Wednesday, March 06, 2013

The Past Has Long Arms

Like Barbara, Aline’s post on Monday about how much research one does in the interest of authenticity certainly rang a bell with me (Sorry, Aline). I write a historical mystery series, and thus do a tremendous amount of research on the times.   But only a very small percent of the research I do for each book finds its way onto the page. I’m not writing a history book, I’m trying to create a world, and it’s amazing how little it takes to add just that perfect touch of authenticity to your story.

Why, then, do I spend so much time learning everything I can about the times, lives, and mores of my characters when I know I’m not going to write about most of it? Because my own familiarity with the era I’m writing about is going to show without my having to make a big deal of it. The characters are going to move naturally through their world without thinking about it, just like we do in our own world.

For each book I write, I keep a notebook and file full of information that I read up on as I need it.  Much of my research may not be used, for as a book advances some of the ideas I started out with fall by the wayside.  Even so, when the book is finally done I will have added quite a bit to the huge amount of arcane knowledge rattling around in my head.

In fact, the very best fun thing about doing research, if I may coin a phrase, is that even if you’re looking for the most mundane piece of information, you often discover amazing stories and connections that you could not possibly have made up on your own.


To illustrate, allow me to tell you a story I have written about before, but which is just too good not to repeat.  For one of my earlier books I wanted to know the name of the sheriff of Muskogee County in 1917, but I was unable to find the that seemingly easy piece of information online.  So I called the library in the city of Muskogee, Oklahoma, and asked the local history librarian to look it up and e-mail the answer to me.  Later that afternoon, she sent me a wonderful campaign photograph of Sheriff J.S. Barger.

Now that I knew his name, I was able to find his obituary online.  From this I discovered that it is indeed a small world, and time does not dim our connections to one another.

For after John Barger lost his reelection bid in 1918, he became a county “Speed Officer”, whose job was to curb the then-growing automobile menace, and was given a county patrol car to cruise country roads and highways.  In 1924, the county’s “speed patrol” car was stolen from the garage by the Lawrence brothers, “Babe” and Bill, young Muskogee desperadoes who were wanted for auto theft in several towns around OK.  After several unsuccessful attempts to catch them in OK, the sheriff was notified that the pair had been caught at El Paso, and he sent Deputy Barger and his partner, one Joe Morgan, who happens to have been a cousin of my grandmother’s, to pick them up and bring them back to Muskogee.  After taking charge of the prisoners, Barger and Cousin Joe started back with them in the county car.  Barger was driving and Morgan was in the rear seat with the Lawrence boys.

Barger heard a shot, looked around and found himself peering down the barrel of a gun in Babe Lawrence’s hand.  Cousin Joe was on the floor, shot through the head with his own pistol. The car, going at the blazing speed of at least 20 miles an hour, crashed into a fence, righted itself and mowed down fence posts for 40 yards before stopping. The boys forced Barger to walk off the road into the woods and handcuffed him to a tree, before escaping again in the county car. Barger shouted until he attracted the attention of a ranch hand, who refused the help him.  He was handcuffed to the tree for 3 hours, until officers arrived and rescued him.  He then went back to Ft. Worth, where he organized a posse and went after the Lawrence boys.They were later apprehended in Tempe, AZ.  Bill was later hanged in Arizona, and Babe served a life term in Texas.  Barger died in 1938 at the age of 77.

I haven’t yet used that tale in a book, but you can bet I will eventually, because I could never make up a story quite as good.

1 comment:

Charlotte Hinger said...

My grandfather, Daniel Franklin Southerland was a wonderful sheriff in Eastern Kansas and there are some wonderful tales about him. I think your's has him beat though.