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.


Fiction vs. Real Life

I’ve put my sequel to Papa’s Bones to bed for while. I was getting frustrated with where the plot was going. Instead, I’ve decided to concentrate on a story I’ve been thinking about for a long, long time. It’s a YA historical loosely based on my fifteen year-old step-uncle who grew up on a northwestern Iowa farm at the beginning of WWII.

Farming’s in my blood. I spent a lot of time on my grandfather’s farm (4th generation). I worked at a museum that specializes in Iowa farming. I figured I’d stick with what I know for this one.
The one thing about farming and Iowa, there’s a lot of primary sources available. One source that I just picked up from my local library is titled: Sunday Afternoon on the Porch: Reflections of a Small Town in Iowa, 1939-1942, w/ photographs by Everett Kuntz. The black and white snap shots are a perfect slice of 1930s & 1940s Iowa small town rural life.



Women in Architecture

I’ve been revisiting some of the old books on my shelves lately. One Intimate Enemies by Christina Vella, I haven’t read since I was doing my undergraduate thesis on the Creole reaction to the Louisiana Purchase. The book describes the life of Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, born to wealth and privelge in New Orleans in 1795. In the United States, she’s probably most remembered for designing and contracting the Pontalba Apartments. Beautiful brick structures on both sides of St. Louis Cathedral. Reading this book brought me back to my historical interpreter days at the musuem.
When I would inform visitors that the designs for the house at which I worked (to the right) were actual modified plans published by a New York house wife in Transactions of the New-York State Agricultural Society, Vol. VII, 1847. People were either fasinated or skepital of the information I was conveying to them (if they still were unconvinced, I told them to google: Matilda Howard). In Victorian times, the home was the woman’s natural sphere, why couldn’t they design them? Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba did and so did Matilda Howard.
What’s always struck me about Matilda Howard’s design is the flow and organization of rooms. I always felt that Matilda designed her farm house with everyone woman in mind.


Fabulous Sources

When I began researching Papa’s Bones back in 2005, I started by looking into the decade of hte 1930s. Then I shrunk my focus to Iowa and later Des Moines and its surrounding areas. One source I found invaluable was the Iowa Oral History Project. A series of of interviews done in the 1970s and 1980s of people in and around Iowa. It is a great way to get a first hand account of Iowa in the 1930s.

Some of the sources I used have now been digitized and are availabe for download:

A valuable source for Iowa boxing was an interview done by the Iowa Oral History Project that tied in w/ Chuck Offenburger’s book: Babe: an Iowa Legend. Sadly, this source is no longer available for check out or listening due to copyrite.


Polio & F.D.R. American Baddass

One of my husband’s buddies recommended we watch a new youtube movie trailer. The (no) minute clip for F.D.R American Baddass obsene, but incredibly funny. It follows the familiar path of books such as Little Vampire Women & Pride and Prejudice with Zombies, and the movie Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter due out later this year. In F.D.R. American Baddass, F.D.R. contracts polio from a werewolf bite. As absurd as this idea is it got me to thinking about this dangerous virus. Polio. The very word once struck fear into the hearts of adults and children alike. Just how devastating was virus? Let’s take a look.
According to Post Health International (PHI) between 1937 -2008 over 457,000 people have contracted polio. From 1946 to 1956 an average of 31,000 people contracted polio a year. The greatest peak came in 1952 where 57,879 cases were reported. PHI did not distinguish between adults and children contracting the disease.


The polio virus thrives in the throat and intestines and spreads easily from person to person via oral or nasal secretions Most individuals that contract the disease show little or no symptoms. 1% may develop paralysis or even death.


There are four different types of polio: In apparent, abortive, non-paralytic and paralytic. In apparent is the mildest. Usually resulting in flue like symptoms. Abortive also has flu like symptoms with abdominal pain. Non-paralytic have the same symptoms as In apparent & abortive in addition to stiff necks and achy limbs. The most severe and the rarest is paralytic. With paralytic, the virus attacks and destroys the motor neurons. Theses cells are responsible for relaying message from the brain the muscles. Paralysis does not mean lack of feeling. While victims cannot move their legs they still retain all feeling (Peters, Stephanie True. Epidemic! The Battle Against Polio. New York: Benchmark Books, 2005 pgs. 2-7). Many peoples lungs were effected and without the help of an iron lung, death was certain. Polio touched every ones lives even my own family. My uncle succumbed to the virus and died at fifteen. Yet many children and young adults survived, but their bodies were never the same. polio as ‘torture time’ (qtd. in Peters, Epidemic!, pg. 41). Lengthy follow up treatements, followed by excuricating physcial theropy, and numberous fittings for braces and crutches. For those that were able to regain use of their legs, it was a long, slow recovery.

A Race for the Cure

In 1937 the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (NFIP) was established to study and help those effected by polio. Despite generous donations, NFIP still couldn’t raise enough money. FDR made a plea to the general public. During one fund raiser, Eddie Cantor (a famous pop star of the day) joked to send dimes to the president. People answered the call and 2,680,000 dimes flooded the White House mail At FDR’s death in April of 1945, as a memorial to the President, the dime was later fitted with his likeness.

On April 12, 1955, people breathed a sigh of relief. Dr. Jonas Salk developed the first effective polio vaccine. Dr. Albert Sabin later developed an oral vaccine that met with controversy. It wasn’t until the Worth Health Organization (WHO) began using the oral vaccine (opposed to Salk’s injection form) in Russia, did popular sentiment toward Sabin’s oral vaccine change (Peters, Epidemic!, pg. 57). By 2000 the oral vaccine (OPV) is no longer the common form of vaccinations for polio. Instead the IPV (injection) form has once again become more popular. It’s given in four doses 2, 4, 6 & 18 months and later as a booster to 4-6 year olds. While the virus has been pretty much eradicated in the U.S., the disease has not disappeared completely in other parts of the world.


