An Elephant, Stag and Rambling about Research

By Jennie Helderman

In 1810 a man in Huntsville, Alabama, sold tickets to see an elephant. I have a copy of the flyer advertising the event. Now I happen to know that in 1810 Huntsville was the western frontier. Very few people lived there, and travel was hard. So how did an elephant get to Huntsville?

And how could the man keep the elephant out of sight from people who hadn’t paid?

Questions like those intrigue me and searching for the answers is fun, the same as solving a puzzle or mystery. Research, then, becomes a game for me, at least most of the time. I never know where it will take me.

When I met Ginger McNeil, she could have been a lawyer or judge yet she told me she had lived like a pioneer and eked subsistence from the land. What I saw didn’t fit with the words I heard, and I had to know why. The result five years later was my book, As the Sycamore Grows.

And the research for Sycamore meant bookcases filled with books about domestic violence. My husband says if people see them they’ll think he’s a batterer.

I better enjoy research because it’s essential for me as a writer, even if I’m writing fiction. A reader will buy into my story as long as I’m authentic. If the protagonist is a NASCAR driver, I have to know where Talladega is. Or, if I say the house at 809 Maple in Baycross is really a brothel, I better find out if someone lives in a house at that address, else I’m inviting a law suit.

And speaking of the law, remember after 9/11 when there was speculation that the government would track what people searched at libraries and where they went on the internet? My friend who writes mysteries knew she the CIA would be knocking on her door. She knew how to poison everybody in Atlanta.

That made me wonder what they’d find on my computer—and then I remembered.
Before I wrote Sycamore, I had a historical novel well underway, a story set in the Tennessee River valley around 1800 which is how I happened to discover the flyer about the elephant. For the novel I needed to know—and don’t ask why—details about the sexual prowess of a stag.

You can find almost anything on the internet now days. Almost anything. I didn’t find what I needed to know. But I did find the name of a professor at a university in Nebraska whose specialty in animal husbandry was deer. So I called him and, after some awkward attempts to explain what a serious scientific inquiry my questions were, I learned what I needed to know. He said I was the first woman who had called him at the lab to talk dirty.

I don’t always find what I’m looking for. I’ve never learned for certain why my great-grandfather packed up the family and all their belongings on a mule-drawn wagon and fled from Lake City, Florida, in the middle of the night. Nor have I found out how that elephant got to Huntsville. Maybe I’ll keep digging. Maybe what I find will lead to another book.

In the meantime, there’s a stag that for the past five years has been….