) killed the undershirt industry (1).

Did he cite underwear salesmen or stock owners? Letters from men saying, ‘hey if Clark Gable isn’t wearing an undershirt, I don’t have to either.’


In fact, he didn’t cite where he got this information at all.

I guess it comes down to always check your sources whether it’s in print or online. Myths are still myths even if they did have slivers of truth to them.

Normally, I would take the time to debunk this myth myself. But Cliff Aliperti in 2013 did that already (here).


(1) Hill, Daniel Delis. American Menswear: From the Civil War to the 21st Century. Lubbock, Texas: Texas Tech University Press, 2011, 195.

Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Summer Nostalgia

I just wanted to know more about private swimming pools.

A lead character in my current WIP comes from a very wealthy family. He had an injury where swimming/exercise alleviates pain and lessens his dependence on prescribed opiates.

I put off researching swimming pools for a couple of reasons:

  1. I hadn’t yet reached the necessary point in my story,
  2. Ignorance (how they work/who had them/ect.; swimming, as a child, wasn’t my thing).

One of my go-to sites is a closed group on Facebook called “Lost Des Moines“. Pictures and stories are posted about Des Moines, Iowa, where nostalgia often supersedes fact. For the most part, I treat this site as I would Wikipedia. It’s a good starting point, but if I want better truths I look elsewhere.

Terrace Hill Pool Party, 1937
“Pool Party at Terrace Hill, 1937.” Courtesy of John Pemble & Terrace Hill. “Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

“Lost Des Moines” posts regarding public pools were from adults who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Private pools, like anywhere else in the United States, were reserved for the wealthy. I was able to find swimming pools belonging to The Hubbells and Ding Darling (across from the Hubbell mansion, Terrace Hill, now home to the Governor of Iowa). Pool houses and how the swimming pools worked, I found in books centering on the wealthy elite from New York or Los Angeles. Technically, I found what I’d set out to find: the what, how, and why of private swimming pools. But in the back of my mind, I knew I wasn’t done. An NPR story and Clare Foran’s CNN article on Senator Tom Cotton solidified for me just why my research wasn’t complete.

The insidiousness of sites such as “Lost Des Moines” is nostalgia erodes the sharper points of history. The troupe of “things were better back then” may be true for one person, but not another. While Des Moines was often touted as an “open town” in the 1920s-1940s, well intentions often bucked reality.

When Marguerite E. Cothorn took her son swimming in the 1940s, she was often harassed or made to feel uncomfortable for allowing her son to play in Birdland Pool. Her harassers wanted to know why she wouldn’t take her son to Good Pool.

Good Park
“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 13. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Good Park has University Avenue on the north and Keosauqua Way on the east. The park and pool were also located near Center Street, a segregated African American business district (destroyed under the guise of urban renewal and McVicar/235 Hwy). Good Pool was a WPA project completed in 1936. The upkeep of the pool amounted to $3,000 a year for the city. The Des Moines Register and city ofificals perpetuated racism in several ways. While articles never specifically stated it was a segregated pool, they did a make a point to state, “There will be a Negro lifeguard at the pool.”  Or when other pools in Des Moines had to list the prices for admission ($ .25 for adults; $ .15 children), Good Pool’s cost would “probably be lower than at the other two pools”.

Misogyny plays a far bigger role in my current work than racism (single woman/P.I. 1937–you get the picture). However, when I am confronted with the uncomfortable realities of the past, unlike the Senator from Arkansas, I make a conscious effort to try and educate myself. And I still have a long way to go.


“13 Acres Along River Wants City to Buy a Park Purchase Price is Set at $2,200.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 29 May 1937, 3. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

“City Swimming Pools Open June  1.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa, 13 April, 1937, 3. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Cothorn, Marguerite E. “Civil Rights and Black History of Iowa.” Audiocassette. Vol. 72. 2 vols. Iowa Oral History Project. Des Moines, Iowa, 1986.

David, John. “Stalking Des Moines with my Camera.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. Accessed: 22 Juy 2020.

