Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 21 November 2007 )
While writing my first two novels, I did a lot of geographical and historical research using the World Wide Web. A couple of incidents served as a reminder how cautious and skeptical one must be when dealing with online information.
In the first incident, I had scoured the Web for the names and descriptions of various county sheriffs who held office during 1889. After I found them, I wrote their characters into my story. But I wanted to know more about them. So, little by little, I continued to dig. In three out of five counties, I ran into a troubling problem: new sources named a totally different person as sheriff for that time. I was right back at the beginning. Who really was the sheriff? I would think it ought to be a simple, knowable fact. But, in today’s world, there are facts... and then there’s The Web.
I figured that local brick and mortar libraries in each individual county must have the answer. But, did I really want to drive down to Tacoma or fly to Duluth, Minnesota? What I discovered instead was that many libraries have an e-mail address for their reference librarian. So, I sent messages explaining my dilemma. Both Tacoma and the Duluth were incredibly helpful, quickly looking up old records and replying with specific information -- no charge. Sometimes, we exchanged rapid e-mails back and forth, sorting through facts to find the right answer. I think the researchers may have become as curious as me. However, not all libraries are so open and helpful over the Internet. For example, Spokane’s library requires you to have one of their library cards before you can submit a question. So, I went there in person, which is actually the best option if you have the time or are already in the area.
Once I found the truth, there remained the problem of the inaccurate websites. I could just ignore them, but then I’d feel like a heel. So, I decided to spend time researching who to contact to clean up the online mess. In one case, the offending party was our own Secretary of State’s office, whose online biography of our second Secretary of State, who had been Pierce County Sheriff in 1889, contained numerous inaccuracies. Another offender was the Sheriff’s Department of St. Louis County, Minnesota, whose own list of sheriffs for the 1880’s was wrong. In both cases, I contacted them with my facts. Neither has yet completely fixed their sites.
Another incident involved geographic research. In my first book, I placed the law offices of one character, who is a sleazy attorney, in a particular historic building in downtown Pittsburgh. Recently, while doing some additional research, I discovered that the building had converted to condominiums a few years ago. Ooops! I changed my story to use a fictitious office building.
The bottom line is, if you can’t have your boots on the ground where your story takes place, it’s not too hard to get into trouble with information gleaned exclusively from the Web.