A New York Author Adventure

Some of you might know that I just spent a couple of weeks in New York doing research for my next book. After I returned, someone said to me, ‘Exactly what does a writer do when researching a novel in New York?’ My immediate answer was, ‘Avoid the shops,’ because once sucked into the doors of Bloomingdales, no researching is ever going to be done! But in all seriousness, here is what I did do.

From medical school archives …

IMG_0626

There were 4 key areas I needed to research. Firstly, I have made my main character, Evie, one of the first females to study at Columbia University’s medical school in New York in the 1920s. So I had to find out about the experiences of early female medical students – were they welcomed, were they only encouraged to study in female-centric areas like paediatrics rather than the male-centric areas like neurology, how were they treated when working in the hospitals?

Luckily Columbia Medical School has an extensive library, and one of the departments in this library is the archives. Various people attached to Columbia have donated their papers and documents to the archives over the years and one of these people was a lady called Leoni Neumann Claman, who studied at Columbia’s medical school in 1923.   The archives held a box of her handwritten lecture notes from the time, as well as her examination timetables and papers and copies of various study notes. The notes in this picture to the right are from Claman’s paediatrics studies and are a very regimented list of the ideal diet and feeding times for an infant aged 12-24 months. I especially love the note at the bottom: GIVE ONLY WHAT IS ON THIS LIST. I wonder how many mothers screwed up this piece of paper the minute the doctor gave it to them?!

… to showgirls …

IMG_0482The second area of research was the Ziegfeld Follies – exactly why I am researching the Follies I won’t reveal, all I will say is, you’ll have to wait till the book comes out! The Follies were a famous and very glamourous cabaret style of show and were hugely successful in the early twentieth century. The Ziegfeld Girls, showgirls who paraded around the stage in elaborate costumes and head-dresses, were celebrities and I needed to find out more about the girls and the shows and their lifestyle as it features in my book. Again, to the archives, this time in the New York Public Library’s Theatre Division where they hold a collection of papers, photographs and newspaper clippings about the Follies. In this photo to the left, you can see the weekly pay of a Ziegfeld’s Girl in 1923 – when you compare this to the average weekly wage at the time of $20, you can see that being a Ziegfeld Girl was absolutely worth it.

… to art galleries …

I also wanted to get a good feel for the streets and buildings of the Upper East Side and Greenwich Village at that time. Luckily, many of the buildings in these areas date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century so it’s easy to walk the streets, block out the yellow cabs, and see the world of New York as my character might have seen it.

On the Upper East Side is a gorgeous gallery called The Frick, located in the former home of wealthy industrialist Henry Clay Frick. The home was built in the early twentieth century and is still furnished as it was when Mr Frick lived there. The artwork is simply hanging on the walls – there are no barriers or ropes or anything to make you feel as if you are in a gallery, and it was great to walk through a home from the right time period, frozen just as it would have been back then. Of course, there is no way my character, Evie, could afford a home like this, but some of the people she meets in my book can and do live in such magnificent homes.

… to maps of trains.

IMG_0470So Evie isn’t rich; she can’t afford cabs, thus she has to walk or catch the train to wherever she neeeds to go. So the novelists’ question is, but which train would she have caught? I don’t want to put her on the A train because it didn’t exist back then.

Enter the glorious New York Public Library and their map division. They have subway and elevated train maps from 1921, 1925 and 1927 that I could look at and see exactly which was the closest stop to my character’s home, her work, the medical college etc so I could visualise exactly how she moved around the city.

The internet and archives are a writers’ best friend. I was able to access the Columbia Medical School and New York Public Library catalogues online before I went, track down the material I needed and then email the appropriate people to make appointments to go in and view what I needed to. It was all ready and waiting for me when I arrived. And iPhones are equally fantastic – no more waiting for hours to photocopy all of the material I needed, or to laboriously hand write notes, I just clicked away with the camera on my phone and took hundreds of photos, which I can now refer to (and link into Scrivener!) whenever I need to.

So that is a very brief version of what I got up to in New York. I could go on for pages but I instead of that, please feel free to ask me any questions in the comments field below if you’d like to know more.

16 comments

  1. Kylie

    What an amazing trip Natasha, and if this was only a the brief version – sounds like it would have been quite a wonderful experience! I can’t wait to read all about Evie and her 1920s New York life.

  2. marlish glorie

    I’d like to ask a question. I know it’s is a difficult one though – when is your novel coming out Natasha? Can’t wait! As I just love your descriptions of New York in the 1920’s. Another question though, and one which might be easier to answer is , how do you manage to sift through all this information you’ve researched, and at what stage, if any, does it become problematic?

    • Hi Marlish, I would love to be able to give you a straight answer to your first question but I don’t know! I don’t have a contract for this book so I’m just going to make it the best it can be and then hope some wonderful publisher will take it on. As soon as I know anything, I’ll be shouting it to the world.

      And regarding sifting through the information, I try not to do any research until either I’ve finished a first draft or the story is so well advanced that I know most of the plot twists and turns and the general structure. That way, I’m just using the research to fill in the gaps that need to be filled, rather than letting the research distract me and overtake the story. That’s the approach I’ve found works best for me, because as always, I want the story to be the important thing, and the research to almost feel as if it isn’t there.

  3. marlish glorie

    Thanks Natasha, it’s seems like an excellent approach to writing a novel where a great deal of research material is involved.
    And here’s hoping you do shout,very soon, to the world that a wonderful publisher has taken your manuscript on.

  4. All of this was so fascinating, I can’t wait to read the book and see how it all comes together!

  5. Fun post! I’m doing research for a new project that takes place during the Depression. I found a list of popular names sorted by decades that I thought I’d use to make sure I stay true to the time period. There’s so much on the Web to help a novelist write in an historically accurate way.

    • Yes, names are really important aren’t they? The other thing I’ve found useful has been a list of popular slang terms from the 1920s and I hope using these judiciously will help make the book feel more authentic. Good luck with your project!

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