Foran, Clare. “G.O.P. Senator Tom Cotton Pitches Bill to Prohibit Use of Federal Funds to Teach 1619 Project.” CNN Online.  24 July 2020. Accessed: 24 July 2020.

Gary, Thomas A. “The Rise and Fall of Center Street: 1945-1972.” Masters, Iowa State University, 2003.

Gillespie, Bob N Betsie. “Terrace Hill.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 9 July, 2017. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Jabbar, Akil. “Terrace Hill Pool.” Lost Des Moines. Facebook. 14 April 2015. Accessed: 22 July 2020.

Leeuwen, Thomas A.P. van. The Intimate History of the Swimming Pool. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT, 1999.

“New Swimming Pool in Good Park, The.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 25 June 1936, 1, 13. Accessed: 21 July 2020.

Terrace Hill Pool to Return.” Iowa Public Radio. 19 November 2015. Accessed: 08 August 2020.

Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Speakeasy in Des Moines

Two years after statehood, the Iowa legislature attempted unsuccessfully to pass its first prohibition law. They finally succeeded in 1916. Up until the federal government enforcement four years later, sheriffs and local agencies did the enforcement. Prohibition worked but wasn’t popular. While federal prohibition ended in 1933, many states continued to have some

In January a tour of an old speakeasy became available through the Des Moines Historical Society.

From the outside, the 1920s bungalow didn’t appear to have secrets, but there were clues if one looked close enough. The rocked arched way could have clued patrons to the basement stairway. Inside patrons could have enjoyed all kinds of booze. A huge boiler remains. There was speculation by the owner that it may have been used to distill alcohol. Elaborate designs on the woodwork and peepholes added to the general mystery. If only these walls could talk I’m certain they would have a lot to say!


Bauer, Bryce. Gentlemen Bootleggers: The True Story of Templeton Rye, Prohibition, and a Small Town in Cahoots. Chicago, Illinois: Chicago Review Press, 2014.

Okrent, Daniel. Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Porter, Sierra A. “Shhh! Des Moines Woman Discovers Hidden Speakeasy.” Des Moines Register. Des Moines, Iowa: 05 January 2020, p. 1E, 3E.

Books: Evelyn Copeland (Series), Craft: Research, Research: Iowa History

Booze and Writing

The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammitt is one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s relatively short, hits all the marks for what a mystery should be, and the dialogue is just plain awesome. I adore the sexually charged banter between Nick and Nora Charles (and they’re actually a married couple!).  Re-reading it again recently I was also struck by the exceedingly high levels of their alcohol consumption.

My current novel takes place in Des Moines, Iowa in 1937, where Hammitt placed his characters in 1934 New York. After Volstead was repealed each state was left to determine how much alcohol they’d allow their citizens to consume.

Iowa has a long history of tried and failed attempts at prohibition. They were one of a handful of states that went dry prior to the Federal government demanded it with the passage of the Volstead Act. When prohibition was repealed in 1933, the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Liquor Control Act the following year, giving the state a monopoly over the wholesale and distribution of all alcohol except beer.

Liquor by the drink was banned in restaurants and taverns (beer had to be > 3.2% alcohol content). However, an individual could still buy liquor by the drink. They applied for a liquor logbook which they were required to take with them when they made their purchases at the state-run liquor store. These stores were often in run-down and out of the way places. Browsing was not allowed. An individual filled out a form and the liquor store clerk pulled the bottles off the shelves. From the 1930s to the 1950s punch cards were used. The store clerk had sole discretion on what and how much they sold to an individual. If you had more punches then they thought reasonable they had the right to deny the sale. By the 1950s the punch cards were replaced with logbooks.

Many businesses flouted the rules to meet the needs of their customers. Illegal “key” clubs were the direct results. The business kept a row of lockers where individuals would store their liquor. An individual would give the waiter their key and the restaurant would supply the set up (glasses and ice). The legislature in the early 1950s made key clubs legal, but selling booze directly to restaurants was not. It wasn’t until the 1960s when a charismatic politician decided to change the law that Iowa’s liquor by the drink controversy would meet its end.

