Researching My Historical Novel
By Baird Nuckolls, author of “Shattered Angel, Morelli’s Private Inquiries, Book 1”
My new novel, Shattered Angel, is set in New York City in 1923. While millions of people have been to New York, even more have seen it in movies, television or photographs. You may feel like you know New York, but I want you to know New York back in the days when my story is set. The Roaring Twenties were a time of great change in society and technology. Society was recovering from the first world war; women had more freedoms, Prohibition had an impact on society’s activities, new jazz music was the rage and new inventions were changing daily life forever.
Doing research is as important as plotting the mystery. You can spend hours or days finding out things that may never make it into the book. For example, we think of the radio as being pretty ubiquitous. Yes, the radio was invented in the late 1800’s, the first radio broadcasts happened in 1906 and the first radio station opened in Philadelphia in 1920. But in 1923, there were few radio stations, fewer programs, and the radios themselves were expensive. So, my detective, Morelli, does NOT have a radio that he can listen to it at night, as he might be doing if the year was 1926 or 1927. Those few years make all the difference.
Another little thing that needed a lot of research was cigarettes. If you watch old movies, everyone smoked like chimneys and pre-rolled cigarettes had become popular during WWI, when they were shipped to the troops overseas. They’d even become popular with women in the 1920’s and the long cigarette holders became a major fashion accessory, in part to keep ash off their clothes and prevent their hats from catching fire, but also to look sophisticated. However, there was still a cost factor. Morelli continues to smoke hand rolled cigarettes because it’s cheaper and he would rather spend his money on whiskey. Telephones were available, including pay phones, but deciding who would have one and who wouldn’t, was part of my initial research as well.
The original genesis of the story came from two articles in the NYTimes. One was about a rum-running tugboat seized by government agents and some missing drugs. The other was about a payroll robbery on the subway. As the story continued to develop, I read more and more of the newspapers of the day and decided to add things to the plot. Stories about the politics, including the mayor and the commissions came straight from the pages of the news. The Jack Dempsey heavyweight title fight was a huge event in 1923. I even found film footage of the fight on YouTube, so that I was able to accurately describe the experience of being there.
Ultimately, these details are what make the story feel like it’s set in a real place. The characters are mostly fictional and the story is my own creation, but New York City is alive and truly a character in its own right.
Set amid the growing roar of the 1920’s, a beautiful young flapper named Angel has hired Adriano Morelli, an ex-cop turned private detective, to follow her cheating husband. When Morelli steps into the rarified hush of a Fifth Avenue apartment looking for his client, what he discovers changes the stakes of the game.
He now has a murder to solve while staying one step ahead of the cops. And with a history of failure, especially when it comes to beautiful women, Morelli is hoping to redeem himself for past sins. From the Cotton Club and the city’s speakeasies to the Polo Grounds where heavyweight Jack Dempsey faces his greatest opponent, the life of New York City comes right off the pages of the newspapers of the day in this riveting historical mystery.
Baird Nuckolls has had a multifaceted career, from banking to baking. In addition to writing, she has been a partner and editor for The Wives of Bath Press, as well as an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine. She has previously published short stories, as well as a middle grade novel, “The Dragons of Graham.” She lives in Seattle and Orcas Island, Washington with her husband.