Research - The Rule of Three
Research – The Rule of Three
By Blaine L. Pardoe
While I write in a lot of different genres, I do most of my research in military history and true crime. I leverage a number of archives, historical societies, etc., in my work – just like many of you. In doing this I wanted to pass on a tip that I have found useful. I call it “The Rule of Three.”
I came across this when working on Terror of the Autumn Skies, the story of Frank Luke Jr., WWI ace. I was researching the family of his fiancé, Marie Rapson. I knew her son died flying jets for the Navy and I thought it was a very touching tie-in to the story – Marie losing two of the loves of her life to military aviation.
In doing the research I submitted a request to the National Archives in St. Louis to get his service records. What I got back was the standard, “We had a fire in the 1970s, his records may have been destroyed, we couldn’t find anything, blah, blah, blah.” Most people would have given up. I was working with a researcher at Wings Over the Rockies and her associate passed onto me that everybody gets that response. Write them again.
I sent in essentially the same request a month later. This time I got a different person asking if I could provide any additional information. I sent that back, but was told they couldn’t find his records. This brave aviator was buried in Arlington so I knew that the records had to exist. My researcher told me, “try again.”
The third time I sent in the request and I got a package with his files, a photograph, a ton of stuff.
The Rule of Three is simple: When you are working with a source, go back to them three times if you don’t get the response you need.
I have used this rule several times and have been surprised at what I have gotten over the years. It doesn’t always work, but it does work enough to merit using it in the right situations. In large organizations/archives, you are at the mercy of the person who gets your request. In some cases, they don’t try very hard. In the case of the National Archives, they get dozens of requests a day.
Now, there are a few caveats to this rule I would suggest. First, you need to use this in situations where you know the records must exist. For example, if you are looking for a squadron history, chances are pretty good that the Air Force Historical Section has the material.
Another condition to apply, don’t use it where the same person is likely to get each of your requests. At a small town historical society you are most likely having the same person open and handle your requests. This is not a candidate for trying this approach. They will see this as you being annoying which is the opposite of what you want. As such, this is most useful for large archives, repositories, or libraries.
Another trick to this is to vary your request slightly. Provide some background – why you believe the information is in that repository, etc. If you change your request slightly you might just capture the attention of the researcher enough to motivate him or her to do the necessary digging.
Does it work? I have used this approach when working on Lost Eagles and my current book project, The Bad Boy (The story of Bert Hall). I have had at least four instances where this worked perfectly. On the Bert Hall project, I requested some information on him I was sure the researchers had. On the third request, I got a massive package back. The request was the same each time and the requests were spread out over the course of a year – but I got what I wanted and that is all that matters.
I hope you find this helpful. Feel free to follow me via my blog http://bpardoe.blogspot.com/, via Facebook or Twitter (bpardoe870).