Harold Hughes was a WWII vet, former alcoholic, truck, driver, and, astute politician. He made it a part of his platform as governor to change the law. He said:

Let’s face it. You know and I know and every honest person in Iowa knows that we have liquor-by-the-drink in this state now…The moral issue, then is: Shall we straight-forwardly legalize the sale of liquor-by-the-drink, enforce the law and really control the liquor traffic in this state? Or shall we perpetuate the present wide-open club system that subsidizes the bootleggers and racketeers with revenue that rightfully belongs to the taxpayers of Iowa?

In January 1963 Hughes wielded his powers of the executive branch and began a system-wide crackdown on businesses, taverns, and even places like the VFW. Public pressure pushed the Iowa legislature to act and by July 4, 1963, liquor-by-the-drink was legal. The legislature, however, continues to hold a monopoly on the distribution of all liquor (except wine and beer) in the state.









Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Those Pesky Details

When writing historical fiction, it’s so easy to get lost in the details and never write. That’s where I’m at in my current scene. It takes place at the Plaza in late October 1924. There are lots of pictures of this famous hotel inside and out. However, I have been unsuccessful in finding a photograph or a vivid description of the Grill. Below is my process on how I mix both fact and fiction to create my settings.

# One: I knew nothing about the Plaza or where it was located. Nowadays it’s far easier to just jump online and go to the first link that pops up in your Search Engine. Not me. My first stop is still a book(s). One of my go to beginning sources are children’s non-fiction. They get to the point quickly and don’t offer a lot of details. I picked up: (1) New York: Everything You Wanted to Know (2) Eloise at the Plaza.

1 - Start Small








# Two: My library had nothing on the Plaza at all. So I did a quick search to see what was available. I found five sources: (1) Sonny Kleinfield. The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza (2) Ward Morehouse III. Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel (3) Curtis Gathje. At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel (4) Eve Brown. The Plaza Cookbook (5) Eve Brown. Plaza: Its Life and Times. 

# 2

# Three: I checked Worldcat to see if any of these five books were at my local library or libraries that were within driving distance. Nope. I was out of luck. So then the crabby cheap scape voice in my head starts whining about not spending any more money on books this month that I should intern library loan them. However, when I go to, all five books were under $5.00 with free shipping. That’s just $2.00 more than an interlibrary loan. I decided to splurge and buy all five books.

# 3

# Four: They took about two weeks to arrive. Playing the waiting game, I decided to search online to see what I could find on the Plaza and the Grill. I could find only two online sources that fit my needs (1) (2), but none of these offered a photograph of the Grill. Both of these sites did mention F. Scott Fitzgerald of whom I completely forgot about his obsession with New York City and the Plaza. I attempted to check out Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned, but my library couldn’t locate it in their collection (even though their website said it was checked in). So, I had to go here. Fitzgerald described the Grill but in very limited terms.


# Five: The books began to trickle in slowly. (4) Eve Brown. The Plaza Cookbook, I had been looking forward to reading thinking it would really meet my needs was a bust. More of a craft book than a cook book. (1) Sonny Kleinfield. The Hotel: A Week in the Life of the Plaza, I was actually going to have to read this book cover to cover. The events depicted were well past the 1920s (1990s), but I figured not too much as probably changed for the workers of the hotel. (2) Ward Morehouse III. Inside the Plaza: An Intimate Portrait of the Ultimate Hotel & (5) Eve Brown. Plaza: Its Life and Times, were okay. I could skim them, but they touched on similar things except told me when the Grill closed. (3) Curtis Gathje. At the Plaza: An Illustrated History of the World’s Most Famous Hotel, provided the best photographs and images of the hotel. There were no photographs of the Grill, though. The closest thing I could find was the remodeled version from the late 1940s in the Rend-vous room.


# Six: Now, I combine the sources I found from the internet and few tidbits here and there from the books.


# Seven: Then the scene looks something like this with the few items I need to research put into [brackets]:

I waited a half hour after Laura and C.J. departed before heading down to the lobby with my purse and the stack of newspapers clutched beneath my arm.

Laura’s new companion didn’t even bother coming up to our suite. He had the front desk announce his arrival from the telephone. I put his rudeness aside. His presence had allowed me one night of freedom.