Women Lawyers in the 1940s

In my current novel, Comfortable in Alone, my main character is a female attorney in World War II, Iowa. I thought I’d share a little bit of my research concerning women’s struggles in the legal profession.

Law School:

The 19th Amendment didn’t alter men’s minds. Out of the 127 law schools in the U.S., twenty-seven of them barred women (including Columbia & Harvard). Many women couldn’t afford the tuition of bigger name universities and turned to part-time schools.

Part-time law schools were small. They had inadequate libraries, and half the teachers only taught full-time. They used the Black Method (lecture) instead of the Socratic Method (question & answer) for teaching to save time and money. Many instructors avoided discussing violence on or toward women. Usually the women in the class were asked to leave or instructed to read the material on their own. When it came time to pass the bar in 1931, two-thirds failed. If a woman did pass the bar, she would have to struggle in the real world.

The Real World:

In 1909 there were only 205 women lawyers in the United States. By 1920 there were more than 1,171 working as practicing attorneys in the less than desirable fields (anti-trust, divorce, probate and taxes). Very few women were practicing alone. Usually they worked with family members.If she did join a law firm, her name was usually at the bottom of the letterhead or not put on it at all. Many women found that if they displayed skills as a stenographer, they weren’t allowed to do anything else. For women who made the difficult decision to venture into the courtroom, she was up to another set of challenges.

Once in the courtroom, women found themselves at the mercy of judges. Some resented women, others enjoyed the oddity. Depending on the state, judges made all attorney appointments in criminal trials. If a woman was on good terms with a judge, she got more appointments. But it was usually the opposing council that caused the most problems. The vast majority of men saw women attorneys as incompetent or beneath them. This often worked in the woman’s favor. Many arrogant men came ill prepared and lost their cases for underestimating their opponent. World War II brought a new opportunity. With all the men overseas, legal jobs within the government opened up with better advancement and better pay. But many women stayed put. They didn’t want to lose the clients they worked so hard to win over.


Chester, Ronald.Unequal Access: Women Lawyers in a Changing America. South Hadley, Massachusetts: Bergin & Garvey Publishers, Inc., 1985.

Ritchey, Charles J. Drake University Through Seventy-Five Years, 1881-1956. Des Moines, Iowa: Drake University, 1956.


Comfortable in Alone

I’ve put Papas’ Bones away for a while. Instead, I’m concentrating on its sequel, Comfortable in Alone, which picks up fourteen years later. I’ve been writing some, but I still don’t feel comfortable with the time period, so I’m spending the majority of my time researching.

I just finished two engaging books: Some Wore Bobby Socks by Kelly Schrum which explores youth culture from 1920-1945, and Ronald Chester’s Unequal Access which is part history and part interviews about women and their law school experiences from the 1920s-1940s. Next on my list is Soldiers to Citizens & a reread of Lynn Peril’s College Girls.

I think the most difficult part about writing historical fiction is to not get so immersed in the research you forget about the story. So far that hasn’t been a problem 🙂


Music & Writing

I’ve always used music to get me in the mood for writing. I plug in my ear buds and push everything out of my mind — except the scene in my head. Scenes with crater deep emotions, I tend to favor the romantics: Beethoven, Schubert, Chopin, Liszt, & Rachmaninoff. If you’re writing a historical novel, music can tell you how people felt about their rulers (Beethoven’s third symphony), or maybe even how a culture perceived death (Schubert’s “Death & the Maiden”). I use music not just as a mood enhancer, but also as a research tool. Listening to pop music of the 1920-1930s, tells you what was important and what wasn’t all infused in cultural slang. There are lots of places to get 1920s-1940s music. Flea markets. Record shops (78s are harder to come by though, since they’re so fragile). You can buy cds at your local music store or online. If you have an internet connection, a world of music is open to you. Youtube. Itunes. Rhapsody. Internet radio. Websites. When I first started writing Papa’s Bones, I bought a lot of cds. I listened to a lot of internet radio and visited a few websites, until I settled on & Red Hot Jazz Archive. has lots of stations you can choose from. I ended up going with Radio Dismuke, not only do you get original music, but you also get original radio commercials which is pretty cool! Red Hot Jazz Archive is another website that has jazz records from the early 1920s to the 1930s. You have to download RealPlayer to listen to the files, but the download is worth it.

I do listen to contemporary artists to get me in the writing mood too. Right now, I’m focusing on a scene where my heroine is confronting her dying villain. It involves a lot of tension and a bit of sadness. I always find artists like Christina Perri and Sarah McLaughlin a good fit for these types of scenes. Their haunting voices are always infused with a touches of melancholy.


Postcards – Snapshots into History

I love collecting postcards of Des Moines, Iowa pre-1950s. Not only does the scene give you a glimpse into a place and moment in the past, the quick note jotted on the back can be full of slang, humor or mystery. They’re inexpensive (usually about $.50 – $2.00) at a flea market or antique store and don’t take up a lot of space. The postcard to the left I found in a antique store on my way to Chicago. While it says it’s a night scene, I’m guessing it was probably from a negative that was touched up to make it look like it was night. It was postmarked 1914. It’s crazy to think this little piece of history is ninety-seven years old. If you stand in this same spot now on Walnut Street , the library and bridge are still there but the streetcar tracks and the coliseum are not.