Wednesday, March 9, 2011

A Novelist's Research Near-Disaster

I closed last week's blog with a research adventure from when I was writing THE RAGTIME KID. Here's one from THE RAGTIME FOOL.

Not a spoiler - the first chapter of TRF reveals the plan of a bunch of Klansmen to blow up a high school in Sedalia, MO during a racially-integrated ceremony to honor Scott Joplin. Since what I knew about explosives would have rattled around inside a watch case, I set out to get information. I learned a good bit about dynamite, but couldn't quite get my head around the specific protocol for its use in bringing down a building.

That summer, I went to Canada to visit my friend Jim, in Sechelt, on BC's Sunshine Coast. We went to lunch with Jim's friend, Ralph, and as I looked around the room, I realized the construction was similar to that of Sedalia's old Hubbard High School. We were sitting in the lower level of a two-story building, the ceiling above us being supported by a large horizontal beam that ran the length of the room. That beam in turn was held in place by two stout vertical wooden beams.

And Ralph was a contractor!

"Tell me something," I said to him. "If you wanted to blow up this building with dynamite, exactly how would you go about it?"

Ralph turned to Jim, who waved aside his concern. "He's a writer," Jim said. "He's probably doing a story. Go ahead and tell him what he wants to know."

So, as Ralph gave me detailed step-by-step directions, I took them down in the little pocket notepad I always carry. When he finished, I thanked him, and told him I'd send him a copy of the book.

Two days later, on my way home, it was only as I was next in line for the customs inspector that I realized I was carrying in my shirt pocket a pad whose first page was titled, "How to blow up Hubbard High School." All of a sudden, air-conditioned car or not, I was sweating profusely. Too late to turn back. It occurred to me that I might tear out the page and swallow it, but I thought no, I'm probably on camera right now. They'd lock me up and pass a tube down one end or up the other. Bad idea.

The inspector waved me forward. Since I'm not a praying man, all I could do was hope. Fortunately, he just asked me a couple of quick questions about purchases, then waved me through. Lesson learned. Next time, information like that gets to my house by mail, snail or e-.

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