Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Joys of Research

by Jean Henry Mead

Research is usually the most enjoyable aspect of writing but, as any historical writer knows, you can get so carried away with reading that you don't get around to writing. Rarely is research an ordeal unless you take on a project that’s beyond what you had envisioned. If you’re young and intrigued with your subject, you might even spend three years at a microfilm machine to research a centennial history, which is what I did during the mid-1980s while researching Casper Country: Wyoming’s Heartland. The first newspaper printed in the newly-established Natrona County was published in 1889, and I read 97 years’ worth of microfilmed newspapers. Needless to say, it caused some vision problems.

But what an experience it was. Because I'm a former news reporter, I found most early news reporting humorous, and the newspaper changed owners nearly as often as it changed its type. The paper's third owner, who was Casper's postmaster, disappeared on a trip to Yellowstone Park, and in 1897, a bona fide newsman, Alfred Mokler, took over and published the newspaper for the next 17 years. Unfortunately, some of his reporting was later found to be more fiction than fact, so my second edition had to be rewritten.

I like to include humor in all my books, especially historical nonfiction, which can be as boring as technical jargon. And Wyoming's history provides plenty of humor. For example, Casper and its neighboring town of Bessemer Bend were once vying for the new county seat. When election returns were tallied in 1890, Bessemer’s votes totaled 677 or nearly six times that of its population. Casper’s votes totaled 304. The voters included women who had been enfranchised in 1869 to ensure enough voters for Wyoming to become a territory. Polling judges were aware that Casper’s votes also out-numbered its residents--although not by Bessemer's wide margin. So they awarded the county seat to Casper. Bessemer then virtually disappeared from the map.

Another humorous, although barbaric, incident happened one Fourth of July when Casper merchants hid behind barriers and shelled each other's stores with rockets from opposite sides the street. When unsuspecting residents happened by, they were chased down alleys and targeted with fireworks. It's all there on microfilm.

When the railroad town was first built, general store employees slept within a feed sack barricade to protect them from stray bullets fired from nearby saloons, so central Wyoming was a wild and dangerous place. Ripe pickings for a latter day journalist.

The area is also rich in emigrant history, Indian wars, the Hole in the Wall outlaw hideout, sheep and cattle wars, gold and oil discoveries, the "Cattle Kate" hanging, Pony Express, first intercontinental telegraph line and railroad, Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, Johnson County War and countless other fascinating events, so containing them all in one book was a monumental task. And rounding up over 200 photographs was even more difficult, especially after my husband was transferred to Washington state before I had completed the project.

Once the book was published by Pruett of Boulder, Colorado, I had a nice coffee table book of which I’ll always be proud, and probably best known for, no matter how many books I write. But it was a once-in-a-lifetime venture that I would never repeat again.

I wrote my first historical novel, Escape, from leftover microfilm research, and will probably unearth my notes again one day to write another historical generously sprinkled with humor.


Beth Terrell said...

Wow. You really immersed yourself in the history. It sounds like fun, though. You make me want to go out and do some historical research!

Mark W. Danielson said...

I agree with you about research, Jean. I once thought I'd right a historical novel about the Civil War (which is another oxymoron, since war can never be civil). Be that as it may, it quickly became apparent that I could spend a lifetime reading and researching this brother-against-brother conflict and still never understand it, so I gave up. Still, it was really interesting delving deeper into our history.

Jean Henry Mead said...

The fun actually wore off by the second year, Beth, but I'd gone that far and couldn't turn back. Our American heritage is so unique and interesting that it's unparalleled in the world. The Western expansion alone claimed over 200,000 lives along the Oregon, Mormon and California trails.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Mark, I've always been fascinated by the Civil War, especially becaue my dad was born in the old farmhouse that served as Lincoln's headquarters during the Civil War, on the Antietam Battlefield. It was the bloodiest battle of the war. I think you have to concentrate on one battle to do an adequate job of reporting the events that took place.

Chester Campbell said...

I agree with the fascination of research. When I was freelancing back in the fifties, I did research for an article on Ned Buntline, of Buntline Special fame. Dime novelist Buntline (E.Z.C. Judson) killed a young husband in Nashville in 1846 and was hanged by a mob outside the jail. A friend cut him down, but an injury he received in escaping an earlier mob left him with a limp for life.

My research was before microfilm. I leafed through the actual newspapers from the mid-1800s, reading all the fascinating details, flowery as they were in those days.