The gloominess outside couldn’t penetrate the hotel’s interior. The walls were painted a blinding white. The light from the chandeliers winked at me like the glint in the eye of a half a dozen mischievous boys. I had to grip the railing tighter than normal. Every step downward jarred my ribs. Maybe I shouldn’t have taken Jake so far on that walk.

In the lobby, my footsteps echoed off the elaborate marble. The perfume of freshly cut flowers dulled the odor from the unwashed bodies of the travelers grouped around the L-shaped desk. After months of rooming in cheap hotels and boarding houses on the campaign trail, the opulence of the place made a queer knot form in my stomach. Even if Walley could have afforded a place like, staying here would have alienated his voters. I felt the guilt creep back in and I tried to ignore it. Maybe another cigarette, a good stiff drink, and some food would take my mind off him for a little while.

“May I help you?” The attendant behind the desk wore a swell suit. He had parted his hair down the middle and smoothed it down with Brilliantine. His hair’s severity didn’t soften his sharp features at all. It gave him the impression he’d sucked on one too many lemons. Maybe the last lemon wasn’t so tart. He smiled at me and his brown eyes were kind.

I stepped toward the desk and told him what I wanted. A phonograph with some Negro records, a suggestion on where to eat, and where I might purchase some food for Jake. C.J. and Laura hadn’t bothered themselves with him since we’d left Chicago.

The attendant smiled and gestured toward the hallway near us. “The Grill has delectable food with a wide selection of wines and champagnes not found elsewhere in the city stocked well before that inconvenient law.”

“The place have anything stronger than wine and champagne?”

His smile widened a little bit and his brown eyes danced like the twinkling light overhead. “I’m certain that may be arranged. I’ll send someone out to fetch the records and a phonograph immediately. And as for your dog, room service has a menu strictly devoted to meeting you and your canine’s needs.”

My eye brows rose at that. Room service for pets. What else did this hotel offer?

“Thank you, Mr. …”

“Caldwell. And you are welcome, Miss O’Brian.”

I frowned. There had to be well over two hundred room in the hotel and twice as many guests.

 “How’d you know my name?”

The man’s smile dimmed, but the sparkle in his eyes remained. “It is my job. Enjoy your evening, Miss O’Brian.”

Maybe I should have found another place to eat. The clerk’s suggestion led me to the basement. With my hand pressed against my side and my pinched face, I must have given the impression that I required immediate attention.

I was seated at a round table with a placement of four. I nudged aside an empty glass, a fancy plate, and silverware to deposit my newspapers and purse onto what appeared to be a soft, white tablecloth. Clouds of cigarette smoke hung so thick in the air I had to blink away the stinging sensation. The yellow light overhead waved back and forth as I was in a giant shadowed fish bowl. I could make out the faces of the patrons closest to me. A couple [Arnold & Carolyn Rothstein] and several of the college set giggling at the empty bottles of champagne on their table. But the men in the orchestra playing Mozart’s [piece] at the back of the room, their faces were mere hazy outlines. I hoped their food and liquor proved better than the atmosphere.

Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

What is Historical Fiction?

Looking back, I’ve always been drawn to historical fiction. I know this comes from growing up on a farm. My Grandfather’s brothers and cousins all lived within a two-mile radius from us. Everyone helped each other. During these group efforts of farm work, there was always plenty of time for gossip. I always gravitated toward my Grandfather, my Great Uncle Laverne, and my Great Uncle John. I always thought they were the best storytellers.

What is historical fiction exactly?

The Historical Novel Society defines this genre as:

To be deemed historical (in our sense), a novel must have been written at least fifty years after the events described, or have been written by someone who was not alive at the time of those events (who therefore approaches them only by research).

Most of the stories told to me growing up were G to PG-rated. Maybe ventured toward a PG-13 rating by the time I got older (usually for language). One of my favorite stories was told to me first by my Grandfather, my Great Uncle Laverne, then my Dad last year. This story always ended the same and varied only by the point of view. Coming at this story if it were fictitious would be labeled as historical fiction because I was neither alive at the time and had to approach it through research. Whereas my Dad and Grandfather and Great Uncle would bristle at the definition because they lived during this time.


