Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Author Shelley Stout on Researching Historical Fiction

Please welcome Shelley Stout, author of Radium Halos, a fictionalized account of the girls who painted dials with radium. It has been interesting to me to learn about Shelley's research into much more recent times, as compared to my own research much farther back.

Here is Shelley on the work that went into her book:

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Radium Halos is a work of historical fiction, which means that although it is fiction, it still has to be historically and technically accurate. It means that before I even put that first sentence on paper, I had to research my subject. As with many historical topics, there is far more information available out there than anyone would ever need to write a novel.
At the time I decided to write Radium Halos, it was 2005. More than 17 years had passed since I’d first viewed the documentary about the dial painters who died of radiation poisoning. I had to re-familiarize myself with the facts so I would then be able to create believable, relatable, and fully fleshed-out characters to weave into the true events.


To be able to write this novel, I had to focus on three main areas of research. First, I had to research radium itself, and the experience of the dial painters in Ottawa, Illinois. I studied all about what happened, how they suffered from jaw cancer and radiation poisoning. I researched how it affected their families. I was able to get a very grainy VHS copy of the documentary again, and watched it a couple of times as part of my research. Also, since much of my story is about two teenage sisters in 1923, I had to be sure their clothing, their expressions, and their behaviors were all accurate for that time.


The next part I focused on was the Argonne National Laboratories. In the 1970s, researchers did a study of the dial painters. They contacted the survivors, to ask them to travel to the lab to have their bones tested for radium. They also contacted the families of those who had already passed away, for permission to exhume their bodies and study their bones. They actually shipped their bones up to the lab for testing. I spoke to a very nice gentleman who had worked on this research, and he was a wealth of information.


The last part of my research was mental institutions, because my main character Helen has been in a mental institution for most of her adult life. I visited a state mental hospital near Charlotte, called Broughton. The hospital did not give me permission to use their name in my book, so I invented a new name: Mannington. Helen is in Mannington in 1972, and since I wanted everything to be accurate for that year, I spent an afternoon with a man who had worked there during the 1970s. I wanted to know what the patient’s rooms were like, what the conditions were like, what sorts of medications were available back then and how well they worked. I learned what their therapy was like, and how it differs from present day mental hospitals.

What I find most shocking about the dial painters is the unwavering faith, belief, and trust these young women had in their superiors. Management promised these innocent workers that it was perfectly safe to inhale, touch, use, and swallow paint made of radium. Clearly, the organization was more focused on production than protecting people from danger.

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More about Shelley and Radium Halos:

Originally from Annandale, Virginia, Shelley Stout resides in Charlotte,North Carolina, where she enjoys spending time with her two grown sons. She also enjoys volunteering at a local homeless shelter. Shelley has been contributing writer for two regional magazines, and her award-winning fiction has appeared in anthologies, The Storyteller Magazine and online at WordRiot.

"Shelley Stout debuts with a novel of characters as compelling as the true story it covers. Like a good reporter, she follows the facts. In this case she not only uncovers a story little known, but more importantly she reveals in her characters, the humanity of a tragic tale."
--Batt Humphreys, former senior producer for CBS News and author of Dead Weight

Also available on Kindle


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