By Sarah Sundin
As a historical novelist, I do a lot of research. As an introvert, I prefer research in books and libraries and on-line. Over the years, I’ve learned where to look for information, and I’m persistent enough (mule-headed?) to find what I need.
Most of the time.
Sometimes I simply can’t find the information I want. At that point, I have three choices–cut the scene, write around the information in a generic way–or ask.
When I was in Boston researching the Waves of Freedom series, I heard about how people ice-skate on the Frog Pond on Boston Common. A scene flew into my mind for Anchor in the Storm, with my hero coaxing my reluctant heroine into ice-skating. Since she lost her leg in a childhood accident and wears a prosthesis, this is no small thing.
However, just because they had ice-skating on the Frog Pond in 2014 does not mean they had it in 1942. So I researched. And researched. And researched. Nothing.
Part of me wanted to throw in the towel and write the scene anyway. But I know full well that old-time Bostonians would remember–and call me out if I was wrong.
So I gathered my courage, went to the Frog Pond website (don’t you love the name?), and dropped them an email with my question. A representative replied. She had no idea how long they’d had ice-skating there. She suggested I contact a woman at the Boston Parks Department…and she gave me the phone number.
A phone call? Join me in the despairing cry of the introvert… “Anything but a phone call!”
But my curiosity and perfectionism overcame my fear. I called. I got voice mail (victory!), left a message, and prayed I didn’t sound like a crazy woman.
The next day, she sent me a long email. No, they didn’t have ice-skating on the Frog Pond in 1942. But they did skate on the lagoon in Boston’s Public Garden. She sent me the 1942 Parks Department attendance records for all the rinks in Boston. She sent me photographs from the 1940s showing people skating on the lagoon under the pedestrian bridge. She sent me a photograph of the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House being painted black as an air raid precaution–which I’d read one snippet about but wanted further proof. And since I was writing a novel set in 1942, she sent the Boston Fire Department’s report on the infamous Cocoanut Grove Fire, in case I ever wanted to write about that. I did. The third novel in the series, When Tides Turn, covers the fire.
I felt like doing a triple axel.
So I wrote my ice-skating scene, which was even more picturesque with the bridge. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the novel. I thoroughly thanked that public servant who went above and beyond her job description, I included her name in the acknowledgments, and I’m sending her a book as well.
When you reach the end of your research rope, don’t give up. As my mother always said, “You’ll never know unless you ask.”
So ask. Gather your courage and ask. You’ll be amazed at the results.
Sarah Sundin is the author of eight historical novels, including Anchor in the Storm (Revell, May 2016). Her novella in Where Treetops Glisten was a 2015 Carol Award finalist. A mother of three, Sarah lives in California, works on-call as a hospital pharmacist, and teaches Sunday school. http://www.sarahsundin.com.