Research #1: I Won’t Know What I Need Until I Find It

On Tuesday I met with a lovely woman, Margaret Caldes, who was with her chemical engineer-husband at Los Alamos during the Mahattan Project. She is a long-time friend of Pat Sutton, a woman who is a friend and writing group member with me. Pat knew I was working on a young adult book set at the time of WWII and the development of the atomic bomb. She got me in touch with Margaret. I’d talked with Margaret on the phone, and she asked me what I was looking for. I felt rather ill at ease telling her I didn’t know, but I’d know it when I found it. I was thankful she didn’t think I was an idiot. I told her about the genesis of my book and what I saw as the main conflict. She liked my ideas.

To the meeting I took a list of things I’d already run across that weren’t clear to me. Some items she cleared up. A couple of things she didn’t know. I asked about war-rationing and eating at the lodge. Did they give their meat stamps to the lodge? She didn’t know. They didn’t eat there. “We weren’t in the higher echelon,” she said. “We couldn’t afford it.” And there, in the answer she couldn’t answer, I found something I needed.

In all of the other books and memoirs I’d read, and there were many, the authors mentioned that the scientists often ate at the lodge. I realized that those books were written by women whose husbands were the ‘name brand’ scientists, the upper echelon. One of the men of whom I’d read was her husband’s boss. For the first time, I knew that there was another level of Manhattan Project society. My understanding had been incomplete.

My main character, Dana, is fifteen. She’s uprooted from a privileged life in Evanston, IL, and lands in what’s now Los Alamos, a town with no name, few other kids her age, and no idea why they moved. She’s left her best friend with no answers to her questions. All answers are either “I don’t know,” or “I can’t tell you.” Margaret opened my eyes again by telling me that she had to leave her mother with the same non-answers. Her husband proposed over the phone and then went to New Jersey to marry her and take her back to Los Alamos. They were young. I can imagine her mother’s fears and concerns. This, too, added another level to my understanding.

This is why we research so deeply. There are things we don’t know and things we can easily get wrong without knowing it. I often don’t know what I need until I find it, but finding it is like finding treasure.


About Penny

Penny Durant is the award-winning author of CHILD OF EL SALVADOR, narrative nonfiction set in the late 1980s in civil war-torn El Salvador and New Mexico. She has also published nine childrens books, and is a frequent workshop provider, novel writing teacher, editor, and critiquer. She has written two adult novels, "true life stories." Two of her pieces have been put to music by composer Michael Mauldin and performed in the region.
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2 Responses to Research #1: I Won’t Know What I Need Until I Find It

  1. Paula Paul says:

    I couldn’t agree more. I may THINK I know what I’m looking for, but I always find more. My research often changes the course of the story.

  2. Pat Sutton says:

    Hi Penny,
    I enjoyed your website. Isn’t Margaret Caldes a treasure? Glad she is a good resource for you. Pat

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