“Research on Research” (by Edwin Hill)

Edwin Hill debuted in EQMM’s Department of First Stories in this year’s January/February issue. Now his first novel, Little Comfort, is hot off the press (released by Kensington August 28). The author has found time to write a second book in the series Little Comfort begins and has a third under way—all while serving as vice president and editorial director for Bedford/St. Martin’s, a division of Macmillan. A Boston resident, Edwin has some of the world’s best libraries available for research for his novels; he talks about the challenges modern technology presents to librarians and researchers in this post.—Janet Hutchings

I’m hard at work on a proposal for a third book in my Hester Thursby series, which means I’m thinking about research. Not research for the story—that will come later, after I’ve made it through a draft or two and have figured out what I actually need to know—but research about research, especially now, in 2018 (or 2020, when the book actually publishes). How do we find and engage in information today, and how has that changed in the last decade?

The central character in the series is Hester Thursby, a librarian at Harvard’s Widener Library, who uses her research skills to find missing people. When I started writing this series in the dark ages of 2010, we were in another era of information, when Wikipedia was still relatively new, we hadn’t quite realized the dangers of big data, and some of us still weren’t attached to our phones twenty-four hours a day. Back then, I was inspired to create Hester by an actual visit to a library where I engaged with a research librarian about something I couldn’t solve on my own (alas, that conundrum is lost in my memory). Nowadays, it seems that information is at our fingertips all of the time, sometimes seemingly too much information.

Even as I drafted the first novel (it took me four years to write the first book in the series, Little Comfort, and then another two years to sell it, and another two years for the book to be published. See my other post for more on that), challenges developed. I had to adapt both the story and the way Hester solves problems for her clients. With each year that went by, more information became available. And by now, in 2018, anyone who truly wants to disappear really must work for it!

But I still like the challenge of writing about information, both for me as a storyteller and for Hester as an investigator. And as I speak to more librarians, I learn that these challenges mirror many of the changes that have happened in library science in the past twenty-five years: More information may be readily available, but navigating that information and evaluating its qualities remain valuable skills. One of the librarians I spoke to in the course of my investigation, Victoria Gilbert, happens also to be a mystery writer. She emphasized the need to ask questions as we wade through the vast amounts of information that hit us on a daily basis, and to build the skills we need to pick what’s right, what helps further our argument, what helps us make a point. It’s not unlike being faced with the many volumes held in a large library, one like Widener, and having to figure out which passages among many millions to cite, it’s just that the information now comes from many, many more sources.

So for this book I want to explore what that assault of information feels like on a daily basis. What are our known unknowns and our unknown unknowns, and how do we begin the process of finding those answers? What happens when the discovery takes us down the wrong path? What questions can that open up, and what missing people can be at the end of that journey? And what possible new developments in information science could there be in the next twenty-four months?

And, most importantly, how does that journey lead to murder?

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