My Dad said he was seven or eight. My grandfather said he was ten. Great Uncle Laverne only referred to my Dad as ‘when he was a little cuss’ (‘cuss’ changed to ‘shit’ when I was older). My Great Grandmother Mamie who had retired and moved into town at this point, still came out to assist with the farm work. There was a particular ram that had taken a terrible dislike to her and anyone that wore a dress. This was the late 1950s or early 1960s (depending on who was telling the story), so every woman pretty much wore a dress. This ram had a particular animosity toward my Great Grandmother Mamie. Uncle Laverne had suggested she had ‘done something’ to the ram. What exactly she had done was never explained. The worst instance involved Great Grandma Mamie while she was milking. The ram waited until she was bent over. He butted her right into the barn wall and busted out her front teeth.


My Dad was ornery. This was something he never grew out of. He knew the reputation of the ram and liked to goad it for fun. Sometimes he would go in the pen, antagonize it enough so it would put its head down and charge him. My Dad would make a game out of it waiting as long as possible to jump out of the pen so the ram hit the fence instead of him.

One early spring day, (this varied too, Dad said spring, Laverne, and my Grandfather always said summer) my Grandmother announced she was going to have a picnic on the front lawn and would be inviting all of her friends from Circle (this is what the Lutheran women called their organization at church). She made a point of making sure my Dad understood that he was to be on his best behavior.

No matter how many times I heard this part, I always thought it was a rather foolish thing for my Grandmother to do. She would have been better off saying nothing. My Dad, being his ornery self — took this as a direct challenge to her authority.

My Dad watched from the barn while he was doing his chores while my Grandmother and Grandfather set up the tables and chairs. All the food. The shiny cars began to snake down the lane and park in the grass. Women exited their cars in their finest hats and dresses. An idea began to formulate in my Dad’s brain. Something mischievous. Maybe even a little evil. But hilarious none the less.

He waited until he finished his chores. He did his usual batting to get the ram riled up. When he knew the ram was good and mad, he let it loose.

The ram didn’t hesitate. He ran straight for the group of ladies. My Grandmother saw him first and screamed. The other ladies scrambled up out of their chairs. Some of them fell. When they attempted to get back up, the ram in a fit of joy, knocked one lady in the rear then another.

My Grandmother never found the incident amusing. My Dad thought it was hilarious. He knew he would get the belt for what he did, but he hadn’t cared. It was so worth it to see the ladies looking like a bunch of bright dominos getting knocked down over and over again. My Grandfather said it was one of the hardest times he had to discipline my Dad. My Grandfather never admitted this to him, but he had laughed just as hard if not harder at the chaotic scene caused by his mischievous son and his devilish ram.

In the late 1980s I asked my Grandfather whatever became of the ram. My Grandfather paused for a minute, then offered me the usual response to the fate of any animal on a farm. They ate him. But he didn’t taste very good, he had said. The meat was too tough.

Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Mining the Everywhere

Writing is hard. It’s even more difficult when I have to make the historian in me go sit in the corner by themselves. They’re mumbling away: ‘”That isn’t right. You can’t change that. It isn’t true.” My writer self says: “Shut up! It’s fiction, damn it!”

The character in my current WIP has ended up in Sioux City, Iowa. What I knew about the place is minuscule. The few tidbits of history I’d gleaned from my father and husband who both attended college there decades ago. So, I bought a couple of books and inner library loaned several more to immerse myself in the city’s history.

This is what drives the historian in me bat s&%t crazy. I want to find a source–something that goes into in a depth analysis about Sioux City during Prohibition. I can’t find squat print wise. The closest thing I can find is a Master’s Thesis from a South Dakota university on law enforcement during the 1930s and a book about South Dakota during prohibition (Sioux City is rare in that it sits very close to two other states). There are a few things scattered on the internet. The myth of Sioux City being the ‘Little Chicago’ is debunked here. So, I attempt to go to to see if I can find anything in nearby newspapers.

