Craft: Research

Speakeasy Rules (1933)

I’ve been trying to flesh out one of my characters’ favorite hang outs. In the 1930s it had to be a nightclub. A nightclub could also be called a speakeasy depending on whom was talking or where one was in the country at the time (New York City had the most). One of the most famous was The Cotton Club in Harlem run by gangsters, operated by blacks and run by whites with whites only clientele. That was the way things were, unfortunately.

Researching nightclubs during the early thirties, I came across Stanley Walker’s account of nightlife in New York City originally published in 1933 and the proper etiquette to follow if one found themselves in a speakeasy/nightclub.

85th W 3rd Street Club Rules:

  1. Reserve a table in advance so as to be certain of admittance
  1. Don’t offer any gratuities to the head waiter or the captain as you enter the door. If the service was satisfactory, tip one of them a moderate sum before leaving
  2. Bring along your own ‘atmosphere’ with you. It avoids controversy and it is much safer all around.
  3. Do not get too friendly with the waiter. His name is neither Charlie nor George. Remember the old adage about familiarity breeds contempt.
  4. Pinching the cigarette girl’s cheek or asking her to dance with you is decidedly out of order. She is there for the sole purpose of dispensing cigars and cigarettes with a smile that will bring profits to the concessionaire.
  5. Do not ask to play the drums. The drum heads are not as tough as many another head. Besides, it has a tendency to disturb the rhythm.
  6. Make no requests of the leader of the orchestra for the songs of the vintage 1890. Crooning ‘Sweet Adeline’ was all right for your granddad, but times, alas, have changed.
  1. Do not be over-generous in tipping your waiter. Why be a chump? Fifteen percent of your bill is quite sufficient.
  2. Examine your bill when the waiter presents it. Remember they are human beings and are liable to error intentionally or otherwise.
  3. Please do not offer to escort the cloak room girl home. Her husband, who is an ex-prizefighter, is there for that purpose [Walker, Stanley. The Night Club Era (1933). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp 288-9].
Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Inner Editor (Shut Up)


Before I start writing the first draft, I make a deal with my inner editor. Go. Visit a lonely island. Go shopping. Or stand in a dark corner and mumble to yourself how you hate me. Honestly, I don’t care as long as she leaves me alone. But she doesn’t. I can hear her nagging and badgering. Sometimes I can simply ignore her tirade. Knowing she’ll forgive me once I’m finished so she can tear all that I just wrote to shreds. In rare moments, I can’t ignore her. She interrupts my writing with her cynical bitchy comments. Then I have to stop, think, and dang it, that’s not what a first draft is for. This is how it went tonight:

My hero’s been shot. His fiancé, the heroine, is driving him home and helping him into his house (Come on, really? She’s taking him to his house? Alone? What about that double-standard. Women weren’t supposed to call on a man at his home for anything other than business. Eichler[i] even says so). STOP. Well, this is an extraneous circumstance. He has been shot. And the last thing he wants is to have his overly protective sister hovering over him. And besides, they’re engaged. It’s not like the heroine is a complete stranger. And she has been to his house before, even though his housekeeper was there at the time. Besides, how come they can be alone in a car—the ultimate freedom for the teenager of the 1920s anyway[ii]) and in the woods and that wasn’t an issue? Okay. They are both insides. Where do they go? The bedroom. (No way. The hero is an overly gallant, noble gentleman. The bedroom is off-limits. For now). Parlor (Nope. He’d get blood all over the place and he won’t want to do that to his housekeeper)? Bathroom (Need to look up bathrooms in the 1920s & 1930s). They’re in the bathroom. She’s helping him undress (Well, how does a man dress and undress in the 1930s? The clothing catalogs I have at home show the outside only. Only a union suit is referenced, but I know urban, younger men would wear something else. So what, then? The movie It Happened One Night comes to mind. But Clark Gable isn’t wearing an undershirt and that’s two years in the future. Every site that I can go to quotes that men immediately stopped wearing them. They all quote a statistic that no one seems to site.[iii] Perhaps the trend of not wearing an undershirt had its roots also in the times. It’s the Great Depression. If you had to choose between an undershirt or putting food on the table, what would you do?).

Should I make my hero wear an undershirt? Nope. It would add tension in numerous ways. And besides, the trend for not wearing an undershirt had to originate somewhere. Why not Des Moines, Iowa?

My inner editor is okay with that.


[i] Eicherart, Lillian. Book of Etiquette. Vols. 1 & 2. Oyster Bay, New York: Nelson Doubleday, Inc., 1922.

[ii] Isreal, Betsy. Bachelor Girl. New York: HarperCollins, 2002; Lewton, Val. No Bed of Her Own. 1932. New York:  Triangle Books, 1948; Bailey, Beth L. From Front Door to the Back Seat.  Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988.

[iii] Outman-Standford, Hunter. “Jockeying for Position: How Boxers and Briefs Got into Men’s Pants.” The Collectors Weekly. May 01, 2013. Location. Accessed: 15 November 2014; “The Shirt Off His Back.” May 10, 2014. Location. Accessed: 15 November 2014; “Brando Sets the T-Shirt Loose.” Lisa Waller Rogers. Lisa’s History Room. March 10, 2009. Location. Accessed: 15 November 2014.

Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Buy More Bookshelves

If you want toWakonda Club 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 questionSayer Nurserys 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.


Craft: Research

Some times, Word Sucks

I’ve been in a groove lately with my current WIP. I’d just finished up my latest chapter and saved it to my flash drive. I wanted to give it some time to breathe before doing a final read through and saving it into something besides Word. Well, in an expanse of three hours the file had somehow become corrupt. I tried doing a recovery in Word. Nothing. I even tried opening the file in Notepad. That was successful but all I got was a bunch of gobbly-goop.

So adding to the mantra save and save often — save into something else besides Word too.

Other Alternatives:

  • Microsoft OneNote: I loved this program. It was great for storing all of my research into sub-divided notebooks. I could be a possibility to divide various WIP chapters, but for me, not all my devices had access to to the program. That’s why I opted for something else.
  • Evernote: I used this now to store all of my research as a plan A incase my hard drive decides to die. I also store finished chapters here as well (I just hadn’t gotten to it before the file became corrupt). What’s great about this program is that you can access it via the web, or the application on your device, make changes and it syncs once you’re hooked up to the web. The only draw back. Once you change something you can’t get it back.
  • Ywriter: I usually save my final chapter draft in this software. I love the fact how it breaks everything down into scenes, since that’s the way I write anyway. Once you’re finished you can convert the chapter to RTF, HTML or ebook.
  • Notepad: A simple, no-nonsense way to keep notes. It can be converted into to other documents. Probably a good thing to have if all you want to do is make a back up before you lose everything.
Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Chasing Shadows

Chasing shadows. That’s what researching a historical novel can feel like at times. You go one way, then you find yourself going another. I always have a general outline in my head of how things are supposed to go, but I usually run into obstcles. It’s never write what you know, it’s write what you’re willing to find out. This is how a chapter for me went.
Scene 1: Main character is sitting in library with her fiancee after the doctor has set her wrist. StopWould doctor make housecalls in the 1930s? (Check my notes. Yes.) Fiancee and she are alone. Stop. What problems did courting people face? (Check my notes). They discuss why fiancee and her father were arguing. Fiancee and girl part at her bedroom door. Main character is looking at at old photos. Mention golf clubs. Stop. What clubs were available and what were they called? (Check my notes). Mentions one of the girls has a Gibson style hair style.  Stop. When was this style popular? (I don’t have this in my notes. Gotta look it up. Tried Wikepida first. What do they site? Patterson, Martha H. Beyond the Gibson Girl: Reimagining the American New Woman, 1895-1915. University of Illinois Press, 2008. Check to see if any of the libraries around have it. Yes/No. It’s at a close library, but I can’t check it out there. Might have to interlibrary loan this one when I get more into this character. For now it’s okay to use. Dates in title of the book work for the time period of the picture).
Scene 2: Main character is getting dressed. Stop. Clothes and make-up of a 20-something in 1920s & 1930s? (Check my notes). Breakfast. Wondering why her father is punishing himself?
Scene 3: Main character is at work in the courthouse. Stop. What does the court house look like from inside and out? What would an office look like in the 1930s? (Check my notes). Main character is a law clerk for an appellette judge. Stop. How are applette courts arranged in Iowa? Woman lawyers? What do law clerks do? What would they do in the 1930s? (Check my notes. Have stuff regarding women lawyers in the 1900-1940. Don’t have anything regarding Iowa appellette courts. Quick internet search from the agency’s website gives me what I want. Need to go deaper into what law clerks do. Found two books on law clerks from the library. Great sources, but I don’t know if a law clerk position was the same now as it was in the 1930s? Couldn’t find anything remotely close in local libraries. There was a book on Amazon. The Forgotten Memoir of John Knox. While this is about the Supreme Court in the mid thirties, the Supreme Court is still an appellte court. Should work. Should I interlibrary loan it for $1.50 or buy it for $6.00? I’m gonna take notes and only plan on using it once–interlibrary loan it. Wait two weeks for it to arrive. Have two weeks to read it. Take notes.) Character does her job. Fiancee comes and takes her out to eat. Stop. What kind of car would a young successful judge drive to show that he’s made it? (Check my notes – Packard it is). Girl sees first love and swears.
From start to finish, it took me about a month to write and research this chapter. Guess  I’ve discovered one of the reasons why I’m such a slow writer 😉
Craft: Research, Craft: Writing

Car History

When you’re thinking about starting a novel and writing up a character sketch, don’t forget their wheels. What type of car a person owns can go a long way to show not only a person’s economic state, but how they feel about themselves.

packardI love the look of Packards. They’re elegant. Classy. But unless my husband had been a doctor, lawyer or a movie star, I wouldn’t have owned one of these beauties. They were  a sign of wealth. Of establishment–and cost four times more than Chevys and Fords.

