I had a chance to get up to the Canadian border last week to do some out-of-town research. And boy, was it helpful. In so many ways.
The reality is that there are different ways to do research. There is, of course, the obvious way:
Isn't that lovely? That's the Roseau County center in Roseau, MN. It houses various things, including a public library, but for me, the draw was the Roseau County Historical Society. Roseau's history organization has a gorgeous suite with a large room set aside just for research. They have various publications available on microfiche and in paper, but this was what I was after:
The Roseau Times-Region, a newspaper in existence for decades. Roseau currently has a population of about 2,600 people, which is larger than the town I'm creating for my novel, but for all intents and purposes, it's small enough. I dived into newspapers from the 1960s and 1970s, and took pages--and pages and pages and pages--of notes. On both a micro and macro level, I can't emphasize how valuable this research was. I found old phrases that I remember my grandparents and parents using, but had forgotten about; for example, "for sour apples"--this was often used as part of a sentence describing something someone is incapable of doing, like "I can't make a pie crust for sour apples." Not sure of the provenance, and I have a note to dig into it, but it was definitely a regularly used phrase back in the day.
But also, looking at what made news in a small town was enlightening. Newspapers in small towns in those days had a lot of personal information. Who was admitted to the hospital, who was discharged; how Alma Pederson went to visit her children in Pasadena for the month of January and reports the weather was very nice; when the Oscar Ferguson family went to have dinner at the Ernest Stittsworth home on Sunday, and everyone enjoyed it. It's almost like a giant gossip column, except not mean-spirited.
There's also the larger picture. A smaller-town newspaper's headlines tend to focus on local news, whether it was the wins or losses of the hockey team, or the gigantic winter storm, or the resulting spring floods. When I went to the Koochiching County Historical Society and read the same time period of the International Falls Journal, I found local news more likely to be inside the paper, not on the cover (except, of course, for devastating snowstorms and exciting hockey wins), and the Journal used AP wire stories about national and international incidents much more frequently. Currently, International Falls is about 2.5 times the size of Roseau, which could affect how they chose coverage. But as for those local stories, they ran very similarly to Roseau's in terms of gossipy items.
Still, there are some interesting differences. For almost 20 years, Roseau had a newspaper columnist who wrote about a good many aspects of life in Roseau--but he was also borderline obsessed with the USSR and the Soviet Communist threat. Even though I grew up during that period, I'd forgotten how menacing the former Soviet Union seemed back then. But in International Falls, in the same time period, the USSR got very rare mentions, and mostly related to the space race. Instead, Falls readers were kept very current on the situation in Vietnam (or, as the paper back in the day put it, Viet Nam), thanks to that AP wire service--while Vietnam hardly ranked a mention in Roseau. Why such a difference in two towns only 2.5 hours apart?
Anyway, I got lots of ideas from reading these old papers. How many will come to fruition remains to be seen. Alas, I fear I will not be able to use this story, but I share it in the spirit of giving readers a giggle.
While the historical societies were invaluable sources of research, they weren't the only places that yielded helpful experiences.
You cannot--just cannot--beat a small town cafe at breakfast time. I mean, the food alone is worth the visit. These people know how to make a stellar breakfast:
That was a darn delicious skillet full of fried potatoes, eggs, and four kinds of cheese. But see that toast on the left? That was a new bread offering at the cafe: Wild rice and cranberry bread. I said, oh, that sounds amazing. And it was. Two bites into it, and I waved the server over to ask if I could buy a loaf to take home. She said she wasn't sure, but sometimes they had extra, and she would check. Before she went back to the kitchen, she stopped at a table with two women who had just sat down. She told them about the bread, and one of them said, in that most Minnesotan of ways, "Oh, that's different."
If you're not from Minnesota, especially northern Minnesota, "That's different" is code for "I'll chew my own hand off before eating that, but I have to be polite." Sure enough, as soon as the server went back to the kitchen, one of the women said to the other, "Well, that is the weirdest thing I have ever heard of--wild rice cranberry bread!"
The server came back out with a loaf to sell me, and I may have responded by saying, much more loudly than necessary, "Why, thank you so much for selling me a loaf of that DELICIOUS WILD RICE CRANBERRY BREAD! It's DELIGHTFUL!"
And it is. I had some toasted with honey butter for breakfast and wish I'd tried to buy more loaves, since the server told me it freezes well.
But I digress. This was a classic northern Minnesota conversation. Besides these kinds of reactions, just watching how locals hang out at the cafe is enlightening. How they talk to each other, what they talk about, what they order. I realized that if I sat at a table with a notebook and pen, I attracted notice. But if I sat at a table with a book open next to my plate and occasionally picked up my phone to type something, as if I was sending a text or responding to someone on Facebook, no one paid me any attention. Consequently, I have numerous fun phrases and notes on my phone.
Cemeteries. When I originally applied for the grant, my novel was tentatively titled Epitaphs, and cemeteries were going to play a large role. As the writing has progressed, that has changed. But cemeteries are still such a valuable place to visit, especially when you find ones, like these, that have been around for more than a century. And they are a very important part of small town life. Every one I visited was starting to be full of fresh flowers, several days before Memorial Day. Then there was this one:
The sign indicates the cemetery was opened in 1912 and has the name Gol Menighet, which turns out to have been the name of the local church congregation. The little building is a miniature replica of the actual church. What's interesting about this cemetery is that even though it's been there for over a century, there are only a few gravestones, yet the space is clearly kept mowed. There were also several rolls of land that made me wonder if there were unmarked graves there. Turns out that was the answer.
Of course, as in any cemetery, there are things that are heartbreaking.
This little boy didn't quite make it to his second birthday. And look at that monument--it must have cost a pretty penny in 1909. His parents must have been devastated.
This one just made me wistful. I don't know how it was in other places around the country, but in northern MN in the 20th century, these flat stones were commonly used. But the problem with them, as you can see, is that if someone doesn't maintain them, the grass and soil will start to creep over the stone. I saw several on this trip that had only the thinnest strip of stone still visible, the rest overtaken by grass. Small cemeteries don't have the budgets to pay for the labor it would take to keep these clear. I remember my parents trying to keep my grandparents' graves, which had these kinds of stones, cleaned up; in the end, my parents chose an upright monument to prevent this kind of slow erasure. That in itself could be the root of a story.
But this is the headstone that really stopped me in my tracks and, later, had me scribbling furiously in my book journal, coming up with ideas. If you look in the upper right, you'll see the traditional husband/wife tombstone. But what happened with Fritz? The husband died awfully young, at just 51 or 52, and clearly expected his wife to be buried with him. But nothing. Was she much younger than he was, and she's still alive? Did she remarry and opt to be buried next to her second husband? What's the story here????
This is exactly why it's necessary to not research just in historical societies--though, again, those societies are invaluable resources--but to seek out other aspects. And why I'm so grateful to the Minnesota State Arts Board for making this research trip possible for me. My head is spinning and my notebook is full of excited scribbles. There are so many notes in my notebook that would not have come to be if not for this trip. (I also need to eat a lot of vegetables to make up for those breakfasts.)