Grrr….fragments in the newspapers too. But a few things happened at once that helped me get through my current scene.

Cheesy action flicks. I like to have noise in the background, especially things I’ve seen so I won’t get sucked into something new. Commando (1985). It wasn’t Arnold Schwarzenegger’s beef cake one-liner’s that intrigued me. It was David Patrick Kelly’s character Sully. The small, vicious little guy that was always waiting for the right moment to strike only to get squashed at the end. Kelly creates another intense character, Charlie, in John Wick (2014). He makes Charlie memorable with both his wicked humor and the irony of his profession, waste management. Could I create a character with the same sharp characteristics and make him as interesting as Kelly does with both of these characters (likable feels like the wrong word here)?

That one story. Cheryl Mullenbach’s violent summary of the crime committed by Ira Pavey. A local bootlegger who ended his competition by way of a bullet to the back of their head (I had to confirm the story against the newspapers of the time and it checked out).

David Patrick Kelly and the bootlegger Ira Pavey…I needed to blend these two ideas into one. There had to be an intense and funny guy in this scene. Having him would: 1) Increase tension – feuding bootleggers and my main character is caught in the middle 2) Show the steal of my character by showing the mechanisms she uses to hide her fear and disgust of his profession.

Secondary characters are there to enhance the main character. If you (or I) have done it right, these lower tiered characters can be memorable, too.

Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Story Always Trumps Fact

“The historian must remember his research, the historical novelist must forget it.” (1)

This is one of my favorite quotes about how to write historical fiction. I feel it sums up exactly what a writer must do in order to be successful in this genre. Historical details may be tweaked or altered to fit a story. But story will always, always trump fact.

Below is an excerpt to a novel that I’m currently writing. It takes place in rural Iowa in 1924. The main character has just survived a terrible car accident with her godfather. She’s guilt ridden, injured, and the doctor is persuading her to submit to an examination. This tiny sample will show how I weave my own personal experiences and research together to create a vivid setting. I have footnoted these for a  smoother reading experience.


     I stood on the farmhouse’s porch and clutched its railing. Flecks of cold dusted my knuckles. The stench of manure still hung potent in the air despite the mummer of falling snow.
Tears dampened my cheeks. My teeth gouged by lower lip, silencing the sobs that shook my body. The excruciating pain from my ribs couldn’t compare to the breaking of my heart.
Walley hadn’t meant the things he said. It was his broken legs and pelvis talking. He didn’t regret taking me in. He didn’t hate me. I wasn’t selfish for wanting him to live or was I?
For years Walley had been my knight. His blunt square features with his crooked nose, had been the first thing I’d seen after the thick fog of shock had dissipated after I’d killed my father. It was Walley and not Ida, who had comforted me when I woke screaming from the nightmares. He’d told me he had nightmares too about two boys in a jungle when he’d been a soldier in the Philippines. (2)
Someone touched my elbow. I startled. The movement jarred my ribs. I grimaced and turned away, wiping my face on the sleeve of my leather coat so the doctor couldn’t see my tears.
“He is finally asleep.” The doctor had a thick German brogue. He was a short, balding man with a tiny mustache. Behind a thick pair of specs, his enlarged brown eyes mirrored compassion. (3)
“I hesitate to give anyone such large doses of morphine, but in this case…” He sighed and stepped toward the railing. He smelled of perspiration and a sweet sickly odor that reminded me of the doctors who had operated on me when I was ten.
“I’ve done all that I can for him. I have no x-ray machine to know the exact details of his injuries. The governor needs a hospital.” He gave me a sidelong glance. “He is the governor, is he not?”
“Yes. He—he was to have given a speech at the the high school in Templeton.(4)  We were to stay at the rectory with Father Brenahan. (5) He and Walley were friends and neighbors growing up near Corning.”
“The train does not usually arrive until eight o’clock.” The doctor reached into his vest pocket and pulled out his watch. “That—will not arrive for several hours.” He returned his watch. “I will accompany you both to Sioux City. I have a colleague, Dr. Switzer, who is a fine surgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital.” (6)
I nodded. “Thank you, doctor. I will pay for everything.”
The doctor bristled before he made a disagreeable sound low in his throat. “Miss Parker described the state of the automobile to me. And by the look of you, he is not the only one who has sustained injuries.”
Walley’s words returned, echoing in my head. You ungrateful, selfish bitch! I told you I didn’t want to be a cripple. Why couldn’t you do it? You did it for him. The tears came again. I stared out into the night and dug my fingers into the railing. Tiny splinters poked into my skin.
“Take care of Walley,” my voice trembled. “I’ll be swell. I’ve been through far worse.”
“That very well maybe true, Miss O’Brian, but you do have injuries. Several to the head. You may have a concussion. I am able to see and smell the blood distinctly from where I stand. Your ribs are not doubt broken. How many and to what extend will be determined by my examination. The Governor has been seen too, now, it is your turn. I will take no further arguments.”
His footsteps were hard and steady. The hinges of the screen door squealed before he opened the kitchen door. The kerosene light made a silhouette of his stiff shoulders and the ridges of his knuckles as he gripped the door frame.
“Come, Miss O’Brian. If you do not, you will force me to do my examination out here in the cold.”

