The Cost of Research

I couldn’t write the novels I write from where I live if not for the internet. I would have to have access to an academic library, or to the libraries and historical societies in New York, New Orleans, DC, Chicago and more recently, St. Louis and Santa Fe.

When I first began writing Into the WIlderness I was on the faculty of the University of Michigan, which has an outstanding library. And still I had to buy a lot of material for research purposes.  I spent as much as $5,000 a year on  books, old newspapers, journals and maps.

Now it’s rare that I buy an actual book. Last year I think I bought a total of eight books that I couldn’t access in any other way, and about as many old journals that research libraries don’t carry. But I have the internet.  There are what may seem like infinite places to find historical resources — The Library of Congress, for example — which are free for anybody who cares to go rummaging through their attics in the clouds.  That is not to say that I don’t spend money.  I pay for a wide variety things. This is a partial list.

Service NamePurposeAnnual Cost (approx)
Zoteroreference management database, unlimited storage*$100
Evernote Premiumresearch notes organization and storage$96
JSTORacademic publication access$200
Ancestryincludes and$400

*I have to be able to find the articles I use in research once I have them, thus the need for reference management. I have to be able to find my notes about those resources I’ve found, too.

Ancestry is the resource I depend on most often, because it includes full access to  I use the census and other databases accessible through Ancestry every day, but I depend most often on the millions of pages of newspapers that were printed on the exact day in the exact place I’m writing about.

If I need to know what a dozen eggs cost in Boston on January 1, 1872, I can find that. Usually exactly, but sometimes within a day or two. 

click for larger image
click for larger image

There are very good maps on Manhattan in the 1880s, but sometimes information on the map itself isn’t enough. I needed to know about a bookstore on Union Square, and I found that info in a newspaper ad.



When historical, real life people wander into something I’m writing, it gets serious.

click for larger image
click for larger image

For example, I have done a lot of research on two people who practiced medicine in Manhattan in the 1880s. Dr. Mary Putnam Jacobi and Dr. Abraham Jacobi, a married couple, both well known to historians of medicine. They both appear now and then in The Gilded Hour, and a little more often in Where the Light Enters, and I have done family trees for them both. Mary interests me because she was the first female physician to challenge the idea that a woman must be maternal first, even in her role as a doctor. The newspaper editorial you see here helped me flesh out her character.

You’re wondering why I would need to do genealogical research on the Jacobis, right?

I know from biographies that they had a son who died as a child.  The idea that I would have either of them popping into my storyline to participate in a light-hearted meal with friends on or near the day their son died? Nope. Can’t take that chance. Thus the need to research their lives.  I blame my training in the social sciences. I just can’t leave that kind of thing to chance. 

I often run across incredibly interesting bits and pieces in the newspapers that make a storyline come to life, and sometimes I post them here, or more likely on  Facebook.  Here’s one I may put to use at some point:

Lawyers ask for an Italian speaking-officer In the Tombs Police Court.
Lawyers who practice in the Court of Special Sessions and the Tombs POlice Court are anxious to have a policeman attached to the Court squad who can speak Italian.
This, they say, has become necessary from the fact that a great many worthess Italians hang around the courts and make a living preying upon their unsophisticated countrymen, making all sorts of promises to influence their cases for a consideration.
John J Delaney recently appointed to the Tombs, has done a good deal towards the abolition of the system but enough of it remains to call for the intervention of the Board. With this object in view a step will be taken within a day or two to lay the matter before the Police Commissioners.

Clipped from 

The Evening World,  26 Jun 1890, Thu,  Second Edition,  Page 1

Odd connections in historical fiction: the lottery, Cuba, New Orleans, and Little Birds

It has been a while since I posted here on the weblog. I think of it as a bone pile, a huge mountain of stuff that should be sorted and ordered and made useful, but: no time. 

Today I’m using it to record an odd set of coincidences that shouldn’t surprise me, really. Historical fiction research often results in this kind of Frankenstein-ian monster, a creaky breathing thing with real potential but at the same time, offputting.

My friend Jason did some research for me last year in the DC libraries, and in the process he ran across reports about Italian immigrants in 19th century New Orleans being lynched. I’m very interested in the huge pile of docs he put together but I haven’t allowed myself to jump in because I’m trying to get this new novel moving. Little Birds is set in New Mexico territory in 1857, you see, so no excuse to be wandering around New Orleans.

