Archive for May 1st, 2022

Research rabbit hole

The evidence shows that I enjoy research more than the actual writing. Today’s writing session is an instructive example.

My story takes place in 1911, and at the beginning of my writing session today I set up the situation where my main characters have to track down Nikola Tesla. But how would they look up his address?

A Google search for “New York telephone directory 1911” led me to the NYPL’s online copy of Trow’s general directory of the boroughs of Manhattan and Bronx, city of New York, whose 1911 edition was 3790 pages long. On page 2300 or thereabouts I found this listing:

Tesla Electro-Therapeutic Co 111 Bway #901
— Nikola elec eng 202 Metropolitan tower in The Waldof-Astoria
— Ozone Co 111 Bway #901

No visible phone number, though there is a smudge after “The Waldorf-Astoria” which might possibly be a two-digit number. But my characters’ cheap hotel would not likely have this monster phone directory (which was printed in multiple volumes, likely at least 8). So maybe they would have to go to the library to look it up?

Well, as it happens, this scene takes place on May 16, 1911 (nailed down by a newspaper story about Tesla) and the NYPL’s current location (at 476 5th Ave, just a few blocks from their hotel) had its grand opening on May 23, 1911, so it’s not clear whether they would have found it open yet. Even if the new building was open, the directory might still be at one of the libraries it replaced, the Astor Library at 425 Lafayette Street (which closed to readers on April 15, 1911 and is now, as it happens, the Public Theatre) or the Lenox Library at Fifth Avenue between 70th (which was demolished in 1912; I haven’t found a specific closing date).

I really don’t want to send my characters running all over NYC — the Astor is about four miles south of their hotel, the Lenox about four miles north — in search of a phone directory, only to have them fail to find one. Or do I? “If your hero needs to get out of town fast, steal his car.” It’s also crunchy historical detail, which I for one find fascinating.

And how would they cover those distances? The Interborough Rapid Transit Company (subways and elevated trains) was up and running in 1911 and had a five cent fare (I think — fares were limited to five cents by the Dual Contracts which merged the IRT and BRT in 1913). I really do need to scan in the 1911 New York guidebook I found on eBay.

Or could the hotel’s telephone operator call Central and get the info from them? “Hello Central” was definitely a thing in 1911; “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven” was a popular Tin Pan Alley song first published in 1901. But would the telephone operator have given out that info? Maybe not Hello Central, but “Hello Information” definitely existed and might very well have been able to provide it.

The end result of all today’s researches: “Our first stop was at the front desk. The clerk there asked the hotel telephone operator. She vanished into a back room, then returned a few minutes later with a piece of paper on which were written two addresses: the Tesla Electro-Therapeutic Co at 111 Broadway, and Nikola Tesla, Electrical Engineer, at the Waldof-Astoria.”

Net 54 words for the day. Jeez. But I had fun!