Today, I’m welcoming Kinley Bryan to the blog with a post about the research she undertook for her new book, Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury.
Researching the Great Lakes Storm of 1913
When I began the research for my novel, Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury, there were two things I knew for certain. First, the story would take place almost entirely during the Great Lakes Storm of 1913. This monstrous storm lasted four days, sank dozens of steel freighters, and took the lives of more than 250 sailors. It was a once-a-century weather catastrophe and yet most people have never heard of it. I knew about it only through stories of my great-grandparents, sailors on the Great Lakes who went ashore for good in 1913 after surviving the storm.
The second thing I knew for certain was that I would use multiple point-of-view characters. I had a vague idea that two characters would encounter the storm aboard ships, and one would be on land, at the water’s edge. With these two certainties in mind, my plan was to research until I was so full of ideas that I couldn’t wait to sit down and start writing.
My research began with White Hurricane by David G. Brown. This book focused on the storm, and included firsthand accounts and contemporary newspaper reports. While the characters in my story are fictional, the situations they encounter are not. This book helped me understand the specific dangers lake freighter crews faced as they battled 35-foot waves, hurricane-force winds, and whiteout blizzard conditions—as well as their strategies for mitigating those dangers. Brown’s book was also critical to my understanding of the course and chronology of the storm, as was the National Oceanic and the Atmospheric Administration, which had published a day-by-day analysis of the storm for its centennial.
Because much of the story takes place aboard lake freighters, I needed a primer on early twentieth-century Great Lakes commercial shipping. For this, I read Sailing into History: Great Lakes Bulk Carriers of the Twentieth Century and the Crews Who Sailed Them by Frank Boles. One of my main characters is a passenger rather than a sailor, so I also needed a passenger’s perspective of these great ships. A helpful resource was James Oliver Curwood’s The Great Lakes: The Vessels that Plough Them, Their Owners, Their Sailors, and Their Cargoes: Together with a Brief History of Our Inland Seas, which was published in 1909.
At one point in my writing, I couldn’t finish a scene because I didn’t know how sailors would have cleared ice from the pilothouse windows. In all the books I’d read, including Great Lakes fiction from the time period, this hadn’t been explained. But it was important to the scene, so I reached out to several historians. I was delighted to learn the answer from maritime historian Frederick Stonehouse, who also happened to be the author of one of my sources. Stonehouse’s Wreck Ashore taught me all about the U.S. Life-Saving Service, which operated throughout the Great Lakes and along the Atlantic Coast from the mid-1800s until 1915, when it merged with the Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard.
In writing scenes about Agnes, who lives at the water’s edge, I drew on my own experiences. For years I lived in a cottage on Lake Erie, and was absolutely enamored of it. I’m now in a different part of the country, but in writing my novel I recalled my memories of the lake and referred to my old journal entries.
Finally, to get the little details right—what prices were in 1913, what people wore, what they ate—my sources included old issues of The Ladies’ Home Journal, many of which are available online. I also found a book published in 1914, Things Mother Used to Make by Lydia Maria Gurney. This collection of “old-time” recipes and household hints gave me wonderful insight into daily life of the period.
Of course, most of what I learned from my research didn’t make it into the novel. I once spent an entire afternoon learning how a triple-expansion steam engine worked. Mercifully for readers, those details never made it into the story.
That’s fantastic – a shame you couldn’t squeeze it in somewhere. Good luck with the new book.
Here’s the blurb:
Three sisters. Two Great Lakes. One furious storm.
Based on actual events…
It’s 1913 and Great Lakes galley cook Sunny Colvin has her hands full feeding a freighter crew seven days a week, nine months a year. She also has a dream—to open a restaurant back home—but knows she’d never convince her husband, the steward, to leave the seafaring life he loves.
In Sunny’s Lake Huron hometown, her sister Agnes Inby mourns her husband, a U.S. Life-Saving Serviceman who died in an accident she believes she could have prevented. Burdened with regret and longing for more than her job at the dry goods store, she looks for comfort in a secret infatuation.
Two hundred miles away in Cleveland, youngest sister Cordelia Blythe has pinned her hopes for adventure on her marriage to a lake freighter captain. Finding herself alone and restless in her new town, she joins him on the season’s last trip up the lakes.
On November 8, 1913, a deadly storm descends on the Great Lakes, bringing hurricane-force winds, whiteout blizzard conditions, and mountainous thirty-five-foot waves that last for days. Amidst the chaos, the women are offered a glimpse of the clarity they seek, if only they dare to perceive it.
Meet the Author
Kinley Bryan is an Ohio native who counts numerous Great Lakes captains among her ancestors. Her great-grandfather Walter Stalker was captain of the four-masted schooner Golden Age, the largest sailing vessel in the world when it launched in 1883. Kinley’s love for the inland seas swelled during the years she spent in an old cottage on Lake Erie. She now lives with her husband and children on the Atlantic Coast, where she prefers not to lose sight of the shore. Sisters of the Sweetwater Fury is her first novel.
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