But of course I have to get these two people from New York to New Mexico, and that means (1) early train travel — not as well documented as you would guess, unfortunately; (2) St. Louis in its time as doorway to the west — also not as well documented as I would like (for instance, if you can find a street map — any street map, no matter how rough — of St. Louis ca. 1857, you are the more creative researcher than I); (3) travel by steamboat on the Missouri River from St. Louis to Independence (there is more, but not enough information on this).

It’s the last bit I’ve been working on lately, this morning going through Hiram Martin Chittenden’s 1903 History of Early Steamboat Navigation on the Missouri River (Volumes 1 & 2). As anticipated there were lots of missionaries traveling west (Jesuit, Mormon, etc etc) and the whole Bleeding Kansas business had New Englanders headed for Kansas territory (you thought the Civil War started in 1861 when Beauregard opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston?)… but really what I’m looking for are odd bits like this:

It so happened that two St. Louisans, Sam Gaty and a man named Baldwin had recently won a prize of forty thousand dollars in the Havana lottery, and were using it in building a boat […] Captain La Barge made the annual voyage of 1855 in this new boat.

$40,000 in the Havana lottery? That was a huge amount of money at this point. So off I go to look into the Havana lottery and I discover… that I’m back in New Orleans, where the Cuban lottery was very, very popular. In fact, all lotteries were so popular that they were the primary way of funding all kinds of projects you would expect to be financed by taxes.  From a website which is much too short for my tastes:

By the 1810s the number of lotteries began to rise exponentially, making way for an entirely new profession, the lottery broker. Once sponsoring parties had been granted a franchise, the middleman-broker would oversee every aspect, including ticket sales, advertising, and payouts. Many lottery brokers would go on to stellar careers in banking, such as ticket salesman John Thompson, who founded the Chase National Bank (Chase Manhattan) in 1873. Although states began outlawing lotteries in the 1830s, they remained popular throughout the century; believing as much in luck as in the self-made man, Americans continued to buy lottery tickets in the hopes they could obtain something for nothing. Capitalism by Gaslight

So now I’m straddling New Orleans, St. Louis, the Missouri River, and I’m also back in Manhattan and I’ve got this very interesting character giving me the eye. He’s a lottery broker. Originally from Cuba. Or maybe Italy. A brand new copper by the name of Oscar Maroney who likes card games knows him, and can tell some stories. This lottery broker wants a spot in Little Birds, and he’s going to be persistent about it, I can tell. 

Meanwhile I’ve got to get these two characters off the train, through St. Louis and onto a steamboat on the Missouri.  One of them is wondering about maybe a detour to New Orleans, and he’s over there talking to a good looking young guy who has just starting his apprenticeship as a steamboat captain on the Mississippi. Name of Sam.

Mark Twain on April Fool’s Day 1885

From PUCK. 23 December 1885.

I came across a newspaper article today while researching plot notes: MARK TWAIN IN A RAGE. THE VICTIM OF AN APRIL FOOL JOKE.

Pranks were popular in the 19th century, but it’s rare that you come across one described. Certainly not in this kind of detail.  I have edited this for length.  

It’s not surprising that Mark Twain was a curmudgeon about autographs.  I imagine him glaring at anybody so bold as to ask. 

Also of possible interest: I often find the best names in this kind of news report. Bloodgood Cutter, for example. I doubt even Rowling could top that one.

