On Becoming an Authority

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National Novel Writing Month is in full swing, and, as usual, I’m not going the traditional route. I find this crazy hectic month of writing much more conducive to finishing up languishing projects, or focusing on a bunch of small ones. As such, I’m working on finishing up the first draft of Spirit of the Law, the full length play about Elsie Olmstead, wife of notorious rumrunner Roy Olmstead here in Seattle.

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In the process of my year of research, I have reached out to and made friends with several different researchers and prohibition experts and authors, including people like Brad Holden, author of Seattle Prohibition: Bootleggers, Rumrunners & Graft in the Queen City. And now, when someone reaches out to them looking for information on the elusive 2nd Mrs. Olmstead, they punt the querent to me. And it’s…weird. Gratifying, but weird. I’m so used to working on speculative fiction that questions about good literature, diverse literature, writing tips, etc., are an everyday occurance and I delight in sharing the knowledge and tips I’ve gleaned over the years. But it’s different when you’re starting to be considered an authority on something more concrete. Something that happened in history and you’re the only person people can think of who has done the deep dive necessary to find out the small things. Things like she was so foul-mouthed she was teaching law-enforcement officers new cuss words.

It helps that Elsie is a vivacious and compelling character with even the little we know about her, and the tidbits that made it into writings about her husband Roy and his groundbreaking trial. If you don’t know, Roy was one of the very first people to be convicted based on wire-tapping evidence, and they took the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. But that very lack of knowledge seemed to be deliberate on her part, one way to set up a smokescreen to her real involvement, which is one of the reasons people are desperate to know more.

Once the play draft is complete, I plan to write up a scholarly article about her, with all the attendant source citing. Hopefully by sharing all the odd bits and pieces I’ve pulled out of dusty old court records buried in the bowels of federal archives will help inspire other people to go digging as well and maybe even find some interesting things I missed. And in the meantime, I’ll keep getting that happy little thrill when I get the message that someone else has fallen in love with this woman and wants to know more, just like I did a year ago.

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