Research when writing a book (confirming historical, geographic or scientific facts in order to preserve logical integrity in the book – even if the book is complete fiction) is not like research in science (the scientific method), nor even quantitative methods used in the social sciences. In writing a book research is a matter of culling as many sources as you can – or have the patience for – to find relevant background information or confirm what you already thought you knew. There’s an awful temptation to stop when you think you have information that suits your purposes, or not even start when you think you already have the answer: but that doesn’t mean the information you’ve dug up is accurate, or certainly all the information there is. Integrity in your writing requires research.
The Treasure of Stella Bay is a novel hatched from my fertile brain, though, as is often said, fertile because it is so full of BS. Many a novel is at least partly autobiographical, and TTSB has many echoes of my own life, though rather scrambled. And while it is a work of fiction, I have set it in a particular place and time – Amherst Island, circa 1962 – and so I feel the need to have the references in the story to be based on facts. I don’t want some actual Islander complain that I didn’t have that church in the right place, nor some maritime engineer sniff that I didn’t properly understand water displacement. So we start doing our research.
I’m not sure how other authors do it. Highly successful authors with large revenues, or publisher advances, can hire students and staff to do it for them. But if you’re an independent author (the modern vernacular is ‘Indie’, hmmmm) you do your own. Or if you are mildly schizophrenic, or merely eccentric, you could delegate, to yourself.
‘Doug, would you take a few moments and check out the name of the ferry that goes across to Amherst Island?
‘Sure thing Doug. But I think it’s just called the Islander. Or maybe the Amherst Islander, like the ferry to Wolfe Island is called the Wolfe Islander.’
‘Just check it out.’
So I open a new page in Safari and google ‘ferry to Amherst Island’. And I get the answer, but I have to dig for it: It’s called Frontenac II. Hmmm, not The Islander as I imagined.
And more hmmm. The name Frontenac II begs new questions: Was there a Frontenac I? What was the name of the ferry in 1962, (since 1962 is the time of my little novel, The Treasure of Stella Bay)? Maybe it was Frontenac I? and how will I find that out?
I report this to Doug and, no surprise, he sends me back to get more information. Is it really that important to have the name of the damn ferry? Just call it the ferry.
So back to google I go and ask for Frontenac I and I get … Nothing. Okay, go back to Frontenac II. Wow, quite a lot! There’s a whole article on Wikipedia on Frontenac II (and I have to say I wish wikipaedia was spelt in British and not American). Frontenac II was built and commissioned in 1962; interesting! It’s officially called MV Frontenac II, but I’m not sure what MV stands for, probably Marine Vessel, but do I care enough to research that to make sure. Maybe later. The Wolfe Island ferry is highlighted in the Wikipedia article and so naturally I click on it. The ferry from Kingston to Wolfe island is called, Wolfe Islander III. Yes! But in that article there is reference to Wolfe Islander II, the predecessor to Wolfe Islander III, plying the route from 1946 to 1975. That implies there was a Wolfe Islander I, and there was! Except it was just called the Wolfe Islander, the ‘I’ being self-evident I guess. And that suggests there was a Frontenac I, predecessor to Frontenac II, or maybe just ‘The Frontenac’; it began service in 1928.
I reported all this to Doug. He is pleased but I can see he has even more questions. Thankfully he leaves them alone.
So now you see this research is a great thief of time, with perhaps very little return. And Doug II was right, was it really necessary to know the actual name of the ferry? Shouldn’t he (Doug I) concentrate his energies on getting the story written rather than going down all those rabbit holes?
Thank goodness for google, and especially for Wikipedia (and I donate annually, $20! (though one time I misplace the decimal and ended up donating $200!)) But you can’t expect google to know everything, nor Wikipedia to be absolutely correct. And I have found google maps (satellite view, and street view) to be very helpful, almost like being there. But not quite.
So I made a research trip to Amherst Island the weekend of October 2nd& 3rd. Being there is viscerally superior to on-line research. Even though being there provides only perhaps a few percentage points of additional perspective than ‘street view’, it feels more authentic. You can stop your car and scramble down the hill to the municipal wharf and look across the bay, and along the shore at half drowned willow trees and stumps and rocks and let the creative mysteries of the mind start to work, infiltrating the story emerging there.
Regrettably the Amherst Island Museum and Historical Society was closed due to Covid. Maybe next summer. Apparently 2020 was canceled for lack of students to man the museum (or should I say people the place). Maybe it will reopen in 2021. But I hope to finish the first draft of TTSB by Christmas this year and publish the book by April of 2021. So much for original documents.
There is a shop co-located in the museum building, the original wharf-side warehouse, Neilson Store. The shop was open but covid quiet. The two ladies minding the store were displaying their jars and knickknacks. They listened to the tale of my nascent novel about Amherst Island but being very conscientious would only let me peer at the other side of the building, at the books and articles laid out there, just out of reach of my hands and eyes.
The helpful ladies must have considered me legit though, especially after I proffered my business card, AFS Publishing, Doug Jordan, Publisher, and soon called one of the members of the board of AIHS. Sure he said, send them over. So my faithful companion and I drove over to the south shore to meet with Tom. He isn’t really an authentic Islander: He wasn’t born there and has only lived on Amherst Island 43 years. But if eccentricity is any qualifier, he’s as authentic as they come. Two hours later….
Some of the things Tom told me confirmed my original impressions and thoughts on the Island, some things I had wrong and I will have to make adjustments in the text; he was also a treasure trove of fresh information that I shall try to include in the story, he seemed to latch onto my theme of a twelve-yer-old boy living on Amherst Island in 1962; some things he told me will have to be left aside, (and who knows what else I should know about Island lore that Tom hasn’t told me); and some of things I have invented will stay in the story as author’s license. After two hours I figured I had enough material for one day, but I may just have to go back and interview him again. I left him my business card and he promised he would write to me with any other thoughts he had; he gave me permission to ask him more questions, but that will depend on him sending me his email address… and i haven’t heard form him since.
I still intend to visit the Kingston Whig Standard and cull their microfiche files to read back issues of The Whig in 1960-62. I’m looking for news of the day in Kingston and the Islands, news of the world too I guess, and confirmation of the price of bread and Coke. Turns out accessing KWS Archives is rather difficult. The Whig has collaborated with the Kingston Public Library to digitize records, but nothing seems to have yet been transferred in the time period of my story. And neither the Library nor the Whig Standard make it easy to get past auto-attendant. Don’t you just love modern technology – high tech, low touch, dead ends. I guess we can blame this on Covid too. You think research is easier now with the vastness of the internet? Not so much. Not always.
So my research continues, in parallel with my drafting. If you have any thoughts or insights on the time period of my novel (1960 – 62) that you think should be included in this novel, or, unlikely though it may be, have connections with Amherst Island, please let me know. It just might get you a reference in the acknowledgement page of The Treasure of Stella Bay.
Doug Jordan, Reporting to you from Stella and Kanata Ontario.
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