Sarah Shaber is the author of Louise's War (Severn House, August 2011), Louise's Gamble (forthcoming), the Professor Simon Shaw murder mysteries, and editor of Tar Heel Dead.
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Research by Shopping ‘til you Drop!
Researching a historical novel doesn’t have to mean hours in dusty library stacks, straining your eyes hunched over digital collections on the internet, or fiddling with microfilm on those dated readers in some closet in the local library. Oh, you’re destined to do some of that, but I found a fun, and ultimately more useful, way to research my book, Louise’s War, the first in my new historical mystery series. It’s set during Washington, DC, during World War II, and features Louise Pearlie, a young widow who finds herself working at the Office of Strategic Services. The book takes place during July 1942, so I confined much of my research to that month.
One day, after spending the morning using a magnifying glass trying to read terrible printouts of Washington Post stories, I typed “July 1942” into Ebay. Well, talk about an excess of riches! My search turned up magazines, photographs, books, maps, and pamphlets galore, all for very little money. I went on a shopping spree. I wound up with a stack of what would turn out to be wonderful information. Two issues of Home Companion, a woman’s magazine full of advice columns, short stories, and lots of ads.
Time, Newsweek, and Life for the two week period when my book took place, which told me what stories journalists thought were important at the time they were happening, rather than what later commentators thought. I found a pamphlet with maps and articles about the war’s progress frozen in the exact time my book happens, and Betty Crocker’s cookbook with recipes for rationing. I also discovered a novel titled Catherine Hicks, which I’ve never found anywhere else, published just after the war, about the life of a government girl. I bought several popular novels published then too. Mary Roberts Rinehart’s The Yellow Room was a terrific mystery filled with popular expressions, descriptions of clothing and household items, and the worries and duties of a single woman during World War II.
My most precious acquisition was an Esso Visitors Guide and map to Washington DC issued in 1942. When I received it I took it straight to Kinko’s and had them enlarge it.
It hangs on the wall next to my desk. It’s not just a street map, it shows all the tourist attractions, hotels, embassies, department stores, churches, and dozens of other buildings in the city. I know exactly where Louise is going at any time and how to get her there.
Countless postcards, photographs, menus, advertisements and other printed single-page ebay offerings don’t need to be purchased. You can simply click on them and save them to your computer. I print them out and paper my office wall with them.
Of course you can find these materials elsewhere, in various library collections. But not in one place so quickly. There’s an advantage to owning them, again I emphasize for not much money. You can consult them throughout the writing of your book instead of for a few hours during the research phase of your work. And if you’re writing a series, they’re available for the rest of your books, too.
There’s no substitute for reading the daily newspapers during the time an historical novel takes place. But I’ve find that owning a stack of materials I can keep in my office while writing my book helps me immerse myself in my time period in a way nothing else can.
It goes without saying that story is the most important element in any mystery. Louise’s War is about Louise and the mystery she solves, not about what street she crosses to get to Woodward and Lothrop or the Mayflower Hotel. But setting in a historical mystery is a crucial element. The reader needs to feel like he or she is right there with Louise, and I’ve found that the memorabilia I’ve found on Ebay helps me create that atmosphere.
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