I had a story accepted by the Malice Domestic anthology for next year. I had done a huge amount of research. I wanted to get it right, in part to maintain my reputation as a careful researcher, and in part out of respect for both the subject and the publication.
I was surprised when the comments came back on Saturday. My subject is a fictional murder at the very real Seneca Falls Women’s Convention of 1848.
The issue my able editor, Barb Goffman, brought up was whether men attended the first day of the conference. At the end of my first round of research, I was pretty sure they hadn’t. So, yesterday I settled in for a second bout of research. What I found was really unsettling.
First a bit about my method. I always start with Wikipedia. If I am looking for a date or a name, this is often enough. Wikipedia was great for Swan Upping, since I wasn’t going to write about it. When I wanted to find out more about Mr. Turner before watching the movie of the same name, Wikipedia was just fine.
If I am going to write about something, say, the translation of the New Testament into Algonquin language I will go for the secondary sources. I check whatever might be on my bookshelf, in this case Three Centuries of Harvard by Samuel Eliot Morison, page 39. For fiction writing this is might enough, but research tends to be addictive, so I will often dig deeper. I Google my subject and read through an assortment of secondary sources.
Primary sources are abundant on the internet. Yesterday I printed off a copy of the report from the convention that was published in Fredric Douglas’ North Star Press. Of course this is still a newspaper report, and newspapers were (and still are) notoriously incorrect.
So did men attend the first day of the conference? I still don’t know. The issue hinges on the word “participate”. Men did not participate, but were they in the building? If anyone knows the answer to that, please let me know because I certainly don’t. I know how I am going to handle this, but you will have to read the anthology to find out. It is due out in May 2016.
Here are a few bits of erroneous information my research turned up:
Sojourner Truth’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech was given at this conference. It wasn’t. Her speech was delivered at the Women's Convention in Akron, Ohio, on May 29, 1851.
When everyone (yes, men too) arrived at the chapel for the first day of the convention it was locked. Someone crawled in thought a window to open the door from the inside. Was it Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s nephew or a Yale professor? Or was her nephew a Yale professor? Both appear to be nameless, at least so far.
I know that the meeting was chaired by Lucretia Mott’s husband on the second day. Yesterday I read one report saying he was too ill to participate. And if he did chair, did he do so on the first day? The North Star says he moderated on the second day but is silent on the first day’s moderator.
For me at least there are two problems here: how to handle this research in a piece of fiction, and when to stop researching and do the writing.