Thursday, February 12, 2015

Writing Research: A Valentine to People I'll Never Meet

My last three big writing projects were an urban fantasy set in now-ish L.A., a contemporary romance set in now-ish Seattle, and an m/m romance set in 1955 Seattle. I've loved working on all three, but trying to capture 1955 was a unique challenge.

And you know what? I loved it. I loved the historical angle, discovering the rhythm of the language, throwing around terms like Aqua Velva and dungarees and Brylcreem. I loved it so much that I've jumped into a new historical project, one I've affectionately designated Victorian Goth QueerPunk. Everyone wears gloves and refers to each other as Miss and Mister, and I'm having too much fun!

Maybe writing historical fiction is my true calling. It makes a certain amount of sense. I'm old enough that my take on the contemporary time period is filtered through the 70s, the 80s, and the 90s, so might not feel all that contemporary. Also, I love detail, even though it drives me crazy.

And I love research.

Now we're getting to the heart of this piece. Nothing makes me happier than an open browser and all kinds of time. There are at least three pages open on said browser: Google (because it'll take me anywhere), Wikipedia (because duh), and

Good ol' Not one you're familiar with? Well let me tell you a thing or two. It's the website for the Seattle Public Library, and their main page will take you to a wonderful place. The Seattle Times on-line archive. Seriously. Someone(s) uploaded every page of the Seattle Times newspaper from 1900 going forward.

I love them. This nameless, faceless person - or more likely a group of people - who scanned page after page of fragile newsprint, and the nameless, faceless person(s) who created the super-fantastic word recognition software. Their keyword searches seem to be quite sensitive, and I have yet to pose a query this program couldn't handle.

Let me give you some examples on how useful this can be for writing historical fiction. I'm not an expert, by any means, but when I have some success at something, I like to share it so others can have the same success.

Example 1

I wrote a short story for a Christmas anthology, set in Seattle in 1911. Part of the premise was that the upper middle-class heroine had just graduated from college (without her M-R-S degree). One beta reader commented that a woman in 1911 wouldn't have gone to college. From Google, I was able to determine that the University of Washington's first graduate was a woman, in 1876, and that the school's 1910 catalog listed nearly as many female students as male (follow the link and scroll to the last several pages).

I also searched the Seattle Times archive and found the University of Washington Sunday Pages, a weekly feature provided by the staff of the UW newspaper, The Daily. On the Sunday pages, there were articles about fraternities and sororities, and about the women's track and rowing teams. I also found an enlightening article about the debate over weather a woman's education should focus on preparing for her future as a homemaker, or if it should have a broader application.

Seriously good stuff - and it shows how the newspaper enabled me to flesh out the facts I was able to find from other sources.

Example 2

I used the archive extensively on a more recent project. A good friend of mine was researching a book about the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, a World's Fair-type event that was held on the University of Washington campus in 1909. She emailed me to ask if I knew anything about the baby incubator exhibit on the fair's midway.

Um, no.

In my conversations with Paula, I learned all about the turn of the century fad for displaying live "premature" infants in incubators. People paid $0.25 to see them, and the newspapers did a great job of selling these littlest stars to the general public. My friend asked if I knew which hospital was the first in Seattle to have baby incubators, and although I'd spent my entire adult life working in the field of neonatology, I couldn't answer her.

But the Seattle Times archives could.

Using the archive, I was able to reconstruct a rough history of premature baby care in Seattle. In doing so, I uncovered gems like this, from 1907...

According to the accompanying story, the poor man was running up 2nd Avenue with a tiny newborn baby wrapped in a shawl, begging for someone to direct him to a hospital where he might find an incubator. He and his wife were new to the city, and were staying in an unnamed hotel under the care of an unnamed doctor. Someone on the street apparently directed him to a hospital, though the reporter was unable to learn whether he found an incubator or if the baby survived.

I can see the plot bunnies from here!

More than that, without the Times archive, I wouldn't have been able to answer Paula's question about which hospital had the first incubators. I know this, because I tried. I talked to my older colleagues and friends, but their collective memory didn't go that far back. Even Sr. Theresa from Providence Hospital couldn't tell me, and she was in her 90's and had been working there forever. It would have taken a search of every hospitals' archives, looking for meeting minutes and budget data, for me to come close.

As it is I can say with some confidence that the first hospital in Seattle to care for infants in an incubator was Monod Hospital (a place I never knew existed) in 1902, and the first hospital with a designated unit for premature babies was likely Seattle Children's (then called Children's Orthopedic Hospital) sometime in the late 1950s.

