“Fact and Fiction: The House at 402” is the title of a two-part article I wrote for the local newspaper about a huge Victorian house we lived in when we first moved to the small town of Monmouth, Illinois. I recently spent two weeks researching who built the house in 1893, as well as who owned the deed over the next ninety-seven years. I loved going to the courthouse, looking at the old deeds with the swirly handwriting and the signatures of owners that I traced through those nine decades. Several of those men were famous in this area and quite rich. The house held over 4,000 square feet of living space, eventually suffering the apartment divisions that are the fates of many huge old houses. Finally, it was razed in 1990, its cost too much to support the rafters and leaded-glass windows.
My investigation began at the county courthouse where the helpful clerk brought out two huge tomes I could never have lifted, set them on the counter, and watched as a huge plume of dust escaped from the covers. Many of the other documents were on computer—a mercy—while other copies of deeds and loan papers were organized in rolls of microfilm.
A half block from the courthouse is the genealogical society of the county, nestled on the second floor of the public library. There I found old newspaper articles about more famous people involved in the house—their lives and their deaths. Fortunately, two gentlemen associated with the local newspapers left a wide trail of stories that was helpful. Also, city directories listed the names of who lived where back to the late nineteenth century. Alas, some of the directories were missing, so I had to rely on piecing it all together like a jigsaw puzzle. Love to figure out puzzles!
The house is a major setting in my mystery, Marry in Haste, coming out on November 16. It provides a historical location for one of the characters to begin a huge renovation project, and it also contains a hiding place for a startling discovery.
Because I lived in the house for five years and was using it in my book, my curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to know who built it and lived in it besides us.
I’ve spent four years researching so many topics that I didn’t know about when I left my career as a high school English teacher/college adjunct to become a mystery writer. These are just a few of the research topics I’ve learned about in this devious enterprise. If you have read the first novel and/or the novella, you understand how these random lists fit together to make up murder plots.
Three May Keep a Secret: arson, how bodies burn, cold cases—what is kept over the years, forensics, detective work, the history of a small town, small town newspapers, gunshot wounds, and centennial celebrations
The Locket: From the Casebook of TJ Sweeney (novella): the 1940s, the Roof Garden (Galesburg, Illinois), soldiers on leave from WWII, how bodies decompose, forensics, 1940s lockets, and what it is like growing up biracial in a small town.
Marry in Haste (coming Nov. 16): domestic abuse, PTSD, laws about domestic abuse and how they have changed, police response, gunshot wounds, detective work, blood spatter and ensanguination, the history of my Victorian house, women in the 1890s, house renovation, 1890s legal protection (or not) for women, 1890s social rules for women, corsets, marriage and engagements, food, The World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893.
Death Takes No Bribes (coming May 2017): poisons, tox screens, forensic work with poisons, detective investigation, coffee shops, schools in the Midwest, “Arsenic and Old Lace,” passages under buildings, organized crime in 1980s Chicago, spider webs, English cocker spaniels, current teacher certification, tenure, and evaluation.
This is a brief list of research for these books, a look into the diverse topics that somehow come together in the end to make up mystery plots.
Susan, this all sounds enticing. I’m especially intrigued by the hint of Arsenic and Old Lace. :^)
Tee hee. Yes, it does sound kind of strange–putting those items together. But it will all make sense in the end.
I am really looking forward to your new mystery. It looks like I will have another all night reading session.
Oh, geez. I have a feeling you may be right because the solution to these stories (two plots) is a bit more difficult to find. But you know writers love to hear you lost sleep over their plots. So thank you for letting me know, even though you may be dragging the next day.
I find that research doesn’t stay done. Stuff I remember having looked up earlier turns out to be utterly false when I look it up again. I looked up Josiah Whitney who is the uncle of my fictional character Emily Lawrence. When I went back to verify the dates they had all changed. Sometimes this is because there has been more research done, but mostly it is because I got it wrong the first time. Or maybe I need to keep better notes.
Can you imagine me smiling? I’m imagining gremlins going in and changing things once you think you know the accurate information. I am not sure I’ve had research come undone, but it certainly is hard to find after I’ve done it. I don’t know if it’s better to do research while you are writing so you know exactly where it is, or if it’s better to lose a lot of time trying to find where you put it. I can’t explain it changing, although way back I suppose accuracy was not a virtue. The fact that you do it so you will be as accurate as possible IS a virtue. Maybe we both need a research assistant!