History and mystery

(Sharon’s photo)

My sister has been really getting into genealogy now that she’s retired. She had the bug already, but little time to spend on it.

A few weeks ago, she asked me to take a day trip to our parents’ hometown. That was an easy yes. We grew up about an hour away — serious planning on our father’s part — and spent at least a couple of weekends there every month while we were kids. I estimated once that I spent five years of my first eighteen there on the weekend- and occasional-summer-week-installment plan.

My sister wanted to have lunch with some relatives, stop in a few downtown shops, and — the main event — find the graves of our mother’s great-grandparents.

I didn’t even remember the name of mom’s great-grandparents, although I read a family genealogy once that included it. And I really didn’t have it firmly in my mind that parts of the family had been in the town in the 19th century.

But my sister used an online resource to find their graves. And it turned out they’re in a cemetery neither of us knew we had relatives in.

She had a description of the location and I managed to find a map of the cemetery. Between us, we “orienteered” our way to three, mostly grass-covered slabs over our grandparents and a great-great uncle we’d never heard of.

(Sharon’s graphic)

But that’s just one journey into history I’ve been on lately. The other is a journey through the history of the mystery. A book club I belong to — founded more than 100 years ago to study Shakespeare — is spending several months on the mystery. I offered to do our “opening presentation,” a talk to set the context for our studies.

I mean, I’m writing mysteries. Shouldn’t I know a little about whence they came?

Of course, I knew about Edgar Allen Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie. I’d even heard of Wilkie Collins and Anna Katherine Green and Gaston Leroux. But in the last month, I’ve also met a number of early — and some not-so-early — contributors to what today we call crime fiction.

I find myself doing what I always did when I’ve had to write a paper. I’m getting lost in the research.

I hear my thesis advisor’s voice in my head. “Get out of the library and write!”

I’m on a deadline. I have to be done by Labor Day.

But I just need a little more time in the library.

So it’s back to the past for me.

Home-grown inspiration

Clockwise from top left: Freeport debate memorial; Ottawa debate memorial; Ottawa ‘radium girl’; Dubuque Mark Twain (Sharon’s photos)

There’s no place like home.”

– Dorothy Gale

If it’s fair to define home broadly — as the whole Midwest — I’ve been looking around my back yard a lot lately.

A few years ago, I decided I wanted to set some mysteries in the places I know best. I think there’s a lot of hidden charm in areas I can drive to in a day or less. This summer, I started doing serious research in those areas, especially around the upper Mississippi — Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. I’ve made a few trips to collect experiences, maps and tourist publications. I’ve talked to people I’ve met along the way. And I’ve made a point of stopping in places I’ve taken for granted to take pictures of things I usually just pass by.

In Dubuque, Iowa, I sat with Mark Twain on his bench at the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. Some of my kids had already been there, but I hadn’t. In the few hours I was there, I only got through half the facility. I need to go back for the rest.

I also spent a day with family in Ottawa, Illinois. I have no idea how many times I’ve driven by Washington Park, glanced at the Lincoln-Douglas fountain and statue, but never stopped. This time, my sister and I parked the car and walked to the memorial of the first Lincoln-Douglas debate. We took pictures, then strolled out of the park to visit another statue.

Many have read the book Radium Girls by Kate Moore, or seen the play or movie based on the book. My parents grew up in Ottawa, where the story began. And much of the family is still there. In 2011, the city erected a bronze “Radium Girl” at the corner of Clinton and West Jefferson streets, just a few blocks from the park where the debate is memorialized. Local sculptor William Piller created the statue, after his daughter, then in eighth grade, began asking local officials to commemorate the tragedy of the women who died from radiation poisoning after working at the Radium Dial company.

And, having finally stopped to photograph the Ottawa debate site, I decided it was time to do the same in Freeport, which is close to where I live. Debate Square is between the public library and the city’s favorite ice cream shop. On a pleasant summer night, couples sat in benches around the bronze, talking and eating cones.

The site of the second historic debate, the encounter between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas remains significant because that was where Douglas established what would become the “Freeport Doctrine,” an attempt not to eliminate, but to restrict the spread of slavery in U.S. territories. In 2020, Douglas’ statue at the capitol in Springfield, Illinois, came down, while Lincoln’s remained. Still, their debates were an important milestone in history of the state and the nation.

The 1858 debate tour stops were Ottawa on Aug. 21; Freeport, Aug. 27; Jonesboro, Sept. 15; Charleston, Sept. 18; Galesburg, Oct. 7; Quincy, Oct 13; and Alton, Oct. 15. (And that is a clue about which were the important cities in Illinois in the 19th century. Notice anything missing?)

I’ve added visiting the rest of the Illinois debate sites to my “to do” list. Why not? Maybe I’ll write a book set in each town.

All that is to say, I’ve been finding lots of inspiration for stories close to home this summer.

