Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 11 April 2007 )
The amount of information on the World Wide Web never ceases to amaze me. I was reminded of this again recently while doing research for my second novel, Double Fire, I needed to know who held the position of Sheriff in certain counties of Washington Territory during the late 1800's. As far as I can tell, there's no neat, clean database of this information. I found that persistent digging with various search engines would eventually produce the answer on some deepy obscure site. In addition to the sheriff's names, I was startled to find photos of these men - sometimes more than one - and biographical sketches! Two of the sheriffs of particular interest had gone on to higher office in the new State of Washington. In two cases, I found the names of their spouses.
I also discovered some surprising items, such as details of a visit to Washington Territory by the poet/novelist Rudyard Kipling. This small factoid allowed me to work him in as a minor character who crosses paths with my protagonist and helps solve a puzzle. For a historical novelist, this was a welcome, delicious morsel to stumble across in the cupboard of my nascent plot ideas.
Another example has to do with a long-departed hotel in old Tacoma. I wanted to describe it, at least minimally, to my reader, but only had its name. Again, through persistent digging, I actually found a site with a postcard that contained a color rendering of the very hotel, accompanied by a description of its location.
I have been able to find all of this information, and much more, without ever having to part company with my trusty (if aged) computer. But, as with any reserach, I have to remind myself to double check the facts with other sources. Mistakes (and misinformation) are sadly all too common on the Web. Eventually, I will make that trip out of the house - squinting at the unfamiliar bright sunlight - and pry open the musty old books and papers that await in the region's libraries and historical societies.