Read this exclusive guest post from Anna Loan-Wilsey about the research that goes into each Hattie Davish Mystery, and make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of A March to Remember!
In my Hattie Davish Mysteries series, we follow Miss Hattie Davish, a traveling secretary who solves crimes in each American town that she visits. So far, the towns have included: Eureka Springs, Arkansas, Galena, Illinois, Newport, Rhode Island, St. Joseph, Missouri, and Washington, D.C. The series is set in the 1890s.
As I aim to be as authentic as possible, I have had the opportunity to conduct a great deal of research, both of time and place. There is a great deal I am able to glean from both my own personal library (such as Sears & Roebuck catalogs, an encyclopedia of poisons, and a book of 19th-century menus) as well as from the internet. However, the most important aspect of researching my series is the site visit.
The very first thing I do once I’ve decided on the location of a book is set aside three or four days to visit the town. I have visited all the locations in the series before, but the research visit is dedicated for that only. I am always amazed of what I learn when I’m visiting a place not as a tourist, but as a writer researching her book.
When I arrive at my destination, I park my car (as Hattie is a hiker and prefers to walk over using public transportation, I do the same when possible), get out my digital camera, and walk the streets. Only by doing this can I get a sense of topography (several towns have hills that are quite steep and challenging to walk), the distance from place to place (I had to edit a plot idea I had after I walked the entire length of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Wow, that took me longer than I’d expected!), architecture, the character of different neighborhoods—as well as intangibles, such as how the light hits the buildings during a particular time of year or what the air smells like (essential for the seaside town of Newport). I do this until I’m satisfied that I’ve captured what I need to be able to transport the reader to this unique place.
The next thing I do is visit the local library. Local libraries are an invaluable source of historical information that can’t be found anywhere else (including the internet). This includes local history books, historical photograph collections, archived annual city directories and, most importantly, archived local period newspapers. I have found more information searching period newspapers on microfiche than any other single historical resource. For example, I discovered the minutes of a temperance union meeting in a Eureka Springs newspaper and a call to strike by “cottage” gardeners in Newport, both of which influenced the plots of their respective books.
After I emerge from hours at the local library, I head to the local historical museum, a source of unparalleled, otherwise inaccessible, information, expertise, and artifacts. In Galena, I stood inches away from personal possessions of President Ulysses S. Grant, and in St. Joseph, I was able to interview the city’s museum curator and walk the tunnels beneath what was once State Lunatic Asylum #2. I have also contacted local convention and visitors’ bureaus for maps, contacts, and any other information that will make my research trip as productive as possible.
Armed with this wealth of information, I am able to return home to my desk, put together all that I have learned, and create the town and the world as Hattie would have known it.
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As a librarian and information specialist, Anna Loan-Wilsey tracks down information every day that helps to solve mysteries. She earned her B.A. at Wells College and had several poems published in their literary magazine, The Chronicle. Readers can visit her website at www.annaloanwilsey.com.