Turtle pursuit

I just got back from my third Writers’ Police Academy and I’m still carrying that post-conference glow. You know, the one you get when you learn new things, meet friendly people, eat yummy food and have lots of fun?

I think the most fun this year was driving a squad car around the training track at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College. Our hosts for all things police academy rolled out the red carpet, and the orange traffic cones, to let a bunch of writers get hands-on experience just like they give to their actual law-enforcement recruits.

Since I’ve been home — can it really be two weeks already? — I’ve seen notes from fellow WPA’ers about their travel traumas coming and going from Appleton, Wisconsin. In my case, I have none of that. All I need to do is throw my gear in my car and take a leisurely afternoon drive from point A to point B..

My normal trips to Wisconsin are to buy gas, which is usually at least 30 cents cheaper per gallon than it is where I live in Illinois. But I do trek north for fun every now and then. WPA is one of those fun trips.

This year, I learned a lot from my first session to my last. Topics I signed up for this time ranged from body cameras to tribal policing. I also learned a lot about arms in America, how prolific they are and how assault weapons are defined in law. I stepped into a shoot-don’t-shoot video scenario, and would have been shot in real life. I’ve done it twice and been reluctant to shoot both times. And it was just a video! I understand more each time about how officers must feel when they have seconds to evaluate the threat level in any situation.

From the body cam session, I learned the lenses are the extreme wide-angle type called fish-eyes. You know that sign in your side mirror — “Objects are closer than they appear”? The same is true of body cams. I recall some video I saw on TV from an officer-involved shooting. What I took to be an image of someone at least 20 feet away from the policeman (it was a man) could actually have been someone less than half that distance away.

The instructor gave a a few examples, the most intriguing to me from a Florida arrest. The officer with the chest camera stood straight up, turning from side to side a few times, while it was clear that what was happening was on the ground. It all took place in a bank parking lot and a camera on the bank showed the whole picture. I won’t give it away, in case you decided to go to WPA next year.

I have learned so much from WPA in the three times I’ve attended. I hope to be able to go again. Many thanks to Lee Lofland, who has organized WPA and struggled through its headaches for the past 10 years or so. And thanks, too, to the Jason Weber, the public safety training director, and his team at NWTC, for sharing their knowledge, experience and equipment with all of us. Also, thanks to the other officers and agents who come to WPA every year to teach us new things.

Oh, and as for the turtle pursuit — that was my pace around the driver’s training track. My “training officer” encouraged me to speed up. “You have the skills,” he said, trying to encourage me as I wove through a slalom course of orange cones.

Fact is, not a cone was hurt during my two trips around the course.

Not many can say that.

Way too busy

Last December I agreed to volunteer some time to do a little desktop publishing. I anticipated the job would take about a month, based on experience with similar projects. Who knew I’d end up putting in about three weeks of that month in ten days!

Part of crunch was my own fault. I went on a week-long vacation with my sisters. We didn’t do much, but it was our first get-together in nearly three years. But traveling in the middle of the project made me nervous. And I didn’t have all the materials from other volunteers before the trip.

I got home, dug in and managed to make the printer’s deadline. And I had a little fun along the way playing with pages. But I really hated cramming so much into so little time. I wanted the finished product to look nice. I wanted it to be accurate. And the rush made me change my goal simply to getting done.

Oh, sigh.

There were mistakes, and while at the moment we’re trying to find them and fix them for the online version of the program, the original printing will always have them. Corrections are coming along, but I’m about to hit the road for another conference — the Writers’ Police Academy, this year in Green Bay and Appleton, Wisconsin. It will be my third trip, and I’m looking forward to it.

And, when I get back, I’ll be making the final corrections to the program. Fingers crossed next year goes better.

Rolling hills, steep gullies and fields

Place makes a difference in stories.

I’ve been inspired to write mysteries every time I visit Galena, Illinois. It’s not just the mid-19th century rebuilding of an early-19th century town that fascinates me. It’s also the roads I take to get there — the rolling hills and steep gullies always make the drive new to me. I love getting to Stockton and seeing the land dip and open on the west side of town. And then arriving in Elizabeth, with another surprise vista and a curve that — for a brief moment — reminds me of the hazards early settlers faced. And in that, I include the earliest settlers, the nomadic early Americans who followed buffalo, built burial mounds and peopled the region long before my European ancestors even knew the place existed.

I have also been inspired by the vast, flat black soil around the Illinois town where I grew up. Fields that grew corn, peas, asparagus and pumpkins surrounded my home town, a kind of cocoon holding us all together. And those miles of even landscape led me to believe — naively, I know now — that people were also level, the same, with the same opportunities and resources.

The land makes a difference.

For another perspective, take a look at this old post from Writing Rural.

http://www.dailyyonder.com/writing-rural-ron-rash/2015/06/22/7884