Novel Research & the Kindness of Strangers, Part I

My historical fiction, The Seaborne Series, demanded in-depth research. While COVID had nixed my Ireland research trip, my Irish characters, thankfully, had migrated to Michigan. I now needed local facts.

What was life like in the mid-1800s for those settling here? Brands? Habits? I wondered. What would a mattress be like? Were there mattresses? Google helped, of course. But I reached a point. I needed more. I needed proximity.

I began exploring pioneer museums websites. Yes, COVID had closed them to the public and to groups. But might they open for one novelist—who masked? I emailed two Thumb-area museums and received a gift: the kindness of strangers.

“What would you like to see?” emailed Robin Zurek of the Bad Axe Pioneer Museum.

Everything, I replied. “I’d give my eyeteeth to get inside the Ullrich log cabin—and I’m a dentist daughter. I don’t part with my teeth very quickly.”

“Well, let’s see what we can do.”

A flurry of emails later, a date was set, and soon my pal Brenda and I were arriving in Bad Axe, near where my Irish great grandfather immigrated.

Getting inside the Ullrich’s cabin was invaluable. The details it gave me enlivened story scenes: its rough log siding and interior, its low ceiling, the pantry that was the size of a walk-in closet. (Think about those 50-pound bags of flour!)

The two-story cabin was only 20×30. How did the Ullrich family with its twelve members do this tiny space? One volunteer explained, “The children slept horizontally—across the bed.”

A nearby bed revealed what a mattress was like. It was a large “bag” made from cotton material filled with pine needles. A pine needle tick. The mattresses my 1840s characters would have slept on. I touched the tick. It was squeezable—and a little prickly. I scribbled these details.

Historians, like Robin and the other Bad Axe volunteers, gave of their time and opened their knowledge vault . . . to help a stranger—and help this novelist they did.

2 thoughts on “Novel Research & the Kindness of Strangers, Part I

  1. Tracy Groot says:

    Love it, Cynthia! Research is truly an all-senses gig, and as Tom Brokaw said, “It’s always a mistake not to go.” Glad you went!


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