Research and Serendipity

Research and Serendipity

Mrs. Cole Porter Writing

Research isn’t something I do to flesh out my ideas. Research is how I get my ideas.

Writer Mario Vargas Llosa has said that he requires “the springboard of reality” to ignite his imagination, and I would say the same. Here’s a story about why I love doing research and why I write what I’ll call “nonfictional fiction.”

So, in March of 1902, my main character’s brother-in-law tried to divorce his wife. Theirs was a tawdry story, and it made all the papers for about two years.

Since the trial happened in Chicago, I wanted to see how the trial was covered there vs. how it was covered in the New York press. This involved going to the library here at Ball State and scrolling through the microfiche.

Microfilm. Ah, the good old days!
Microfilm. Ah, the good old days!

Bingo. I found what I was looking for. Drawings of the principal characters. Testimony read into evidence.


Now, I don’t know if my character actually went to this trial or not, but it’s certainly more dramatic if she was there. So I made it happen. Presto.

So, the other day, I was writing those scenes. Linda in Chicago at this divorce trial. March of 1902.

The Ladies' Entrance to the Palmer House.
The Ladies’ Entrance to the Palmer House.

I decided to have her stay at the famed Palmer House. Why? Well, I stayed at the Palmer House for AWP 2012, and so this way, I can write off some of my expenses.

Also, it’s gorgeous.

While I was staying there, I grabbed a flyer about the history of the Palmer House and gleaned two great details:

  • The floor of the barber shop was tiled in silver dollars.
  • The owner was so sure that his hotel was “The World’s Only Fire-Proof Hotel,” he promised that if any of his guests were willing to pay to remodel and replace their room’s furnishings, they could set their hotel suite on fire and close the door. Potter Palmer vowed the fire wouldn’t spread, and he was willing to prove it. (His original hotel burned down 13 days after it opened in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and Palmer rebuilt his hotel out of iron and brick.)

When I saw those details, I knew my character’s rich, bad-boy husband wouldn’t be able to resist setting his hotel room on fire, and that he’d want to show her that floor tiled in silver dollars.

So, I knew from the Chicago Tribune coverage that the divorce proceedings ended suddenly in a mistrial. My character had a whole day before her, plus I needed to give her husband time to set their hotel room on fire. What would she do with the day?

The Art Institute of Chicago in 1892.
The Art Institute of Chicago in 1892.

I decided to send her to a museum, the famed Art Institute of Chicago. Was it open in 1902? A quick Google search told me yes, it was.

Well, what would she have seen?

We all know from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off that the museum is famed for its Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, (like Seurat’s “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette”) but in 1902, they hadn’t acquired much of that yet. So I Googled:

what would have been on exhibit at the art institute of chicago in 1902?

And I found this: a list of all the exhibits for that year with links to the digitized exhibit catalogs.

Three cheers for archivists! Three cheers for the digital humanities!

Can I get an amen?

Randomly, I clicked on the name “Charles Walter Stetson,” then Googled his name, and discovered that Stetson was married to Charlotte Perkins Gilman. In fact, when she first published “The Yellow Wall-paper” in The New England Magazine in 1892, she was still Charlotte Perkins Stetson.

from The New England Magazine 11:5 (January 1892), 647-657. Digital image available here:;cc=newe;rgn=full%20text;idno=newe0011-5;didno=newe0011-5;view=image;seq=655;node=newe0011-5%3A12;page=root;size=100
from The New England Magazine 11:5 (January 1892), 647-657.

I also discovered that Stetson painted a portrait of Gilman shortly after the birth of their daughter, a time when she was likely experiencing the post-partum depression that she chronicled so vividly in the story.

"Evening. Mother + Child" by Charles Walter Stetson which portrays his wife Charlotte Perkins Stetson, later Gilman
“Evening. Mother + Child” by Charles Walter Stetson which portrays his wife Charlotte Perkins Stetson, later Gilman

So I came up with a plot device that would allow Linda to see this painting (although it actually wasn’t in the exhibit) and become intrigued enough to read her recently published book, The Yellow Wallpaper.

Published in 1899. Note the art nouveau cover and that she's still "Stetson," not "Gilman."
Published in 1899. Note the art nouveau cover and that she’s still “Stetson,” not “Gilman.”

There’s a library in the Art Institute. Was this book there in 1902? I don’t know, but I’m hoping the reader will permit me a little creative license.

So I sat my character down in the Ryerson Reading Room and had her read “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and she has a kind of epiphany that day.

She’d been needing an epiphany for awhile. I just had no idea what might trigger it. No idea that a simple Google search would end up determining a major plot turn in my novel.

Then she returns to the Palmer House to discover that her husband has burned their suite.

Sometimes, I think young writers feel that “creativity” means “making up out of whole cloth,” but I’ve never felt that way.

