This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Research: Old School and New

            When I’m not writing mystery novels, I write other things that people pay me to do. Right now one of those is a family history, and in connection with that, I recently had an interesting research experience.
            One of the family members in the story is a fellow who escaped from Yugoslavia when it was under Communist rule in the 1950s. The escape was something straight out of a spy movie: He and two friends got into a 13-foot boat and left the country under cover of darkness, headed across the Adriatic to Italy.
            I was fortunate to have a fairly detailed account of the escape that his grand-nephew in what is now Croatia had compiled from family lore. It gave a really good outline of how the man had escaped and made his way to America, and there was considerable valuable detail in the story. There were also a few holes in it, too, and that’s where the Internet came to the rescue.

A Quick Answer and No Answer

            One aspect of the story was that when our hero had made good his escape and was in Italy and Germany as a refugee, he feared, according to the account I had, a Yugoslavian secret police organization called UDBA, which was believed to operate throughout Europe, assassinating and abducting people who had fled the country.
            I’d never heard of UDBA and didn’t know if I could trust my source, so I Googled it and was able in a few minutes to confirm its existence and reputation. That was sufficient to verify the reported fear, which was all I needed.
            Another seemingly simple question, though, proved difficult to nail down online. When our three escapees fled, the motor on their boat broke down a few miles from shore and they had to get out the oars and start paddling for Italy. The obvious question was how far that would be.
            Wikipedia told me only that the widest point of the Adriatic was 120 miles across, but what I needed was the distance at the point they were crossing. Google searches revolving around Adriatic distances turned up no solid information, though I did find a ferry that covers approximately the same route the escapees would have tried to travel. No mileage was given, but the ferry time was 7.5 hours. At an average speed of around 15 mph, that would put the distance at 100-120 miles — close enough for government work, but not a historian.

The Old-School Ruler Rules

            Finally I got so frustrated that I decided to go offline and take an old-school approach that I knew would work. Grabbing a ruler from my desk, I threw it into my car and drove a mile and a half to the Aptos Public Library. After a brief wait at the reception desk, I was directed to the National Geographic atlas of the world, which looked as if it hadn’t been used in a while.
            Opening it to the Europe section, I flipped through the maps until I came to one that showed the Adriatic Sea and the countries on both sides of it. I set one end of the ruler down on Cavtat, the fishing port from which the men left, and pointed the other end at the closest outcropping of land on the Italian side. After measuring that distance, I set the ruler down on the map’s mileage scale. The distance I got was about 100 miles. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it — in the family history and everything else.