Saturday, July 05, 2014

JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM: 

TIPS FOR RESEARCHING HISTORICAL NOVELS
 

By Ellen Mansoor Collier, Author of the Jazz Age Mystery Trilogy

             FLAPPERS, FLASKS And FOUL PLAY, BATHING BEAUTIES, BOOZE And BULLETS, and GOLD DIGGERS, GAMBLERS And GUNS 

          Researching historical novels can be both exciting and exhausting: exciting because you never know when you might uncover fascinating facts and tidbits that you can use in your novel, but also exhausting because there’s the chance of “overkill” (especially in a mystery). You don’t want your novel to sound like a history book, but you do want it to be realistic and accurate. Often it’s hard to let go of research since interesting new information may suddenly surface on the next page. Give yourself a deadline so you can stop researching and start writing.

As a journalist, I prefer reality-based stories because I feel like I’m learning something new while I’m reading and researching. However, don’t limit yourself to Internet research: I dug up old newspapers, magazines, postcards, photographs, yearbooks, store catalogs, even menus to get a feel for the era. If possible, try to visit the area and locate buildings and places that can serve as backdrops for different scenes, or even inspire new ideas.

           At first, I used to go overboard doing research, like a typical journalist: At the Rosenberg library, I pored over endless copies of The Galveston Daily News, reading old stories and looking for headlines to fit each chapter. I pulled out original lay-outs of trolley car lines to make sure the trolley stops and routes were accurate. Sadly, many of the landmarks mentioned in my novels are gone so I spent hours looking for old photographs, including ones of mob-owned speakeasies like the Turf Club and the Hollywood Dinner Club. Finally, after much time and frustration, I realized that readers mainly want a sense of the time and place—they don’t need a blow-by-blow description or blueprint of actual places or events.    

           To give your readers a backstory or introduction, you may want to include a short preface, as I did in my “Jazz Age” historical mystery series, set during Prohibition in 1920s Galveston, Texas. While researching FLAPPERS, I was intrigued when I found out that Al Capone tried to muscle in on Galveston’s gangs. I included this fun fact in the preface to show the powerful reach and reputation of Galveston’s gangsters, little known outside of Texas.

I enjoyed watching old silent movies, period dramas and documentaries, especially noir films featuring gangsters and mobsters, noting the settings (furniture, lamps, clothing, music, etc.) and jotted down expressions and bits of conversation.  When writing dialogue, be careful not to use too much slang because it can sound corny and outdated. (I admit, I’m guilty of overusing “Jazz Age” sayings so I included a glossary of slang in the back of my novels.)

While researching BATHING BEAUTIES, I was delighted to find old news clips of the actual parade down Seawall Boulevard with the pretty contestants twirling and posing for the cameras—many standing precariously in open cars!  I studied the infamous yard-long black-and-white photographs of the bathing beauties lined up by the Seawall, but was careful not to use their real names since several were involved in some dangerous deeds (in my novel, of course).

          Since I write about real people (and gangsters), I have to be careful not to write anything too offensive or incriminating since much of the information was undocumented.  A disclaimer can usually cover the bases and prove sufficient.

         In GOLD DIGGERS And GAMBLERS, my main villain was an actual mobster named Johnny Jack Nounes, who headed the Downtown Gang in Galveston.  Little was known of his personality and shenanigans other than he was a flamboyant, reckless con man who once partnered with Al Capone’s right-hand henchman, Frank Nitti. So I played up that fact, creating a larger-than-life persona for the brazen gang leader. Much of the ending takes place at the Galveston Yacht Club that I  created, based on old photographs of actual yacht clubs in similar locales. The booze drop occurs at the actual spot called Rum Row off the coast, where rum-runners and bootleggers liked to deposit their contraband cargo.
   
         To save time, you can always ask a local librarian or historian to help confirm or track down certain facts, as well as provide additional data and materials. Newspaperarchives.com is a vital research tool, although the old print can be hard to read. Good luck!

5 comments:

Ellen C. said...

Many thanks for featuring GOLD DIGGERS today, Bill! Hope all is well with you. Best wishes on all your series! Ellen

Unknown said...

This is a great series, and I hope it's doing well!

Ellen C. said...

Thanks, Bill! I think it's catching on but now I see tons of 1920s novels coming out. Prohibition-era Galveston still has lots of sordid stories to tell so we'll see what happens. Keep in touch!
Best, Ellen

A Blue Million Books said...
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A Blue Million Books said...

Thank you so much for participating in Ellen's tour, Bill! Great post.