Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Research in the Digital Age is Sometimes Analog, an essay by Connie Hertzberg Mayo

Historical novelist Connie Hertzberg Mayo, the author of The Sharp Edge of Mercy, is here today with an essay about her research methods, which reminds us of the importance of visiting physical archives for relevant source material.


Research in the Digital Age is Sometimes Analog
Connie Hertzberg Mayo

During the long car ride from Massachusetts to Philadelphia to drop off our oldest at college, I unearthed a tiny notebook that been bouncing around in my purse for years, and I wrote down a writing schedule. I had been putting off the commitment to writing my second novel until our nest became a little emptier, and even though I knew I wouldn’t religiously stick to any schedule, this helped me draw a line between I’m-not-writing and I’m-writing.

But a big part of writing historical fiction isn’t writing at all. Any good historical novel is backed up by a truckload of research. Wise novelists know to be very judicious in deciding what ends up in the book – the right answer is: a small fraction of all you’ve learned – but all of that “unused” research is, in a way, used. It’s as if you drink in all that detail and then let a small amount of it seep through your pores.

So if you need to do extensive research while you happen to have a job and a family, the internet becomes your best friend. I learned this while writing my first book, The Island of Worthy Boys, when I discovered that The Beacon, the monthly newsletter written by the boys at the Boston Farm School, had been digitally scanned by some persistent soul at the UMass archives. Hundreds of issues, each several pages, were available dating from 1890, just a year after the time period of my book. I spent hours reading about the daily lives of the boys I wanted to write about – their job polishing lamp chimneys, their pet parrot and goat, their copious time spent in chapel.

After we arrived home from Philadelphia, I therefore fired up my laptop to start research for The Sharp Edge of Mercy, which is set at the New York Cancer Hospital in 1890. And I found… less than I had expected. Looking back, I can see that my expectations had been built on The Beacon, but the counterpart at this hospital was a series of dry annual reports. They dutifully reported how many beds were filled, even how many of which type of cancers were treated, but where were the details about the daily lives of the nurses? What did the patients eat? What was the building like? Who did the laundry?

I realized I had to go to the physical archives to see if there was anything I could use that had not been hoisted onto the internet. Given that the hospital was in Manhattan and had evolved into Sloan Kettering when it moved from Central Park West to the East Side, I assumed I would be taking a trip to somewhere in New York City. But much to my surprise, I discovered that what I needed was housed at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, NY – the town where I went to high school! I took this weird coincidence as a sign from the universe confirming that this was the book for me to write.

author Connie Mayo
(credit: Sivan Lahav)
At the archives, I found two things that were instrumental in writing the book. The first was a set of blueprints of all the hospital floors. I could see the dining room, the parlor, the wards. I started to walk through the hospital in my mind. And on the bottom floor was a room labeled "Crematorium," which was not something they advertised in the annual reports. I knew immediately that my story would include the crematorium, even though there was no information about how it was used – that would have to come from my imagination (and a whole separate line of research about cremation in 1890).

The other thing I found that was tremendously useful was surgical notes. Captured on microfiche, the typed words on yellowed pages were a window into the state of surgery at the time. Never would I have imagined that whiskey would have been administered with a hypodermic needle when a patient was fading on the operating table, but there it was in black and white (well, black and yellow). Half of surgeries seemed to be about removing infected tissue from a prior surgery. There was certainly awareness that infection was as fierce an enemy as cancer, but not much ability to control it.

All this is not to say that the first book was produced only with digital research and the second with analog. Surfing for pictures of nurses uniforms and caps worn at the turn of the century, for example, was easy enough to do from the comfort of my desk chair. But it’s also true that if you want to find every gem of information, there is still no substitute for showing up in person.

Connie Hertzberg Mayo grew up in Westchester County, New York, but moved to Massachusetts to get a Literature degree from Tufts University and never ended up leaving. Her first book, The Island of Worthy Boys (She Writes Press, 2015) won the 2016 Gold Medal for Best Regional Fiction in the Independent Publisher Book Awards. Connie’s short story, “Little Breaks”, was published by Calyx Journal in 2017. Her latest novel, The Sharp Edge of Mercy, is published by Heliotrope Books in May 2022. Connie works as a Systems Analyst and empty-nests with her husband and two feuding cats. Visit her website at https://conniemayo.com.

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