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise.” Specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful while not specifically searching for it. For me, serendipity is part of the euphoria I feel when I’m inside the creative process. I like it when my character’s “real” life (whether it’s my life or someone else’s) provides some plot points to shoot for.

But too much plotting can be…well, plodding. I find that when I’m writing and/or researching, I have to keep my plan, my goals rather loose to allow for serendipity, magic, and imagination.

I like following bread crumbs, like the trail I just described to you. It’s like playing detective.

That afternoon, I read “The Yellow Wall-Paper” not as myself but as my character. I found something out about her that I hadn’t known before. Or hadn’t been able to articulate before.

And who is to say that this wasn’t exactly the way that discovery was “supposed” to happen?

Why I’m Watching Downton Abbey


Because I’m working on a Big Thing, a work in progress that’s partially set in the Gilded Age and the Edwardian Era.

Because I need to time travel. I’ve been reading lots of biographies, histories, and fiction of and about the period. Sometimes I feel like Christopher Reeve’s character in Somewhere in Time, trying to will myself into the past. When I was writing The Circus in Winter, I practiced this same technique, immersing myself in movies and books and old-timey objects. (You wonder why the background of my blog looks like upholstery? Now you know…) In a period drama like Downton Abbey, the past is recreated with painterly precision, and I can study the brushstrokes.

Because Laura Linney introduces each episode. For episode 2, she reminds us of the limited options available to unmarried girls of modest means and how the typewriter changed lives. For episode 3, Linney discusses fashions in the context of social change, reminding us that “sometimes the engine of change doesn’t roar. It just quietly sits down to dinner.” The best historical fiction (on the screen or on the page) dramatizes individual lives taking place amid abstract “eras” and “movements.”

Because it stars Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, the Countess of Grantham. If, like me, you’ve spent the last few years reading biographies of Gilded Age women, then watching McGovern is like seeing two women at once: Consuelo Vanderbilt, the real person Cora is based on, and Evelyn Nesbit, the real person turned into a fictional character by E.L. Doctorow and played by McGovern in the movie Ragtime. Cora Crawley is no Evelyn Nesbitt, that’s for sure, but Cora, the heiress-auctioned-to-an-Earl, gets the happy ending Consuelo, the heiress-auctioned-to-a-Duke, never got. For further reading, I highly recommend Paula Uruburu’s American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, the Birth of the “It” Girl, (here’s a trailer for the book) and Amanda Mackenzie Stuart’s Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.

Because of Maggie Smith. Period.

Because I love downstairs, too. The lives of the servants are just as interesting as the lives of those they serve. I hope the Bates and Anna story ends more happily than the end of Remains of the Day.

Because it’s a participatory event. On Sunday nights, I follow the live tweets of @edwardian_era, also known as Evangeline Holland, “Historian, Foodie, Novelist, Vintage Fashionista, and Edwardian enthusiast,” who blogs at Edwardian Promenade, a site that’s been an indispensible resource to me. Watching the show + following her twitter stream of info nuggets provides an intertextual, “Pop-Up Video” experience. When the Earl teases his mother about consulting the “stud book,” @edwardian_era tweets “stud book = Debrett’s” and includes a link to the Wikipedia entry, where I learn that it was the British equivalent of The Social Register. Bingo! How lucky is this? This show airs just as I’m writing about the period, and experts on the period are sharing their expertise as they watch the show. Wow.

Because relationships are inherently suspenseful. As Katie Roiphe says in her book, Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939, “Marriage is perpetually interesting; it is the novel most of us are living in.”

Because-I don’t know. I don’t know why I love period dramas. I asked my Facebook friends about this, and a friend suggested: “Women had much less power yet many women (myself included) can’t get enough of costume dramas. Is it that we relate, primarily, to the upper classes and imagine a life in which we had leisure, servants, beautiful clothes and went to balls, as a way to indulge our romantic selves, and then we can pull back, turn off the TV, and regain our authority?”

I don’t know. Maybe.

But I think it’s because of something like this: Downton and Gosford Park writer Julian Fellowes was asked, “What’s our fascination with turn-of-the-20th-century life about?” and he said:

“It’s almost our world. When you look at something going on in 1640, you don’t see a connection. But when you look at 1900, you see our world but apparently a simpler form of it where somehow everyone knows the rules, whereas we increasingly have a sense that none of us know the rules. And we’re in a slight state of social chaos. And it seems beguiling to watch an ordered world where everyone knew what they were doing.”

Or as Richard Drew at The Atlantic says: “For me, Downton Abbey is as complex and fascinating a study of the early 20th century as, Mad Men is of the 1960’s.”

And the last (and best) reason why I’m watching Downton Abbey: Because it’s helping me “get inside” my character, a young woman of that time and cultural milieu. In other words, I get to watch great public television and call it “research.”