One of the pleasures of researching my novels is finding non-fiction books that both inform my writing of the moment and become must-read volumes on their own. With my first mystery, “Fourth Down and Out,” the gem was Bob Hunter’s “Saint Woody: The History and Fanaticism of Ohio State Football,” an entertaining history not just of the Buckeyes but the rise of big-time college football. For “Slow Burn,” the discovery was “Burn Unit: Saving Lives after the Flames,” by Barbara Ravage, a detailed (and graphic) exploration of changes in the treatment of burns over time. For my third novel, “Capitol Punishment,” coming in the spring of 2016, I read a number of histories of old Columbus and the Statehouse. One of the best of those was “Historic Columbus Taverns,” by Tom Betti and Doreen Uhaus, which for pages and pages is often about anything but taverns and all about fascinating episodes in the early years of Ohio’s capital city. Occasionally, this book sits up straight, remembers its title, and for a little while gets back to its main topic before drifting along to more wonderful episodes, such as the time construction workers at the Statehouse accidentally connected the sanitation pipes to the air vents.
However, the book that made the biggest impression on me while researching “Capitol Punishment” was an accidental find. Because this latest novel includes a couple references to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, I went looking for a biography of the War of 1812 naval commander. I borrowed from the library “Chasing Oliver Hazard Perry: Travels in the Footsteps of the Commodore Who Saved America,” a 2010 book by Cincinnati writer Craig Heimbuch, and then buried it under several other books for nearly six months. When I finally read it last month I discovered not just a history book, as I’d thought, but a memoir and travelogue about personal growth, the search for historical meaning and a love letter to Ohio and especially its north coast. Yes, it’s a biography of sorts of Perry, who famously abandoned his heavily damaged ship, the Lawrence, in the midst of battle with the British, rowed half a mile under fire in a rowboat, commandeered another American ship, the Niagara, and dealt the English fleet a decisive defeat. But interspersed with that tale is Heimbuch’s exploration of himself, his family–especially his relationship with his father–his region and his desire to be a writer. It’s full of funny observations, such as, “Midwest quaint is a notch above poverty and two notches below ostentatious wealth,” and my favorite: “Journalists, you see, are the only working professionals who marry schoolteachers for the money.” But Heimbuch also takes a hard look at his shortcomings as they relate to his goals in life, and weaves them intimately into his narrative. “In all the years we have been together”–he writes of his wife–“starting from the time when we were seventeen years old, she has wanted nothing more for me than to be my own man and make my own decisions. I have struggled greatly with both.” It was a rewarding read, and one, like “Saint Woody” and “Burn Unit,” that makes me look forward to my next research discovery.