 End of excerpt


  1. Celia Brayfield & Duncan Sprott, Writing Historical Fiction (2014).
  2. Iowa had many governors from 1900 to 1931. One thing they all shared was they were Republican. I combined many of their attributes to create Walley’s character. I used one element of former Governor Dan W. Turner’s life. He served in Iowa’s 51st K Company which fought in the Philippines for a year and a half. Many of the guerrillas he was fighting weren’t much older than fourteen. This haunted the former governor when he spoke of it in an interview years later. I used this as well when I would describe a flashback involving Pru and her father later on in the novel.
  3. This area of Iowa had a lot of German settlers. They brought their customs, language and way of life to northwest Iowa. German immigrants encountered a lot of hostility during and after the First World War. One of my favorite shows, Boardwalk Empire, had a German character, Eddie Kesslar. His accent is what I heard in my head when this doctor speaks.
  4. 1924 was an election year for the governor. I made him an incumbent riding into office on the dry ticket in 1920. Templeton was not a dry community. Much of the towns economy was based on agriculture and when the market tanked after World War I, farmers turned making money through illegal alcohol production to keep their farms afloat.
  5. Templeton is a small community located in Carroll County in northwest Iowa. It had a large influx of German immigrants in the 1880s who brought with them their catholic heritage and their love of alcohol. During 1920s and the 1930s the entire town banded together to keep the production and selling of illegal alcohol a secret from prying prohibition agents. Their brand of rye spirits became well known and desired by the bootleggers in Chicago. Two really good sources about Templeton are: Bryce T. Bauer’s Gentlemen Bootleggers and History Book, Century of Memories, Templeton, Iowa 1882-1982.
  6. Western Iowa is incredibly rural, and it still is today. Templeton is a very small town. Paved roads were not as numerous and were not as maintained as they were today. Rail service was the fastest way in and out of a town. Sioux City at the time was probably the largest city at the time equipped with a better hospital to care for someone with Walley’s injuries. However, Sioux City is 106 miles from Templeton.
Craft: Research

Kindle Unlimited

Image result for kindle unlimited imagesI’m already a Prime Member so I’ve been debating on whether to fund another avenue in Amazon’s empire. I know there are other sites and places out there that offer better options such as Oyster and Scribd (which I already use as a sort of server function for another site I manage) or free, such as the public libraries. What made me click the ‘submit’ button, was the research factor.

I’ve been eyeing some drink guide books from the 1930s. I can’t get them through inter-library loan and I couldn’t justify spending the money to buy them (if the paper back version is anything like the ebook free sample version, both versions would be pretty hideous, however I really only wanted a few recipes out of each book anyway and the recipes are legible). I finally decided to take the plunge and join. Pretty soon I found other writing craft books that belonged to the unlimited family as well. So, by the time I pay for gas, get in my car and head to the library multiple times in a month, I’ll probably just break even. But if I can get the research books I need without too much hassle, it’s worth it.