Monday, March 14, 2011

The Joys of Historical Research

My new book, a historical mystery set in Prohibition era central Illinois, is taking me in many new directions. Since my protagonist, Dr. Earl Snyder Junker, is a physician, I need to know about medical practice in the 1920s. Could my character be a medical examiner as well as a family doctor? What kinds of diseases would he encounter, and what could he offer as treatments before antibiotics?

Fortunately, I have a physician husband (a retired pathologist) who can steer me to the right sort of medical information. Even better, I just signed up for an online course of the history of forensics with Dr. D. P. Lyle, a physician/author who frequently teaches mystery writers:

Dr. D.P. Lyle

Dr. Junker is also an amateur archaeologist during a time when it was still okay for private individuals to dig up burial mounds, before archaeology became an academic discipline. Early arrowhead hunters in Illinois sometimes operated like cowboys, laying claim to sites illegally and shooting at anyone who tried to stop them. Here I have plenty of help from Illinois archaeologists who know the colorful characters and history of digging in the Midwest.

Junker’s wife, Martha, is a German immigrant, so that means investigating anti-immigrant feelings that were rampant between the World Wars. And their nineteen-year-old daughter, Anna, is a nursing student by day and a fun-loving flapper by night. The 1920s was an exciting time for women who had just gained the right to vote and were breaking social taboos left and right: they drank booze and smoked cigarettes in public, wore revealing dresses and short skirts and bobbed their hair short.

But the most fascinating subject is Prohibition and the myriad ways for ordinary people to make and transport illegal liquor. The literature on this subject is vast and often available on the Internet. Two of my favorite discoveries so far: my hometown of Champaign, Illinois, had an underground passage between two major streets so speakeasy patrons could escape excise agents, and there’s a wonderful article on Prohibition in Cincinnati online


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