Friday, May 16, 2014

Research Journeys--Hard Work, Yes, But Don't Forget the Luck!


Stubby's story appeals to all ages, from young...

One of the best parts about researching a book is that I don’t know what I’m going to find. Each project is like a mystery, and I have the fun of solving it. Researching my new twin titles about a World War I service dog named Stubby proved especially challenging because so much of his historical trail had gone cold. 

This stray dog turned soldier had gone from being one of the most celebrated participants in World War I to being forgotten by almost everyone. A few loyal fans have kept his story alive on the Internet--alive and evolving, I should add, which created one more layer of mystery--but most people who happen across Stubby's remains, which are mounted and on display at the Smithsonian, have no idea of his exploits. It became my job to sort fact from legend as I worked to revive the war hero's story.

...to young at heart (above, adult title).
My favorite surprise by far during my journey as history sleuth was the discovery that Stubby's best human friend, a fellow soldier named J. Robert Conroy, had descendants. When I began my research, I asked Smithsonian curators what they could tell me about Conroy. The answer, basically, was nothing. The museum had lost track of him after he’d donated Stubby and his belongings to the museum in 1956, and they’d barely learned anything about him even then. Other people had tried to trace him, I was told, but with no luck.

Research is not a particularly linear process. True, I may read a reference book from front to back, but the research threads I pick up in one source tend to fan out like rays to countless others. By the time I’m done, I haven’t so much connected the dots; I’ve more nearly created a web of facts. The stronger that web—the more connections and overlap that I uncover—the better I understand the history.

Those web-like rays inevitably lead me to unexpected places. One day a package of clippings arrived in my mailbox, as promised, from a librarian in New Britain, Connecticut. I’d tracked down the librarian by contacting the New Britain Public Library, and I’d contacted the library because New Britain was the city where J. Robert Conroy had grown up. I wasn’t the first person to inquire at the library about Stubby, and Patricia Watson kindly sent me her usual packet of clippings. One of those articles had been published in the 1990s and featured a quote from a man named Curtis Deane, who was cited as being the grandson of J. Robert Conroy.
Stubby on parade, 1921. LC-DIG-hec-31070

This was news. Up until that time, I’d found no references whatsoever to Conroy having any descendants. Now I’d found one, or at least found out about one. Fortunately, Curtis Deane hadn’t moved since he’d been quoted in that story almost two decades ago (a minor miracle, really, given how mobile people are these days). Before too long, I had been able to track him down by phone. “Can I call you back?” he asked, after confirming that, yes, he really was the grandson of J. Robert Conroy. He was digging out from three feet of snow, he explained, and he had been without power until that hour. “Sure,” I said, having learned that patience is an important part of the research and writing process.

True to his word, Curt Deane called me back the next day. We talked for 45 minutes and agreed to speak again soon. A number of conversations followed, and before long we’d made plans to meet in person. Other meetings followed as one thing led to another. The threads for that web stretched farther and grew thicker. Eventually Curt Deane introduced me to other family members, and I met more descendants of the soldier whose history I had set out to find. As we became better acquainted and I heard stories about the man these people had known as Grandfather Bob, Stubby’s best friend became as real to me as the dog that he had helped make famous. Their story became richer, and so did my ability to share it with readers. Best of all, I had made new friends—one more surprise, one more bonus, during the adventure of researching my books.

Posted by Ann Bausum during the release week for Stubby's new books. Follow his return to the limelight on my Facebook page.

3 comments:

Pawan Kumar said...

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Tina Cho said...

That is so cool how you met all these descendants and could write the book. Yes, research is a treasure hunt!

Cheryl Harness said...

By golly, I hope everyone heads off to their nearest brick & mortar book emporium & buys this book of yours - Stubby's is a remarkable story that everyone needs to know.