Example 3

So I've talked about how I used the Seattle Times archive to fill in the gaps around facts I found elsewhere, and how I used it to construct a rough historical record. I used both of these techniques when writing Aqua Follies. From other sources I learned that the Follies had happened during Seafair throughout the 1950s, but it was from the Times archives that I was able to start coloring in those bare facts.

I saw articles about how the water ballet team and the dance troupe were from Minneapolis, that they traveled by train, and that they stayed in the the UW dorms while they were here. They were media darlings, and photographers caught them brushing their teeth and curling their hair and practicing their routines, then put those pictures on the front page of the paper. Beyond that, I learned that the summer of 1955 was quite cool and rainy, which impacted attendance at the outdoor Follies.

All those things are in the book.

I also used one of the articles for a major plot turn. I needed something to interfere with my two heroes and was brainstorming possibilities when I found a tiny article about one of the Aqua Dear swimmers. Seems she inhaled water and required first aid, then treatment at Harborview County Hospital. (I badly wanted to crop the article out and paste it here, but couldn't get the pdf to cooperate.) I don't want to give anything away, so won't say HOW I put that poor swimmer to work for me, but she's there.

The Seattle Times isn't the only newspaper archive on line. I was digging around the Boston Library website the other day (because research geek) and saw one of that city's major papers has an on-line archive too. Obviously the record is limited to how far back the paper was printed and how much they scan, but there's tons of information out there if you know where to look. You can use these on-line archives to learn facts, to flesh out what you already know, and even to help inform your plot.

And while you're at it, send a big Valentine's smoochie to the hardworking, patient soul(s) who made your research so much fun!


In the interest of sharing what we know, if you've got other ideas for how to apply on-line archives - or other sweet research tips - leave them in the comments. I'd love to learn from you...


  1. Great post, Liv - I love research especially of obscure events in history for say past lives….LOL. I also love libraries, on line as well as going in side and looking through all the newspapers (on film) etc., but we're lucky they've taken good care of it all for us.

    Another good place to look are churches, especially if they are old. You can go in - you could at least at the Episcopal Church I worked at in the late 80's, early 90's in Danbury, CT and ask to see their old records. Baptism, wedding and funeral records as well as minutes from the old vestry minutes. You can get a great feel about how life was during time period, church was a very important to them. Being here in New England, Danbury was burned by the British, but they left the church alone, because it was close to or considered to be the Church of England. So that's all recorded there as well. Very very interesting and cool stuff.

    I'll stop rambling now - I should write my own blog post, LOL

  2. I think you should write a post, Debbie! I hadn't thought about searching churches, but it sounds like a very pleasant way to spend an afternoon.

  3. Always interesting to see where writers get their inspiration!

  4. It can be a lot of fun when you find a lot of info on your subject! Thanks for the resources too. Great post!

    1. So far I've had pretty good luck. I can lose hours digging around the archive. ;)

  5. Great post! If you love details and maps, you may want to check out if the library (I'm sure it does) has Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps. The maps detail individual buildings on city blocks, the materials they are made out of, and sometimes the older, former names of streets and roads. They can go as far back as the late 1800s! It's so easy to spend hours going over all the detail of how a city developed over time. Old school time suck.

    1. Oh, what a great resource. I'm going to see if I can find information about buildings in Boston, because that's where a bunch of the action happens in my Victorian Goth QueerPunk project. Thanks so much, Acuña!

  6. I'm the opposite -- I don't like research. You're never going to find me getting lost in the research and forgetting the story. I'd rather write the story. It doesn't help that I don't outline and really don't know what I need for the story until I write it.

    One of my shortcuts for research is to get nature trifolds for the setting. Those give the most common things people would see, which works perfect for my story. When I tried doing this online, it drove me crazy because sites just list everything.

    I also go see stuff. I write fantasy, so I can visit a Civil War site and turn the officer's hut into a cabin in fantasy story. We have lots of historical sites in VA, including Civil War battlefields, Revolutionary War era taverns, historical houses all over the timeline, etc.

  7. Honestly, Linda, I think we're on absolutely the opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to writing! It's a lesson in how many roads there are to Rome, you know? I do love the idea of visiting historic places and turning them to your own purposes, though. Might have to try that one myself.

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  9. Finding the mood of the dialect, tossing around terms like Aqua Velva and dungarees and Brylcreem. Everybody wears gloves and alludes to each other. Perhaps composing authentic fiction is my actual calling, it bodes well.