This the third in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research….it sucks you in!
TODAY’S GUEST AUTHOR: Wendy Nikel
My research rabbit hole began with a sign.
On a train ride through the rural area near where I grew up, the conductor pulled the train up to an overgrown path with stairs leading upward and a sign at the bottom with the words, “Lake Beulah Station.” According to him, this path led to an extravagant turn-of-the-century hotel where affluent travelers from Chicago and Milwaukee used to come and stay, until a fire destroyed it in 1911.
This story had plenty to intrigue and inspire me, but when writing a novel based on it, my research took me places I hadn’t imagined. I searched twenty-five years’ worth of newspapers. The local historical society let me copy hotel pamphlets and blueprints. I scoured ancestry.com to discover what happened to each of the owners’ children and visited their gravesites. I recruited my mom to help me find plot maps and my dad to talk with his friends who knew local history. And then, with binders of research in hand, I sat down to write my book.
My first attempt involved a supernatural element, but otherwise followed the history of the hotel to the best of my knowledge, filling in gaps where no information was available and using the real people involved as the basis for my characters. But the pacing was off — there were years where nothing happened, followed by days or weeks when major catastrophes hit simultaneously. What’s more, my beta readers pointed out event after event which they deemed “unbelievable” – events which I’d taken from the pages of newspapers!
Just a few of those ‘facts-are-stranger-than-fiction’ events:
– In 1887, police were called on an unmarried couple who were “engaged in a hand to hand fight” in their hotel room in the middle of the night.
– In 1891, a neighboring cottage was burned down, and “tracks were plainly discernible leading to and from the house.” Three men were arrested but not convicted. The arsonist was never found.
– In 1894, a man died after going out to fetch ice from the lake in the middle of the night. He fell in a hole cut by ice harvesters.
– In 1895, a Native American burial site with human remains was discovered while digging a cistern.
– After a fire in in 1895, the hotel’s owner lost thousands of dollars to fraudulent insurance agents.
– In 1898, a boy scaled the hotel’s tower (110 feet from the ground) to untangle a flag
– In 1901, a man from the small lakeside community was arrested in Washington, D.C. for trying to sneak into the White House with a pistol and a razor.
– Two employees — a laundress and engineer — both had separate near-fatal accidents at the hotel on the same day in 1902. A week later, another employee was arrested for stealing silverware, which he claimed was equal in value to the wages owed him.
– A Chicago postmaster saved four hotel guests from drowning in 1903 when a squall came up and a yacht capsized.
And then there was the year 1907. You’ll see why I chose this as my story’s climax.
– An engineer fell asleep on the job and his train collided head-on with another near the property.
– A guest and a hotel waiter both drowned in the lake on separate occasions.
– Also that year, a dam was built on the lake, which caused flooding to nearby farm fields. Some farmers retaliated by dynamiting the dam.
– And on the first of August, police investigated four “suspicious fires” throughout the grounds, just after the manager was charged with embezzlement.
I wanted to include all of these fascinating tidbits (and more!), but I discovered that real life doesn’t follow a smooth story arc. The plot was too choppy, too disconnected. I rewrote the story three times, each time cutting more of these events in an attempt to mold a cohesive story, but was never satisfied with the result. I’ve trunked this manuscript for now, but I learned an important lesson about falling down rabbit holes and not letting the research drive the plot. After all, truth is far stranger (and messier) than fiction.