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Researching Necessary Deceptions

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February 5, 2022 by Pamela Nowak

One of the questions readers often ask concerns research so this week, I thought I would share a bit about how I research my characters and what sources I use.

There is an added layer in writing about real historic figures. As a historian as well as an author of fiction, I make every possible attempt at remaining true to these figures. That, of course, can be much more complicated than simply making up a character. A successful fictional character has to be fully rounded, with flaws and goals and growth. Character development can be very involved and take a lot of thought. When applied to a real person, it is even more so.

I spend a lot of research time looking for clues about personalities and character. This means I look for primary and secondary sources that reveal details about people: diaries, letters, newspaper articles, and local history books can offer those. In addition, I also look at the types of records that are used in genealogy: census records, births and deaths, baptisms, cemetery head stones, obituaries, land records, etc. Such details not only pin down what happened when but may offer clues.

For example, a census entry might list education, family origin, property values, and whether real estate is owned or rented. If a person is educated and raised in an educated family, he/she might behave differently than a person with no education. A family that owns real estate with a significant value likely was considered wealthy.

If a person was well-known, there may be entries about them in local history books. Obituaries might contain more detailed information. There may be newspaper articles that reveal more about them. Those are the types of records that help round out character traits and allow me to develop fully plausible flaws, goals, and growth.

To accurately convey settings, there are a host of secondary sources such as books and newspapers, travel pamphlets, local historical groups, etc. I also use city directories for a glimpse at local businesses (advertisements reveal a lot). To “see” a town or city, Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps show every building in a town in a given year as well as its location and construction material. This is wonderful for looking at where homes and businesses were in relationship to one another and when they existed. Historic photos can help me see particular buildings.

When the trail leads me to a certain topic, such as role of theatre in Josie’s life or prostitution in the nineteenth century, it’s helpful to explore a variety of online websites with general information about that topic. In situations where I need information to round out what a character is doing, online information usually works well. Books are also helpful. If I need specifics, I check a variety of sites and books to verify information and check facts. An example of this would be the specific details about the traveling theatre troupe Josie joined. Newspaper entries and ads provided a clear trail of dates and locations for Mrs. Markham’s “Pinafore” show—some of them in conflict with Josie’s accounts (which meant Josie either mis-remembered or her tale was intended to hide elements of the truth).

In some cases, I follow threads that are suggested but not known. The real story of why Celie (Mattie) Blaylock and her sister Sarah ran away from home remains a mystery. Various historians have speculated reasons were related to their restrictive home life, strict parents, or thirst for adventure. In speaking with living relatives, I learned about a quip passed within the family that the girls “ran away with a circus.” To me, that could be a joke or it might contain an element of truth. For the fun of it, I looked for any evidence of a circus being in that area and discovered there was a circus that had winter quarters not too far from the Blaylock farm. That led me to researching more about the Orton Family Circus and inserting that into my plot as a plausible (though certainly not provable) part of the story.

In NECESSARY DECEPTIONS, I also got to follow a new research trail, that of arrest records and trial documents. During Wyatt Earp’s time in Peoria, Illinois, there were multiple such records that revealed exactly what Wyatt was doing there. It was clear he had his hand in dealing at multiple brothels and that Celie/Mattie was not with him. While she may have plied her trade at other brothels or lived respectfully at another location in Peoria, I couldn’t shake the belief that she would have allowed Wyatt to pursue his activities without her close by. To me, this meant I had to place her somewhere else during Wyatt’s time in Illinois. I looked for clues to where she might have been and found family references that she spent time with Wyatt’s parents. I would have preferred having her in Peoria so I could have told THAT part of Wyatt’s story in more detail but in that, I had to sacrifice a juicy bit of history and tell Mattie’s story instead of Wyatt’s.

One of the biggest tangles in my research was sifting through Josie’s deception. Josie told so many variations about how and when she left San Francisco, her involvement with Johnny Behan, and what she did in Arizona Territory. In almost every version she told, the details didn’t match recorded historical dates of events.  In this, I looked first at the dates of events that WERE recorded, such as the dates and performance locations for Mrs. Markham’s theatre troupe. There were also newspaper accounts of Behan’s activities, service dates for Al Seiber’s stint in the Army, the date Lucky Baldwin’s theatre opened, and the dates for establishment of railroad and stage services. I could map out a timeline for those events. In that way, I could sort through Josie’s versions of what she did and attempt to put that into the historical record. She couldn’t have run away only one time because the dates for events in her tale didn’t match up. She had to have been in Arizona twice and the first time was not with the theatre troupe. Thankfully, fiction allowed me the flexibility to pursue that line in my plot.

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1 comment »

  1. Carmen Peone says:

    Excellent article, Pam!

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