Sandra Dallas’ LITTLE SOULS is a gripping tale of sisterhood, loyalty, and secrets set in Denver amid America’s last deadly flu pandemic. She joins us today to share more about her research at the Denver Public Library!
When I started researching LITTLE SOULS, my novel about the 1918 flu epidemic, I immediately turned to the Western History and Genealogy Dept. of the Denver Public Library (WHG.) It’s one of the West’s finest depositories of historical materials. Among the 1.1 million items are maps, photographs, documents, drawings, and other materials that shaped the growth and settlement of the West.
I’m a long-time fan of Denver’s libraries. I practically grew up in the Park Hill branch. When I was eight or nine, I passed out in front of the main desk. When I came to, all the librarians were gathered around me. It remains one of the highlights of my life.
I also had a lengthy connection with WHG, because I started my career nearly 60 years ago by writing nonfiction books about Colorado, primarily historic architecture. Back then, the librarians allowed me to browse through files in the back room by myself and trusted me take materials to another floor to Xerox them. They even threaded the microfilm machine for me.
WHG isn’t that casual today, but it is every bit as friendly and helpful. So it was my good fortune to have it available when I researched LITTLE SOULS. I was lucky the research took place before COVID.
Finding information on the flu nationally was easy, with so many good books on the subject available. What I needed was information on Denver in 1918.
Since I was writing a novel, I didn’t need the extensive research that would have gone into a nonfiction account. I wanted enough information for background. I needed my research to give a patina to the story, not to overwhelm it with historical facts. WHG librarians found an excellent piece on the flu locally by historian Stephen J. Leonard, “The 1918 Influenza Epidemic in Denver and Colorado” in Essays and Monographs in Colorado History. I never would have come across it on my own.
I used the files of the defunct Rocky Mountain News, which WHG recently acquired, to find out what Denver was doing to contain the flu. I gauged the fear of Denverites and the steps they were taking to protect themselves. I learned about the Liberty Loan parade, where people ignored precautions, and the death wagons that picked up the bodies of flu victims laid out on the streets.
My primary character, Lutie, is an artist at Neusteter’s, a Denver department store. I checked Neusteter’s advertisements in the fall of 1918 and actually used one of them in the book. I also looked at the theater ads and sent Lutie to the Isis Theater on Denver’s Great White Way to see “Tarzan.”
WHG is known for making its collection available to everyone—historians, scholars, novelists, students, people tracing their family histories. (I was there once when a woman came in to research her grandmother, claiming she was the first white baby born in Denver, sometime in the 1870s. The librarian gently told her Denver was founded in 1858, and any number of babies had been born here before her grandmother.)
Many people give to the collection because WHG is known for making information available to so many researchers. That’s why I’ve donated manuscripts, my menu collection, and the photographs I took of downtown Denver buildings in the 1960s. They turned out to be valuable because few people were taking pictures then, and most of those buildings are gone. I’m now a member of WHG’s acquisitions committee. We are actively collecting not only documents about the Old West but contemporary information, such as memorabilia from the 2018 Women’s March. I like to think that in another 60 years, a writer like me will use those very materials to write her own novel.