Saturday, May 19, 2012

Reinventing Your Hometown

I’ve written four archaeological mysteries starring museum curator Lisa Donahue, all contemporary stories set in Boston and the Middle East. When I began to think about a new series set in the past, I thought of Jeanne Dams’ wonderful Hilda mysteries set a hundred years ago in her hometown of South Bend, Indiana.

My hometown, Champaign-Urbana, IL, was and is a railroad town, with growth occurring first along the tracks that run from Chicago all the way south to New Orleans. Before the railroad station came to town and Champaign got its current name, it was “West Urbana.” Always a university town, Urbana is known as the campus hub and center of most of the faculty housing (professors like to walk and bike to work), whereas Champaign attracts more business people and permanent residents.

I already knew some of this history, but researching The Bootlegger’s Nephew taught me so much more. During Prohibition, speakeasies and bars disguised as “blind pigs” clustered near the railroad tracks. Many buildings built between 1900 and 1920 still exist and have morphed from theaters to museums and department stores to office buildings, restaurants, and apartments. To recreate the town of “Big Grove,” I searched the Sanborn fire insurance maps that displayed not only street grids but also businesses with the owners’ names. I consulted the Sears Catalog for details on 1920s fashion, furniture, kitchen fittings, and appliances.

Then I had some decisions to make about my story. To what extent would my characters be “real” historical figures? Which historical events would I include in my story, and how much would fiction and truth overlap? Would I use real place names and family names? If I used real names, would I get into legal trouble?

While plenty of wild tales about Prohibition exist, few local people remember the details with accuracy. What they do remember, they are happy to tell—with embellishments. And so I consulted our former mayor, retired neighbors, downtown historians, and librarians. I decided to use real street names and family names (but not first names) to create familiarity for local readers. The characters themselves are complete fiction—or so I will claim when my neighbors think they recognize someone in my story.

The story itself is a blend of fact and fiction. I focused on downstate Illinois (so many other writers have written about Chicago), and chose southern Illinois gangsters as my villains instead of Al Capone. My protagonist, a forty-year-old physician with a German wife and a flapper daughter, never existed, but people like him did. The real issues of the 1920s—anti-immigrant feeling, resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, and the production of illegal booze of every variety—fueled the story while providing plenty of scope for fiction. I particularly enjoyed adopting some of the many Prohibition-era words for “drunk” and “booze”: “ossified,” “spifflicated”, “half-seas over,” “giggle-water,” “panther piss,” and “coffin varnish.”

The best part of writing historical fiction is borrowing some truths and ignoring others. Instead of providing a balanced, truthful account that includes all the facts, the writer can pick and choose incidents, people, and places that improve her story without worrying about an exact fit. For example, one of my speakeasies actually existed in Cincinnati, Ohio, not central Illinois: the bar is in a downstairs room, and the ten-year-old son of the owners dispenses liquor down a tube from upstairs. When an alarm tells him agents are on their way to inspect, he whisks a rug over the booze tube and artfully strews his homework around to hide the evidence.

The hardest part of writing this kind of fiction after doing contemporary mysteries was that so many things on each page had to be checked: what a character was wearing, drinking, saying; what his house looked like, what kind car he drove, what movies he watched and books he read. Every chapter produced questions: Did the local farms have electricity yet? Were all the roads paved? How long did it take to travel to Chicago in 1923? And since my protagonist is a doctor, I had to learn about early medical practice before antibiotics.

During the research phase, my writing room looked like a tornado hit it, with maps and books and scraps of paper everywhere and two fat notebooks full of material. Now that the first book is finished, I look forward to returning to the 1920s to visit my characters again and write the sequel. 

Sarah Wisseman,
Archaeological mysteries:


  1. Sarah,
    I read about your book in Mystery Scene and I immediately put it on my list. The 1920s was such an unusual, but exciting decade. I like how you brought in your interest in archaeology (mine, too).

    1. Thank you! I really appreciate it. This book was so much fun to write, and I am looking forward to doing the sequel (as soon as I finish the contemporary set in Italy...)

  2. I once read that it is good to add a fictional aspect to non-fictional places...mainly because the alternative is to do so much research so no one will come back and say something was wrong. It sounds like you've done a lot of research! At least you can apply all you've learned to the sequel.

  3. Excellent blog, Sarah, and you made some great points about researching and fiction. Thank you for sharing.

  4. thank you, Marja. I enjoy writing non-fiction almost as much as fiction, so blogging is fun...

  5. Hi Sarah. I write a contemporary series set in the real town of "Hangtown" California. The only places that are made up are where I kill people but the locals like my series so much, they keep asking me to kill people at their Main Street stores. The local wineries keep suggesting places for me to stuff dead bodies.

    Your series sounds great, particularly since I went to school at Bradley, not too far away from Champaign-Urbana.

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