By Mike Mizrahi
The Congo, Field Research, and Mary Helms
It’s pretty cool how sometimes in the moment, you wonder why something unexpected is happening, and in hindsight, you get why the tapestry was woven that way. I’m learning to accept such mysteries in my life.
I really thought we were meant to be serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo two summers ago. But after six months of prepping the team, I had some heart issues, and the doc said not this time around. Not to Africa, anyway.
My brilliant wife, Karen, came up with the perfect plan to console me.
As the rest of our mission team headed for Congo, we boarded a plane for Chattanooga, Tennessee. Yep . . . the Choo-Choo city nestled between Lookout Mountain and Missionary Ridge, along the banks of the winding Tennessee River. The “Gateway to the South,” and the location of some bloody battles in the War Between the States. Right up my alley.
As it turned out, we were supposed to spend several days in the Chattanooga Public Library with Mary Helms. I know what you’re thinking. Not your idea of a good time, right?
Well . . . Mary owns the third floor, the Local History and Genealogy Department. At least, in my mind she does. My wife’s brilliant idea, that we take this unexpected free time and do some field research for my historical novel, led us right into Mary’s den of treasures. They were shiny gems to me: books, photos, personal writings, newspaper articles, city directories . . . all about Chattanooga in 1895, the setting and year for my story. And Mary pulled these sleeping beauties out of their resting places, one at a time, to tell their stories once again, this time to an aspiring writer.
As Mary understood my storyline better, she dared to imagine how the historical elements of her beloved city–the people, the places, the culture, and actual events–might have played a part. The Internet is an amazing tool for research, and I used it for two months to put the bones of my book together into a skeleton. But Mary, and the power of her files–built through years of painstaking collection, cataloguing, and maintenance–put muscle in all the right places.
I’ve been down many rabbit holes trying to find certain tidbits of information online. If you’re a novelist or write non-fiction—whatever the genre—research can be the bane of your existence. Or, for the historical fiction writer like me, it can be an amazing adventure, a romp through time and space where make-believe characters take shape within the backdrop of real events. There are people out there who quietly do what they do, with excellence and expertise, and people like me are blessed to spend time with them. We just have to find them.
Remember Marion, the librarian, from The Music Man: the shushing spinster with horn-rimmed glasses, her hair up in a bun. Well, there’s a new-style librarian named Mary Helms. She lives in Chattanooga, and I’d guess in a library near you. She’s gracious, kind, and really good at what she does. She might even come to share your dream. Among the many treasures in that library, Mary is the most precious.
Some of those gems brought real life to the pages of my recently published novel about female cyclists and life in 1890s Chattanooga. Thanks Mary.
Mike Mizrahi has a master’s degree in public relations, advertising and applied communication from Boston University. After a career in corporate public affairs, he retired to pursue a deep passion: writing. Mizrahi and his wife, Karen, led a mission trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo four years ago and were so moved by the experience, Mizrahi wrote his first novel, which he hopes will one day be published. The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race is his debut published work. Mizrahi loves reading and writing stories about “sozo,” which means to be rescued in Greek. He and Karen are very active in their church and community and love to hike, travel and go the movies together. The Mizrahis live in Woodland Hills, California, where they raised their children who are now adults. Learn more about The Great Chattanooga Bicycle Race and Mike H. Mizrahi at www.mikehmizrahi.com or on Facebook (AuthorMikeMizrahi) and Twitter (@MikeHMiz).