When book research becomes something bigger: The Sixth Floor Museum

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On Elm Street in Dallas, where afternoon traffic speeds toward a triple underpass, the asphalt is painted with an X. No one’s sure who put it there after the street was resurfaced. It’s probably several millimeters off the actual location it marks. It’s unadorned, and so deeply portentous that my head spun when I saw it. Because it marks the spot outside the Texas School Book Depository where American history turned. At 12:30 p.m. on November 22, 1963.

I went to Dallas to do book research. I went to the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza to visit a site, and revisit a tragedy, that tore through the country and the heart of the Sixties. I was curious, and wanted to pay my respects to the legacy of John F. Kennedy. I found myself unexpectedly overcome by the weight and presence of the assassination. Approaching the sixth floor corner where Oswald set up his sniper’s nest is a visceral experience. The corner is now sealed off with Plexiglas. The museum points out that this preserves a crime scene. That’s putting it mildly.

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As an American, the story has always transfixed me. As a writer, I expected to be fascinated by the details, and perhaps to squirrel some away for use in my next book. I wasn’t prepared to get punched in the gut emotionally. And in this hyper-heated election season, I became acutely conscious that political passions can erupt with devastating consequences. Democracy depends on every citizen working to promote the legal, peaceful transfer of power. We can’t forget that. If we do, we’re doomed.

But that’s the thing about research: the unexpected happens. If you open yourself up to where you are, you learn so much more than you ever imagined possible.

Rest in peace, Mr. President.

5 responses to “When book research becomes something bigger: The Sixth Floor Museum

  1. Thanks for this post. You brought back vivid memories. You also remind me of a question I’ve been pondering. How to balance being true to a story while writing about a significant event when people impacted by it are still living. Any words of wisdom?

  2. As a personal P.S. to my comment above. I remember my mother crying in front of the television watching the news when President Kennedy was shot. My dad had died just a few weeks before. He actually received a letter from Kennedy which is so strange to read, to see the signature, knowing his time was limited. But I couldn’t figure out why mom was crying when she didn’t cry when dad died. Looking back now, Kennedy allowed her, a newly single parent of three little ones, to let go and grieve.

  3. What a powerful memory, Lisa.

    On writing about a significant event when it’s within living memory… that’s a great question. It deserves its own post. Soon!

  4. I left work and drove out Elm Street past that building almost every weekday afternoon for about 25 years. Literally only three (3!) of those days were there not people outside visiting the site. Those 3 days were below freezing with rain, sleet or snow falling.

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