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Down the Rabbit Hole: Writing Novels from a Librarian’s Perspective, a guest post by Bryce Moore

As an academic librarian, I have taught thousands of students how to research. It’s to the point that I could probably teach that class in my sleep, going on about how to find books and articles, how to know which research tools to use and when. Often, the students I’m teaching show little interest in the subject matter. Research is something they view as a distasteful necessity of their schooling. A hoop they need to jump through, paper after paper, so they can fulfill the requirements of their classes.

What I try to stress to them (hopefully successfully, more often than not) is that research is something we all do every day, whether we’re trying to decide what car to buy, what movie to see, or checking to see just how bad a sore throat has to get before we should see a doctor. Even the act of asking friends for advice is a sort of research project. You find different sources, you evaluate them for their reliability in the specific context, you synthesize the responses, and you make a decision.

Writing historical novels is no different, at least as far as the preparation is concerned. I started writing The Perfect Place to Die with only the premise in mind: in search of her sister, a teenage girl goes undercover in H.H. Holmes’ infamous “Murder Castle.” I’d read Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, and the setting and characters were fascinating. I was eager to see what I could do with it as a YA thriller.

Photograph of the infamous “Murder Castle” (known at the time as the World’s Fair Hotel) 

But when it came time to actually write the book, I discovered working within the constraints of history complicates matters in ways I hadn’t anticipated. For example, I’ve been to Chicago multiple times (go to ALA long enough, and that’s inevitable), so I assumed I’d be able to insert details about the city without much trouble. Except every time I went to write about something, I had to first check to see if it existed back in 1893. Almost without fail, it didn’t.

Even writing simple scenes took time and research. Etta, the main character, comes into Chicago by train. I assumed Chicago would have one central train station. Instead, it had several. I had to poke around to find out which train station would have been the one that a passenger from Utah would arrive in. Then I had to find out what it looked like. It was one rabbit hole after another.

Thankfully, the internet has made much of that type of factual research simpler these days. (Especially since I was doing some of this work in the middle of a pandemic.) I know Wikipedia can get a bad rap with some reference librarians, but when it comes to non-controversial topics like Chicago train stations of yore, it’s a great way to draw on the knowledge of people who know much more than I do about a subject. It gives you enough context to know where you should head to continue the research trail.

For the record, there was no train that went straight from Utah to Chicago at that point in time. I found that out by looking at old train maps online at the Library of Congress. Etta could have traveled to Kansas City and then switched trains to come into one of the stations on the western side of Chicago. None of that ended up mattering, however, since the scene I wrote based on that research got cut from the final draft.

A drawing of Union Station in Chicago from 1885. 

That highlights one of the pitfalls of a librarian doing research for a novel. Too often, I can lose myself in the hunt for a piece of information. There are always more details to fill in—more specifics to nail down. It would be easy to spend hours of extra time nosing through websites and books I’ve interlibrary loaned, and those would be hours I really enjoyed. But at some point, I have to leave the rabbit holes and get to the actual writing.

On the other hand, that research can also make writing the novel easier. Through it, I gained a better appreciation of the sort of experiences Etta would have had, which let me understand who she would be as a character, and how she would have viewed the world. Her sister had disappeared in Chicago, but Etta couldn’t know where or why. If she had that sort of proof, bringing the law into play would have been the easy out, and that wasn’t a solution I wanted available to her. Instead, I had to have Etta find her sister’s trail on her own. Through my research, I found certain aspects of the plot falling into place on their own.

In the end, research led to more writing, which in turn led to more research. And while librarianship has made me more susceptible to getting distracted by rabbit holes, it’s also made it much easier for me to come out of those holes with a rabbit in hand.

Meet the author

Bryce Moore is the author of The Memory Thief and Vodník. When he’s not authoring, he’s a librarian in Western Maine and a past president of the Maine Library Association. And when he’s not up to his nose in library work, he’s watching movies, playing board games, and paying ridiculous amounts of money feeding his Magic the Gathering addiction. Check out his daily blog for writing tips, movie reviews, and general rantings over at brycemoore.com.

Check out this link to a free discussion guide for the book!

About The Perfect Place to Die

Stalking Jack the Ripper meets Devil in the White City in this terrifying historical fiction debut about one of the world’s most notorious serial killers.

In order to save her sister, Zuretta takes a job at an infamous house of horrors—but she might never escape.

Zuretta never thought she’d encounter a monster. She had resigned herself to a quiet life in Utah. But when her younger sister, Ruby, travels to Chicago during the World’s Fair, and disappears, Zuretta leaves home to find her.

But 1890s Chicago is more dangerous and chaotic than she imagined. She doesn’t know where to start until she learns of her sister’s last place of employment…a mysterious hotel known as The Castle.

Zuretta takes a job there hoping to learn more. And before long she realizes the hotel isn’t what it seems. Women disappear at an alarming rate, she hears crying from the walls, and terrifying whispers follow her at night. In the end, she finds herself up against one of the most infamous mass murderers in American history—and his custom-built death trap.

With real, terrifying quotes in front of each chapter, strong female characters, and unbearable suspense, The Perfect Place to Die is perfect for fans of true crime, horror, and the Stalking Jack the Ripper series.

ISBN-13: 9781728229119
Publisher: Sourcebooks
Publication date: 08/03/2021
Age Range: 14 – 18 Years

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