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Just Ask

By Sarah Sundin

As a historical novelist, I do a lot of research. As an introvert, I prefer research in books and libraries and on-line. Over the years, I’ve learned where to look for information, and I’m persistent enough (mule-headed?) to find what I need.

Most of the time.

Sometimes I simply can’t find the information I want. At that point, I have three choices–cut the scene, write around the information in a generic way–or ask.

Gulp.

Yes, ask.
Anchor in the Storm
When I was in Boston researching the Waves of Freedom series, I heard about how people ice-skate on the Frog Pond on Boston Common. A scene flew into my mind for Anchor in the Storm, with my hero coaxing my reluctant heroine into ice-skating. Since she lost her leg in a childhood accident and wears a prosthesis, this is no small thing.

However, just because they had ice-skating on the Frog Pond in 2014 does not mean they had it in 1942. So I researched. And researched. And researched. Nothing.

Part of me wanted to throw in the towel and write the scene anyway. But I know full well that old-time Bostonians would remember–and call me out if I was wrong.

So I gathered my courage, went to the Frog Pond website (don’t you love the name?), and dropped them an email with my question. A representative replied. She had no idea how long they’d had ice-skating there. She suggested I contact a woman at the Boston Parks Department…and she gave me the phone number.

A phone call? Join me in the despairing cry of the introvert… “Anything but a phone call!”

But my curiosity and perfectionism overcame my fear. I called. I got voice mail (victory!), left a message, and prayed I didn’t sound like a crazy woman.
Sundin Ice skating
The next day, she sent me a long email. No, they didn’t have ice-skating on the Frog Pond in 1942. But they did skate on the lagoon in Boston’s Public Garden. She sent me the 1942 Parks Department attendance records for all the rinks in Boston. She sent me photographs from the 1940s showing people skating on the lagoon under the pedestrian bridge. She sent me a photograph of the golden dome of the Massachusetts State House being painted black as an air raid precaution–which I’d read one snippet about but wanted further proof. And since I was writing a novel set in 1942, she sent the Boston Fire Department’s report on the infamous Cocoanut Grove Fire, in case I ever wanted to write about that. I did. The third novel in the series, When Tides Turn, covers the fire.

I felt like doing a triple axel.

So I wrote my ice-skating scene, which was even more picturesque with the bridge. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the novel. I thoroughly thanked that public servant who went above and beyond her job description, I included her name in the acknowledgments, and I’m sending her a book as well.

When you reach the end of your research rope, don’t give up. As my mother always said, “You’ll never know unless you ask.”

So ask. Gather your courage and ask. You’ll be amazed at the results.

Sarah Sundin green 1Sarah Sundin is the author of eight historical novels, including Anchor in the Storm (Revell, May 2016). Her novella in Where Treetops Glisten was a 2015 Carol Award finalist. A mother of three, Sarah lives in California, works on-call as a hospital pharmacist, and teaches Sunday school. http://www.sarahsundin.com.

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10 Responses to Just Ask

  1. Shari Bradley says:

    Cannot wait to read this – It’s in the mail to me right now. Well done, Sarah, reaching out like that and having such great success. Keep reaching!

  2. Angela Mills says:

    I needed to read this today 🙂 I love research, so much that I took your research class at Mount Hermon even though I don’t write historical fiction! I am an introvert as well, and I hate to feel like I am bugging people. So it’s been hard to put myself out there and ask for help. I really need to talk to a chef for my next book and you’ve given me the kick I need to get going on that. Thank you!

  3. Sarah Sundin says:

    Shari – thank you! I hope you enjoy Arch & Lillian’s story!

    Angela – good for you! I’ve found that experts love to share what they know. Also, they feel passionately about their subject and want to see it treated properly. They’re usually thrilled and honored when an author wants to get it right. So, ask that chef!

  4. deolinda bird says:

    Thank you for doing the research for one of my favorite reads. I love history so half the fun for me is learning those little historical facts. You are an amazing author and I recommend you often.

  5. Kathy West says:

    I’m an introvert, too, and also frequently relieved to get voice mail. Another great invention for introverts is online chat, on which I spent some time today with my phone company. But hey, at least I could browse my email while I waited between messages, and it beats playing that frustrating game of press 1 for whatever!

    Thanks for all your hard work on our behalf. The story behind the story is always interesting.

  6. Tisha Martin says:

    Thank you for this, Sarah. I enjoy your books because of the meticulous effort that goes into researching every tiny detail. Just reading about the coaxing scene here endears me to your characters, and I haven’t even met them yet!

  7. Love this! You always bring me back to my grandma’s memories when I read your books. As a native Bostonian, I appreciate your attention to detail. My grandma has a story about the Cocoanut Grove fire (I’m sure everyone does from that time)- she was babysitting and heard the fire engines. Her mother came and told her to go home. Turns out that the couple that she was sitting for died in the fire. I have a photo of the couple with my great-grandma.

    For those interested in the memorial, you can go to http://www.find-a-grave.com and search for Cocoanut Grove and see it.

  8. Sarah Sundin says:

    Deolinda – thank you! I’m glad you enjoy the story and the history!

    Kathy – yes!! Online chat or emails – so much better.

    Tisha – thank you. I dearly loved that chapter.

    Christine – What a heartbreaking story! And there were hundreds. I wonder what happened to those children 🙁

  9. I’ve just started reading Anchor in the Storm and so look forward to it. I understand that it would be painful for an introvert to ask. However, I always told my high school students the only dumb question was the one not asked. We never know till we ask!

  10. Sarah Sundin says:

    Jo – so true!