That’s too bad. But a girl can dream…

Craft: Research

Writer’s Digest–HowDunit Series

This is a series by Writer’s Digest that ran from 1990-2007. If you write in the mystery/thriller/crime genres, you’ll find yourself refering to these books often. I know I do. Several of these I have in my collection.


  • police (gray)Bintliff, Russell. Police Procedural: A Writer’s Guide to the Police and How They Work. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1993. ISBN: 9780898795967 (Out of Print)


  • privateeyesBlythe, Hal. Private Eyes: A Writer’s Guide to Private Investigating. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1993. ISBN: 9780898795493. (Out of Print)


  • howdunitBoertlein, John . Howdunit: How Crimes Are Committed and Solved. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 2007 . ISBN: 9781582975283


  • ameatureChase, Elaine Raco. Amateur Detectives: A Writer’s Guide to How Private Citizens Solve Criminal Cases. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1996 . ISBN: 9780898797251 (Out of Print)


  • modusopertuniCorvasce, Mauro V. Modus Operandi: A Writer’s Guide to How Criminals Work. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1995. ISBN: 9781582971377


  • murderoneCorvasce, Mauro V. Murder One: A Writer’s Guide to Homicide. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1997 . ISBN: 9780898797732 (Out of Print)


  • justthefactsFallis, Greg. Just the Facts, Ma’Am: A Writer’s Guide to Investigators and Investigation Techniques. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1998. ISBN: 9780898798234 (Out of Print)


  • missingpersonsFaron, Fay. Missing Persons: A Writer’s Guide to Finding the Lost, the Abducted and the Escaped. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1997. ISBN: 9780898797909 (Out of Print)


  • ripoffFaron, Fay. Rip-Off: A Writer’s Guide to Crimes of Deception. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1998. ISBN: 9780898798272 (Out of Print)



  • police (color)Lofland, Lee. Police Procedure and Investigation: A Guide for Writers. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 2007. ISBN: 9781582974552


  • forensicsLyle, D.P. Forensics. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 2008 . ISBN: 9781582974743


  • malicious intentMacTire, Sean P. Malicious Intent : A Writer’s Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists and Other Criminals Think. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1995. ISBN: 1582971579


  • armedanddangerousNewton, Michael. Armed and Dangerous: A Writer’s Guide to Weapons. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1990. ISBN: 9780898793703 (Out of Print)


  • bodytramaPage, David W. Body Trauma: A Writer’s Guide to Wounds and Injuries. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1996 . ISBN: 9780898797411 (Out of Print)


  • deadlydosesStevens, Serita Deborah. Deadly Doses: A Writer’s Guide to Poisons. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1990. ISBN: 9780898793710 (Out of Print)


  • BookofpoisonsStevens, Serita Deborah. The Book of Poisons. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 2006. ISBN: 9781599634401


  • causeofdeathWilson, Keith D. Cause of Death: A Writer’s Guide to Death, Murder and Forensic Medicine. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1992. ISBN: 9780898795240 (Out of Print)


  • sceneofthecrimeWingate, Anne. Scene of the Crime: A Writer’s Guide to Crime-Scene Investigations. Howdunit Series. F+W Media, Inc., 1992.  ISBN: 9780898795189 (Out of Print)

Other Links:

Craft: Research


One of the best resources for discovering the past are old maps. When writing Papa’s Bones I found myself referring to this map several times. Map and Guide to Des Moines: Iowa’s Own City. Des Moines, Iowa: Des Moines Chapter of Commerce, c. 1930. Buildings and streets changed in seventy years. I needed to know what my character’s world looked like in detail.

The image below is what the Highland Park Neighborhood looked like in the 1930s. Many plots, especially to the west, were undeveloped. You can even see Des Moines University (Des Moines College) as well as the college’s athletic field. On the lower left is Broadlawns. Surprising enough this was once the T.B. hospital.hp

Reprinted with permission from the Greater Des Moines Partnership

Craft: Research

Interlibrary Loan

When it comes to obtaining books for research, lucky for me, I live in one of the biggest urban areas in my state. There are six different libraries within a five mile radius from where I live, not to mention three colleges too (one of them I’m an alumni so I get to check out books for free). Even with the internet and e-books, there still comes a time when either the book hasn’t been digitized or the copy that’s available is too expensive. One of the easiest ways to get a hold of a book is using interlibrary loan in conjunction with  Often times I’ll use Worldcat to see if the book is available through my library. If it’s not, I’ll use the bibliographic information from Worldcat’s site to make my interlibrary loan request. One of the most expensive books I requested was Glena Collett-Vare’s Ladies in the Rough (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1928). Most sites show it available from $75.00 to $200.00 depending on the condition. No way was I going to plunk down that amount of money for a book I planned on only reading once. Surprising enough, a school out East was willing to loan the book. I just had to wait awhile and read it in a week. I suppose there are times when there is a need to purchase a book, but I’m too cheap. I’d rather pay $1.25-$3.00, then pay $10 – $25. That saves more room on my shelves and in my wallet for books I really need.
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.