I spent the last year writing a historical fiction book. It was a self-imposed doable project that fit the time and space of Covid-19. The book’s setting is northeastern United States so, I could drive my own car, bring my own food, and stay at triple cleaned rentals for the night, while investigating the protagonist’s landscape. But I didn’t have to do much traveling, because most of my research was done from home through the internet. Let me say that in another way. It wasn’t the internet that supplied the bulk of my collected information, it was the services of historical societies and libraries.
Although I have memories of me walking through Saco Cemetery in Maine, last autumn, feeling embraced by the yellows, oranges, and reds of falling leaves while searching for the gravestone of my main character, Daniel Patterson, and memories of me getting lost while driving in circles looking for historical markers, I have a gazillion more memories of me standing in my office at my standup desk, with grandchildren bursting in the room and saying, “Grandma, I made this for you.” I have more memories of me speaking over the phone with, or contacting through a webpage, people who work at historical societies and libraries.
Although I used the internet, it was not the internet that supplied the historical information. It was the people who wrote history books, the people who worked in historical societies, the people who worked in libraries, the people who updated webpages with information who supplied what I needed.
It was the people who haven’t stopped thinking and working, simultaneously.
I know we all get excited over different things. I don’t get excited about shopping or eating anything else other than oatmeal for breakfast, salad for lunch, and potatoes for supper but get me on the phone or online with a historian and I get excited.
“Daniel Patterson, you say, when did he die?” asks Mrs. Elder from the Dyer Library in Saco, Maine. “I’ll call you back.”
But I get excited as I see in my head, Mrs. Elder walking pass the history section to the research department, closed to the public because of Covid, and making efforts to peruse microfiche or digital newspapers. While waiting at home, I write about something else or organize all the paper craft projects made for me by little innocent grand-fingers. Sure enough, Mrs. Elder will call me back with a found obituary that leads me to the United States Patent Department, where a Mr. Salis assists me. He emails me a court documents that sheds light on more of Daniel Patterson’s story.
Daniel Patterson was a man who grew up in Maine during the emergence of the industrial age. He became a dentist in New Hampshire, paid royalties on a patent for vulcanized rubber dentures (superior to wood or metal dentures), escaped Salisbury Prison during the Civil War and walked 400 miles during the night to safety in the north, married and divorced a woman who would later become famous for incorporating spirituality into healing.
What else did I learn? To always double or triple check information.
While most of the historians and libraries were smack-on delightful to work with and sharp-as-tacks, a few were lax and only repeated what they read on the internet, which I already could do from home with a grandchild sitting on my desk saying, “I’m drawing a fairy picture for you, Grandma.”
Although websites such as Ancestry dot com or Find A Grave dot com are amazing, they contain errors. Human errors. No biggie, mere reminders that human beings make mistakes, including the characters in my book. So, I politely thank and disconnect from the person who repeats what they read on the internet, all the while failing to countercheck the information on another website themselves.
Don’t bother getting disgusted, I remind myself. There are nearly three hundred thirty million people in the United States, someone else will make the effort to help me. And this is where I learned to use the internet to contact municipal offices for vital records. It was another place where I exercised my right to give people a break. Let me say that in another way. It was another opportunity to act on the fact that someone will help me, I just have to make an effort also.
I pretty much count on it because, if Covid teaches me anything, it is that the same spirit that motivated a Union man to escape prison and traverse his way over the Blue Ridge and Alleghany mountains, living off the land, wearing the same clothes he was wearing when captured seven months prior, is the same spirit that motivates us today. And I do see people helping people.