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Researching For My Novels Set In Early 20th Century Detroit, by DE Johnson

I’ve chosen a place and time period for my novels that is recent and populous enough to have a strong historical record, which makes my research easier than it might otherwise be. Detroit in the 1910s had three very popular newspapers, and the archives still exist for all three, with each on microfilm. In addition, I’ve written a lot about the early electric car industry, and, as you might expect, there are some great sources for automotive history in the Detroit area, my favorite being the Benson Ford Research Centre at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

My first novel, The Detroit Electric Scheme, was set against the backdrop of the rise and fall of the early electric car industry. I chose Detroit Electric to be my “sample” company. The real Detroit Electric was the most successful electric car manufacturer in United States history and made cars from 1907 to 1939. (Unfortunately, their greatest successes all came prior to World War I.)

The Benson Ford has a wealth of information on Detroit Electric, helped by the fact that Henry Ford bought three of them, two for his wife Clara and the other for his son Edsel. (Edsel quickly grew out of the DE. It simply wasn’t fast enough for him.) I was able to get copies of detailed sales brochures, owner’s and operating manuals, pictures, and correspondence, including original letters from Thomas Edison to William C. Anderson, the owner of Detroit Electric. That was pretty exciting for a history nerd like me.

I also have to mention the National Automotive History Collection at the Detroit Public Library. This is another great source of information, though they are not as well-funded as the Benson Ford, and it takes a little more work to get the information you need.

So, automotive history is easy. Still, there are challenges. My second book, Motor City Shakedown, is set during Detroit’s first mob war in 1912 and 1913. I decided to write this book for two reasons – I, like many people, am interested in organized crime history, and I could find almost no mention of this mob war in history books, which really surprised me. New York and Chicago mafia history is well-documented, but little is known about the gangsters who ruled Detroit prior to Prohibition.

In this case it was two Sicilian gangs – the Adamos and the Gianollas – who were battling for control of the Detroit rackets. Vito Adamo had taken over leadership of a very loosely-organized group of gangs in Detroit’s Little Italy and downriver areas, and Tony Gianolla and his brothers wanted what Vito had. By the time the issue was settled, dozens of men had been shotgunned in the streets of Detroit, all in about a nine-block area.

Fortunately for me, the newspapers were filled with stories of this mob war every day for months. Detroiters followed the sensational news with rapture—this kind of thing didn’t happen in the “Paris of the West.” The war was finally settled in November 1913, when two of the brothers were murdered. (I’ll leave out which brothers, as it is in the climax of Motor City Shakedown. You can easily Google it if you’re curious.)

Newspapers have many other benefits as well. Weather can be helpful. For the closing night in The Detroit Electric Scheme, it had really been so foggy you could barely see your hand in front of your face, which is a nice detail for a book. Advertisements are excellent for seeing what was popular and the kind of prices the products commanded. And, of course, news and editorial gives great insight as to what people were thinking about; an absolute necessity in getting into their heads well enough to presume I can write from the perspective of one of theirs.

I can’t leave out the internet (though sometimes I’d like to). This needs to be approached with caution, because there is a lot of crap out there, but a wealth of information has been made available online. My most recent book, Detroit Breakdown, is set largely in Eloise Hospital, the Detroit-area insane asylum. A Google e-book entitled History of Eloise was originally published in 1913 (my book is set in 1912) and shows a (very one-sided) history of the institution and, best of all, contains detailed descriptions of the buildings and the classifications of the residents. (For an institution that at one point had seventy-five buildings on over 900 acres, serving 10,000 patients at a time, it would have been challenging to construct something approaching the 1912 reality without that book.)

Of course, printed books are often a good source of information about places and time periods as well. Of particular interest to me are books about the social and cultural issues and norms of the time period. The greatest challenge in writing a historical novel is being able to put oneself in the head of a person inhabiting that time and place. While understanding the “whos,” “whats,” and “wheres” is critical in creating a credible historical novel, nothing is more important than understanding the “whys.”


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The Detroit Electric SchemeMotor City Shakedown     Night of Flames: A Novel of World War IIBetrayal: A Kydd Sea Adventure (Kydd Sea Adventures (Hardcover))EquinoxPhantoms in the Snow

Writing Historical Novels

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Teresa #

    Not usually a murder-mystery fan, but I recently read Detroit Breakdown for a book discussion group. I enjoyed the historical value and setting of 1912 Detroit, and Liz and Will, of course, to the point I reserved your first two books at the local library. I have since also completed the first book, and am now reading the 2nd. I was also fortunate to obtain your 4th and latest also at a local library. Your books are gory, yes, but I love the way I’m always wrong about who was the actual killer. Keep up the great work – you are doing a great job!

    October 15, 2013

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