When Research Just Isn’t Working by Heather Haven

Most of us pride ourselves on getting facts and figures right in our novels. And in order to do that we must do research. I come tooth to jowl with that all the time because no matter how much I try to convince my husband I know everything, I don’t. So, whether the story takes place today or yesteryear, I have to do a certain amount of research.

I love doing research most of the time. But truth be told, I have found historical research can come with a few problems, due to time and distance. And information isn’t always readily available. But tough togas. I need to keep at it. Accurate information grounds the reader. Inaccurate info can throw them out of the story. The kiss of death for any writer.

I don’t write this because readers chastised me for getting something wrong. Hmmmm. Well, okay, yes I am, and they did. Frankly, being told you’re a ninny just once is enough. I remember the incident well. I’d written a sentence in the Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries, where I state the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade took place in 1942.

Wrong. I got emails, some not so nice, telling me the parade had been canceled due to the United States’ entrance into WWII. I was ashamed and chagrined. In this case, I was worse than a ninny. I should have made sure I got that fact right. Lesson learned.

Currently, I am writing Hotshot Shamus, the 4th book of the Persephone Cole Vintage Mysteries. The series takes place in New York City during WWII. Percy Cole is one of the City’s first female private detectives. At 5’11” and a full-figured gal, Percy is physically bigger than many men of that era. Between that and her brains, she’s quite comfortable living in a man’s world. I love writing about her but sometimes, finding out about the world around her is hard. After all, there was a war on. And living three thousand miles away in sunny California these days doesn’t help. I can’t just hop on a bus.

In Hotshot Shamus, much of the action revolves around the Cloisters, a museum completed in 1938. While living in Manhattan, I visited the Cloisters often, but small details have escaped me. I do know it’s a gorgeous museum dedicated solely to Medieval art and owned by the Metropolitan Museum on 5th Avenue. Unlike the Met, though, the Cloisters is in the middle of nowhere, way up in Manhattan’s Fort Tryon Park. Even today the Cloisters doesn’t see the number of visitors it should. In its salad days, it saw even fewer. Probably because the United States had been drawn into yet another world war right after the depression. Life was scary and hard. Most people simply didn’t have the mindset or the luxury of a visit to a museum.

How does this tie in with my historical research? What all of this means is not a lot was written up on the Cloisters during that time. I can get large details, but things such as was there a gift shop, not so much. I have to count on the cooperation of the Met, which they are willing to give. In fact, I recently found out from one of their return calls that they discovered the room that is currently the gift shop was a cloakroom back then. So, the gift shop as a crime scene is out and a chapel is in.

But I have more questions. How big is the Unicorn Tapestry Room? Was the cafeteria opened for Mother’s Day in 1943? Did it even exist then? Which rooms open onto the gardens? The list goes on and on. Once again, the Met is trying to be helpful with this, but even their knowledge of that time has its limitations.

Does that give me carte blanche? Does that mean I can write whatever I want? Not on your tintype. Someone out there has a book, pamphlet, story, or journal about the Cloisters. They may even know someone who trod the grounds of the Cloisters during WWII. Maybe they trod the grounds themselves. But you can bet whoever they are if they read my book and I have made false statements, they will have a fit and tell me off. So, if I can’t verify something, it’s out.

And that’s only as it should be. But man, sometimes research is tough!

6 thoughts on “When Research Just Isn’t Working by Heather Haven

  1. Janet, it is so frustrating! And the delay of it all. Although I did 8-months of research on Guatemala, the jungle, the ancient Mayan culture, and the poisonous yellow dart frog before I actually wrote a single word of The Drop-Dead Temple of Doom. It seems everything needs research these days. Or do we just choose subjects that require that? Probably the latter! Thanks for commenting!


  2. I hear you. My work-in-progress is a historical novel that takes place in the late 1870s. Some of the events I’m writing about are well documented. Others, not so much. I’m digging through books like mad.


  3. Bless you, for writing that, Susan! I’m glad it’s not just me. It’s such a struggle sometimes. And when time and distance figure into it, getting the facts right becomes so hard, it’s often best to write around them.

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  4. Heather, so true! You may be writing about the past, but it is still early enough there could be someone who has been there at that time. It is so hard to know what a reader will find. Even a person who may have researched or written a nonfiction book about the place could read your book and comment. That is why we strive to learn as much as we can. You might see if the local paper has stories about the place in their archives. Great post!


    1. Hi Paty! Thanks for your suggestion about the archives. I will give it a whirl, and here’s hoping there was a local paper in upper Manhattan at that time. You never know. That’s the devil about the past. You just never know what was going on then because you weren’t there! Arrrrrrg!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Terrific post. This is exactly what I struggle with when writing about India. I can’t remember when a bus line was changed or altered, and neither do most of the people I know there. What to do? Change bus line, take a auto rickshaw, walk? Every year there are changes, so I’m always going to be wrong about something. But I keep at it.


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