APRIL 4, 1884. 
Special Dispatch to The Times. Hartford, April 3.
Mark Twain, ot this city, has been made the victim of a practical Joke and is fairly crazy. Tuesday morning, April Fools’ Day, he was surprised to receive a bundle of over one hundred letters by mail and later on that day received three hundred more, and up to last night had over a bushel of them scattered on a billiard table table at his home. Every letter asked the humorist for his autograph.
It seems that the Joke originated In the brain of George W. Cable, the novelist. Knowing that the particular abhorrence of Mr. Clemens was the autograph collector and that of all things detestable in this world the great humorist most detested being pestered for his signature, Mr. Cable conceived the Idea of a simultaneous attack on Mark and sent to one hundred and fifty of the [Twain’s] friends a circular requesting each of them to forward to the eminent wit on the 31st of March the most supplicatory request for his autograph they could concoct.
In addition to the communications of T. B. Aldrich and H. C. Bunner letters of a similar sort were forwarded by Richard W. Gilder, of the Century, George Cary Eggleston, Lawrence Hutton, Julian Hawthorne, Robert M. Johnson, James R. Osgood, M. W. Drake and scores of other well-known men of letters. To say that Twain was wild is putting it mildly.
The story was too good to be kept, however, and today It was on the lips of everyone. Some even went so far as to positively affirm that Mr. Clemens had actually challenged Mr. Cable to a duel and also several of the others, but such is not fact. The victim has taken a more cold-blooded view of the matter and now proposes to have a number of the letters published, hoping thereby to bring ridicule on the heads of the Jokers.
The following are a few of specimens received.
  • John Hay writes Irom Cleveland. He wants Mark Twain to take a leisure hour or two and copy for him a few hundred lines of “Young’s Night Thoughts” and an equal amount from Pollock’s ” Course of Time.”
  • Clara Louise Kellogg sends a dainty note from the Clarendon Hotel, New York, asking for an autograph, and Clara’s mother writes that she is really suffering for one.
  • Henry Irving sends a typical letter from the Brevoort House, saying; “The possession of an autograph of my dear Mark Twain is a matter of life and death wllh me.
  • Ellen Terry’s application is brief and to the point. She asks: “Will youn write your name for me?”
  • Napoleon Sarony writes over the dash of the pen that X X he calls his trademark.
  •  Edmund Clarence Stedman’s letter Is a good burlesque of the average school girl who fills In her spare time in writing to noted people for their autographs. Many of the words are underscored and sugar  Mr. Clemens with such sentences as: “My favorite American author” and “your well – known kindness.” Mr. Stedman not only solicits both kinds of Mr. Clemens’ signature,  but wants a sentiment in his handwriting or a few pages from “Roughing It,” “The Prince Abroad,” or “The Innocents and the Pauper.”
  • H. C. Bunner, of Pack, wants an autograph for his two weeks old granddaughter, adding: “The little Innocent abroad in this strange world of ours will value your gift when she is old enough to appreciate it.”
  • Joe Howard, Jr., recalls meeting meeting Mr. Clemens twenty – four years ago In front of the New York City Hall and then makes an appeal for the autograph.
  • Thomas W. Knox’s request comes from the Lotos Club. He has a royal commission from the King of Slam for autographs for the King’s two hundred and fifty-eight children. Colonel Knox suggests that the order had better be billed for three hundred, as the King’s family is increasing.
  • Stephen Fiske wants a Mark Twain autograph for a friend who is going abroad who wishes to take It along as a mascot, and Mrs. Fiske modestly spells the name “Clements” and solicits one hundred and sixty autographs for a church fair booth.
  • Henry Ward Beecher starts his missive by mentioning that he Is a very curmudgeon about answering autograph letters. Mr. Beecher sends a gilt  edged card with a formal demand for an autograph.
  • R. W. Johnson, of the Century, applies by postal card as follows: “Could you let me have an autograph for a lame boy whose mother has interested him in things spiritual by encouraging him to make an autograph collection to be rallied for at a fair, the proceeds to go to the Society for the Suppression of the Toy Pistol ?”
  • Bloodgood H. Cutter, the Long Island farmer-poet, makes his request in very poor rhyme.
  • Frank Jenkins, writing on University Club paper, wants to secure enough Clemens autographs to start out seven daughters as autograph fiends.
  • Marshal Kinney, of Hartford, wants one at the bottom of a check.  

After the War

On Facebook Suca Johnson pointed me to this website: Last Seen: Finding Family After Slavery  where Villanova graduate students in history are collecting newspaper classified ads that appeared after the Civil War.  African American families broken up by slavery  began the search for one another.  Here’s one I found especially moving:

“Abraham Blackburn, Newburgh, NY, finds his mother after writing 256 letters of inquiry,” Newspaper report of family reunification, Chicago Tribune (Chicago, IL) (reprinted from the Newburgh Journal), December 8, 1886. link