Friday, February 26, 2016

RESEARCHING A 1938 SUSPENSE NOVEL


By Linda Lovely


Why did I set my new suspense novel, LIES: SECRETS CAN KILL, in 1938?

The answer is simple: to honor my mother, who shared colorful stories about the 1930s and the hardships the Depression posed, especially for strong-willed females who were the sole support of their families. Mom’s tales helped me sketch out ideas for my heroine, but I lacked even a hazy idea for a plot. For that I needed to do a lot more research.

I should add I’m a pantser. I don’t outline, and my plot often veers in unexpected directions once I start writing. Yet, before I begin Chapter One, I need an overall notion of where I’m headed—if not how to get there. Since I write suspense, coming up with my core idea demands in-depth knowledge of the time period and setting, including known criminal activities, law enforcement operations and abilities (e.g. could they type blood or compare fingerprints in 1938?), religious and union affiliations, jobs women might hold, and general public attitudes and prejudices.

For me, research efforts are half the writing fun. For LIES, my wide-ranging sources included:
·         local and national newspapers
·         the era’s popular songs, movies, lingo and the 1938 Sears catalog
·         accounts of famous scams, Chicago ballrooms, and mob activities post-Prohibition
·         1930s patent applications and an interview with a psychologist on PTSD
·         Iowa histories of labor unions, businesses, and banking
·         histories of the women’s rights movement, census records
·         and, most fun, conversations with individuals in their nineties who shared stories about everyday life that never appear in history books.

The biggest problem with research is when to call it quits and start writing. Here’s what I gleaned doing just my preliminary setting/time period research reading a local newspaper.  

SETTING/TIME PERIOD: Keokuk, Iowa, my hometown on the Mississippi River, is a short drive from the caves Mark Twain made famous. Take one bridge out of Keokuk, and you’re in Missouri; take the second, you’re in Illinois.

Having settled on a year, 1938, I needed specific dates. I picked September when the Street Fair, an annual highlight, came to town. Mom told me the Fair was as big a magnet in the 1930s as it was when I was a kid/teen in the 1960s. So I began my setting research reading microfilm copies of my hometown Daily Gate City newspaper at the Keokuk Public Library. I perused the issues cover-to-cover for the weeks before, during, and after September 19, 1938, the day the Street Fair arrived. Here’s what I mined:
·         Colorful accounts of the Street Fair, including rides, where and when thrill acts appeared, visits from speech-making politicians, livestock shows, size of crowds.
·         Weather. Daily times of sun rise and set, high and low temperatures, rain and wind conditions, and a big surprise—reports on unusual fall river flooding, including daily flood stages and the impact on bottom-land farmers.
·         Area news. The burning of the Opera House in nearby Nauvoo, IL.
·         Ads told me what folks paid for popular items ranging from the newest style dresses and shoes to movie tickets, groceries, and automobiles.
·         Sports. Lots of reporting related to the World Series.
·         World & national headlines, news reports, and editorials. Painted a picture of what folks knew about Hitler, the growing crisis in Europe, unions, and the economy, as well as public opinion on these and other topics.

Research Hint: Three “saintly” librarians in Keokuk not only directed me toward multiple local research sources, they read my manuscript and helped me nail down an address for my heroine’s home, bus routes, popular eateries, active funeral homes, and more. THANKS!    

PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS: While libraries and the Internet provide a wealth of resources to obtain historical information, there’s nothing as compelling, funny, poignant and colorful as the reminiscences of individuals who lived through a time period you’re writing about. If you can find such individuals, you’re on to a gold mine.

Friends put me in touch with several individuals in their nineties, who vividly recalled life in the 1930s. I also talked with lots of younger folks, who’d listened to their parents’ and grandparents’ stories. My conversations with these folks are responsible for much of the local color in LIES. Topics included farm foreclosures, dresses fashioned from feed sacks, and rumors about a doctor treating ailing prostitutes from St. Louis. There was also a story about a bagman who carried money from local gambling halls to Chicago plus detail-rich descriptions of visits to soda fountains, school days, and, of course, the wonder of the annual Street Fair.

Were all these reminiscences accurate? Impossible to know. But, hey, I write fiction! In fiction (as in everyday life) what people believe to be true can influence events just as much as objective “reality” can.

Have fun researching!  
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Linda Lovely writes a mix of romantic suspense/thrillers/mysteries. She’s published five novels (available e-book, paperback, and audiobook). Her first four novels are set in the current day, but, her newest book, LIES is set in 1938. To learn more about Linda Lovely visit her website: www.lindalovely.com.



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