Friday, August 09, 2013

Solving Mysteries Through Research ~ by Sally J. Ling

Sally J. Ling, Florida’s History Detective, is an author, speaker, and historian. She writes historical fiction and nonfiction and specializes in little known stories of Florida history.
As a special correspondent, Sally wrote for the Sun Sentinel newspaper for four years and was a contributing journalist for Boca Raton, Gold Coast, Delray Beach, Boca Life, Jupiterand Palm Beacher magazines.
Based upon excerpts from her book Run the Rum In, Sally appeared in two TV documentaries-- “Gangsters” - the National Geographic Channel, and “Prohibition and the South Florida Connection” - WLRN, MiamiShe served as associate producer on the latter production.
She has been a guest on South Florida PBS TV and radio stations, guest presenter at the Lifelong Learning Society at Florida Atlantic University and Future Authors of America, and guest speaker at numerous historical societies, libraries, organizations, and schools. 
Sally lives with her husband, Chuck, and her cat, Kitty, and splits her time between Deerfield Beach, Florida, and Wolf Laurel, North Carolina.

Research is Like a Mystery Waiting to be Solved

Sally J. Ling

As a child, I loved putting jigsaw puzzles together. My two sisters and I would spend hours hunched over the card table, fitting the borders together first then finding just the right pieces to make the 1,000-piece puzzle resemble the picture on the box. The hunt for each piece was exciting, like trying to solve some mystery. Perhaps that is why I so like doing research for my books today.

Whether I’m writing historical nonfiction about a fascinating part of Florida history or a novel, I always approach my research as though it’s a mystery waiting to be solved. It keeps me motivated, and I never know where the smallest piece of information will take me. Consider the case of the missing child.

While researching the 1948 Boca Raton, Florida, double homicide of the prominent Italian sculptor and his wife, Leno and Louise Lazzari, I noticed in the police deposition that Margie, the woman who found the bodies, stated that when she came to live at her current home in West Palm Beach in 1934 there were five Constiglioni children. The 1930 Census Report I held in my hand, however, listed six children. One child was missing. Though the missing child wasn’t really central to the account of the homicides, the questions who, what, when, where, and why became an itch that needed to be scratched.

Through genealogical records, I discovered that it was Gloria, the fifth Constiglioni child, who was missing. The mystery became more intriguing when the police report from the homicide stated that in 1932 Gloria’s mother Theresa was committed to the state’s mental hospital. My nose said that the two incidents were connected, that something horrific had happened that sent the mother over the edge. But what?

After obtaining the child’s death certificate from the state, part of the mystery was solved. The four-year-old child accidently caught her clothes on fire while playing with matches. She was severely burned in the incident and died in the hospital two days later. Now I had partial proof of what I suspected—there was a horrendous incident. But . . .  was this really what sent poor Theresa to the mental institution? After all, she didn’t enter the hospital until two years after the child’s death; and, even though I had the deposition, police and census reports, and death certificate, I couldn’t just go on my hunch. I still needed concrete proof of a direct connection between the two incidents. That came just days later.

Solid research is the foundation of any good book, whether fiction or nonfiction. It makes the story believable, it gives the author credibility, and in a novel, provides enough truth to allow the mingling of fiction with fact to draw the reader in and make the entire story credible. In my latest biblical novel The Cloak, several readers actually asked me if the story was real. If the reader cannot separate fact from fiction, the author has accomplished his or her goal and received the ultimate compliment.

Gloria’s mystery was solved when, through a combination of research and luck, I found two of her sisters. At ages 88 and 92, they were able to confirm my hunch and provide the rest of the story. Their mother was so distraught by the unfortunate death of Gloria she literally lost her mind. Her admittance card from the Florida State Hospital stated she was “chronically insane.”* There was my proof.

As I mentioned, you never know where your research will lead. It was because of Gloria’s mystery and the fact that Theresa wound up in the Florida State Hospital that my latest nonfiction book, Out of Mind, Out of Sight, was born. It is the first book to give a complete history of the mental facility at Chatahoochee, Florida, after more than 135 years of existence.

So, you see, research really is like a mystery waiting to be solved.

*This is not a standard term used in today’s mental health field.


LeAnne Hardy said...

What an interesting story! Lots of potential for a gripping novel.