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 Newspapers.com and Fold3.com$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 newspapers.com.  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. 

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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.

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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:

AIMED AT COURT HARPIES.
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

Software for the Historical Novelist, and Little Birds

I don’t know how I missed this, but now that I’ve found  Aeon Timeline 2, I have to share the good news.

Because I write historical fiction I’m always juggling fictional characters and events with what really happened.  I have spent hundreds of hours mapping out battles in order to wind my plot lines in and out and around. The battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812 was a major challenge, and it was, in relative terms, straight-forward. 

With this timeline software I can have fictional and non-fictional events displayed in ways that help me visualize connections and overlaps (and more important: errors), and I can color code everything so I can tell the difference right away. 

Characters are set up one by one and can be assigned to storylines, and that’s just the tip of this iceberg. 

Unfortunately the people at Aeon have put up screenshots that are too dark to really appreciate, but here’s one of them. 

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The first thing I did was change the color scheme to dark on light.

I would show you a sample of my own timeline, but that would mean giving away information about the next novel (tentatively titled Little Birds) and that would be really dopey of me at this early stage.  She said slyly. 

Excerpt: Where the Light Enters

January 1, 1884

Dear Auntie, Dear every one of you,

The Swiss greet each other on New Year’s Eve with this saying: ‘Rutscht gut rein ins neue Jahr!’ If I understand correctly this means ‘I wish you a good slide into the New Year,’ which I suppose makes sense, given the snow and the mountains and the amount of Schnapps consumed during New Year’s Eve celebrations.  For some reason no one can explain, pigs are considered good luck at the New Year, and thus this small offering in India ink rather than pink marzipan.

Aunt Quinlan is not, I trust, sliding anywhere, but sitting snug in the parlor wrapped in the blue shawl that brings out the color of her eyes, with the rest of you gathered all around. How we would like to be there with you to wish you good health and happiness in this new year 1884. With all my heart I wish those things for you.

Cap was especially sad to miss Mrs. Lee’s traditional New Year’s Eve turkey dinner. Apparently that particular bird is unknown in the Alps. But do not fear: we are served good food in abundance. Mrs. Fink is not quite so talented as Mrs. Lee, but still we are eating regularly and very well.

All is calm just now, as Cap is napping. Pip is tucked up against Cap’s shoulder with his nose pressed against the pulse point just below the left ear, an attentive little dog with the instincts of a nurse. This means that I have a short while to write without pauses for cross examination.

Do you remember how Cap told us he wouldn’t miss practicing law? As it turns out, he could only make that claim because he knew he would still have me to practice on. Whatever I write, to whomever I am writing, if I don’t send it off to the post before he realizes what I am up to, he insists that I read every sentence to him. His contribution to my letters consists of suggestions for alternate phrasing and, on occasion, challenges to my reasoning, memory or grammar. More than once I have been tempted to throw the ink pot at his head (this seems to be a family tradition, established by Aunt Quinlan shortly before her first marriage when she hit Uncle Ballentyne in the forehead with some kind of pot, if I remember the story correctly). Fortunately Cap always stops just short of inciting me to violence. And then he finds some way to make me laugh.

We might have known that a stay in a sanatorium, no matter how secluded and hemmed in by alpine glaciers, would not put an end to his curiosity. Even the mycobacterium tuberculosis bacillus has not accomplished so much. He is still working his way through the clinic’s medical library and every publication that deals, however peripherally, with diseases of the lung. At this point I believe he knows as much about tuberculosis as I do. Luckily Dr. Zängerle is better informed than I.

If Cap is not strong enough on a given day to hold a book, I am pressed into reading aloud. Even when he can read and write for himself, my assistance is required for interrogation on medical terminology (though that happens less often as his studies progress). This often involves forays into Latin and Greek etymology and anatomical texts and illustrations. His lungs are failing but his mind is as acute as ever.

Your letter dated December 9th arrived this morning, taken down so diligently by Mrs. Lee in her careful script. Today we also had a letter from Conrad about the custody hearing. The news is distressing, to say the least. If only I had something useful to say or contribute beyond the letters I write. Until there is some decision from the court I will assume that things will take a reasonable and just end, and the children will stay on Waverly Place with Anna and Jack, where they belong.

I’m sorry to say that my weekly report on Cap’s condition is also not what I would hope. A few days ago his right lung collapsed. In an otherwise healthy person, a collapsed lung will often right itself in time, with bed rest and breathing exercises. In advanced pulmonary tuberculosis it is quite common, far more critical, and rarely resolved. In Cap’s case the collapse was not fatal because Dr. Zängerle was so quick. With Dr. Messmer’s assistance he inserted a drainage tube between Cap’s ribs and into the pleura, with the end result that his lung did re-inflate. The tube remains in place despite the fact that there are serious complications that could arise from this artificial opening, but as you are aware, medical science is an exercise in constant juggling of risks and benefits.

What all this means, as I think you will know, is that he is not improving. I can admit to you that I never believed that alpine air and fortified nutrition would reverse the damage to his lungs, but I did hope that it would slow the progress of the disease. As it may have done. In any case, I am where I belong, here with him. He will leave me too soon, but until that day I will make the most of every moment.

Cap is stirring. It is a relief when he is able to fall into a deep sleep; for that short time he looks more like the boy I first met when I came to Waverly Place almost twenty years ago. He was so alive, I could never have imagined him like this. Now I must close this letter before he demands that I read it to him.

With all my love and affection your devoted niece, cousin, auntie and friend  

Sophie

 

Post Script: We have had a letter from Margaret, who is in Greece with her boys. Travel does seem to suit her very well.  There was also a long letter from Lucy, with news of her latest adventures.

Post Script for Mrs. Lee:  The sight of your handwriting on an envelope gives us both such pleasure. Most of all we look forward to the small notes and observations you provide in the margins. It is almost like hearing your voice, which might be the thing I miss most. Please give our love to Mr. Lee and your family.

And for Lia: To answer the question added to the end of Auntie Q’s last letter, yes, the housekeeper’s name really is Hannelore Fink. In German ‘fink’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it does in English.