When the Raven Mocker returns to Boynton, Oklahoma, in the fall of 1918, he brings with him the great worldwide influenza pandemic that claimed fifty million lives. World War I is still raging in Europe, but Alafair Tucker is fighting her own war as the epidemic sweeps through like wildfire. What a perfect time for someone to commit murder. Who’s going to notice?
In 2004, when I was writing my first Alafair Tucker mystery, The Old Buzzard Had It Coming, I was particularly concerned with the kind of life Alafair would have led in 1912, so much of my research consisted of personal interviews with people who had grown up on substance farms (mostly my mother, but some of her cousins, as well), and lots of library time reading diaries and other personal accounts.
The Return of the Raven Mocker is the ninth installment in the series, and the passing years have made quite a difference, both for Alafair and for me. The outside world has intruded on Alafair in a big way, and my research methods have changed as well. My mother has passed on, and the internet has exploded. I don’t have to rummage around in the dusty library stacks (even though I still do. Not EVERYTHING is online, especially diaries.)
On the official websites of the Cherokee Nation and the Muskogee Creek nation I learned the details of the Cherokee legend of Raven Mocker, an evil witch/wizard who takes the form of a raven at night and flies about looking for the old and the sick to torment and suck the life out of them. This, I thought, is the perfect title for a book about the flu epidemic of 1918.
I learned from the websites for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that no one knows for sure how many died in the flu pandemic, but modern estimates put the number at somewhere between thirty and fifty million people worldwide. Twelve times as many Americans died from complications of the flu than died in battle in World War I. I found most of my information about the desperate attempts of the medical establishment to find an effective treatment for the disease, from a fabulous book by John Barry called The Great Influenza. Some of the treatments doctors tried were deadlier than the flu!
Influenza victims crowd into an emergency hospital near Fort Riley, Kansas in this 1918 file photo. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic killed at least 20 million people worldwide. More than five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the government cannot show how the $5 billion given to public health departments has better prepared the country for a bio terrorism attack or flu pandemic. (AP Photo/National Museum of Health)
One of my favorite primary research resources for any of my books is newspapers. In 2004 I read old newspaper archives on rolls of microfilm. Now I can find most early 20th Century newspapers online, including the Boynton Index for the entire decade of the 1910s. I am able find out about the weather for whatever day I want, and what was showing at the movies. I can learn the price of a bushel of wheat, a barrel of oil, a lady’s hat, and an automobile. Most importantly, I discover from letters to the editor and editorials what people were thinking about what was going on locally and about the war in Europe.
It’s fascinating to see what people knew and when they knew it. From the perspective of 100 years on, we know how things turned out. But they had no idea what was going to happen. During the flu pandemic, the government actually encouraged the press to downplay the seriousness of the situation, because the war was still going on and nothing was to be allowed to interfere with war production! Eventually, factories all over the United States were no longer able to stay open because most of their workers were ill, and the stories in the papers began to change radically, printing all kinds of weird and generally useless advice about how to avoid becoming sick.
I have always kept a file of interesting newspaper clippings for inspiration. Long before I was published I’d clip any story that cought my fancy and file it away. The stories that interest me always have an element of poignancy. Sometimes I’ll use the idea right away, but I never discard a tale that intrigues me, and I have used ideas that I gleaned from a newspaper story many years earlier.
And it’s not only papers from the era I write about that are useful. For a long time I have had a subscription to the Haskell News, a weekly paper from a little town in the same county as Boynton. The News tells me about the school lunch menu and who’s visiting Haskell from Chicago, but there is a historian who writes occasional priceless articles on local history for the paper. Many months ago he wrote a full page article on the effect of the 1918 flu epidemic on Muskogee County. If you think I didn’t save that article and use details from it it years later in Raven Mocker, Dear Reader, then you have made an incorrect assumption.
Donis Casey, January 30, 2017
Donis Casey is the author of the Alafair Tucker Mysteries, set in Oklahoma during the booming 1910s and featuring the sleuthing mother of ten children. Donis has twice won the Arizona Book Award, been a finalist for the Willa Award and is a seven-time finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award. The ninth Alafair Tucker Mystery, The Return of the Raven Mocker, has just been released by Poisoned Pen Press. Donis is a former teacher, academic librarian, and entrepreneur who currently lives in Tempe, AZ, with her husband. Read the first chapter of each of her books on her website at www.doniscasey.com.