Over the past few weeks, I have started revising and rewriting my work-in-progress, a love story/conspiracy plot set during the 1928 Democratic National Convention, here in Houston. Much of the work involves restructuring my plot and getting rid of material that served as back story, but that doesn’t need to take up real estate in the actual novel.
Last week, I headed to the microfilm room in the basement of Fondren to read past issues of the Houston Post and Houston Chronicle. Working on a historical novel presents its own challenges, but I love that when I get stuck, I can go to the records for that day to see what actually happened. If it rained on Monday, I can turn a leaky roof into a plot point. Extra tickets to the rodeo available? Send a character to retrieve them.
But what I really love about researching this novel are the random tidbits scattered throughout the archives. Newspapers in the 20s resembled sincere tabloids, lively and bizarre. On one day, the reporters couldn’t get a statement from a son of a prominent official, so they reprinted his refusal, along with the reporter’s commentary: “Mr. Blair is 21, and when a man is 21 he has a right to express his opinions as a man among men.”
You can’t make this stuff up.
Along with dozens of these little one-liners, I found a picture of a house that represented the “typical” “Colonial homes of moderate cost which have been constructed in River Oaks within recent months.” For those of you who don’t live in Houston, River Oaks is widely regarded as one of the most opulent, extravagant, and, yes, expensive areas to live in the city. It’s also where my beat-up apartment is located, so I had to go see this house.
We plugged the address into our phones, and took a long walk last night. Most of the houses in that neighborhood are original, though some have been knocked down and replaced with even bigger mansions. But there it was—the house in the newspaper, almost 100 years old and still retaining to a large degree its original character. The trees in the front yard were massive; the house next door had an oak whose gnarled branches were supported by iron posts.
So much of the Houston of my novel has been torn down, replaced by highways or skyscrapers. It was amazing to see a part of it still thriving after all these years. We stood as long as we could, about twenty seconds, before the owners noticed us pointing and measuring with our hands and opened the blinds to look. We turned our tracks and headed home, my mind spinning with images of Gatsby-style cars and suits and cigarettes.