Assembling the Pieces Together of a More Than 50-Year-Old Story

With over 200 sources cited in the book, Fate on a Folded Wing was a massive, multi-year research undertaking. Because I had virtually no previous aviation knowledge, nor any real understanding about who Joan Merriam Smith was or what she accomplished when I got started, the research portion of this book made up a huge part of the overall endeavor. To better explain how I arrived at the information I uncovered and the conclusions I arrived at in the book, below follows a brief overview of what this particular research journey looked like for me.

For example, while I had known Joan was famous for completing the Amelia Earhart route around the globe, I didn’t know any details about her flight, and I certainly couldn’t have told you what Amelia Earhart was specifically famous for other than she had been a famous female pilot in the 1930s. I also had a steep learning curve when it came to understanding the various aviation terms, people, and places referenced in Trixie’s story. In fact, I had to look up virtually every name mentioned in the manuscript as I had no context for who people were like Jacqueline Cochran (first woman to break the sound barrier), Paul Mantz (noted air racing pilot, movie stunt pilot, and Earhart’s technical advisor), Fred Goerner (one of the earliest television news anchors and an award-winning broadcaster and author) or Lowell Thomas (preeminent American radio commentator and an explorer, lecturer, author, and journalist), to name a few.

When it came to re-tracing Joan’s steps around the globe, I unexpectedly found myself having to dig into world maps and geopolitical history. Did Trixie mean Ahmedabad, India or Ahmadabad, Pakistan? Were Massawa, Ethiopia and Assab, Ethiopia once a part of Eritrea? When did Surinam become Suriname? When did Calcutta, India become Kolkata? At the time I got started, I also didn’t really understand any of Trixie’s accomplishments, or the nature of her trip behind the Iron Curtain. Needless to say, I started at ground zero on this learning journey.

If had to summarize the experience, I would divide the research into three distinct phases. Metaphorically, it was akin to the feeling of locating and assembling the pieces together of a giant, ever-shifting puzzle. So how did I go from knowing virtually nothing about this story to writing a full book? Here’s how I got started—a roadmap if you will—for anyone else wanting to take on (or dive into) a big and messy project of their own:

The Three Phases of My Research Journey:

  • Exploration and Discovery – Initially I kicked off this project by wanting to learn more about who Trixie and Joan were. I collected information about their accomplishments, copies of letters they had saved or written, and I talked to people who had known them. I dug into Trixie’s extensive personal journals, scrapbooks, and photo albums. I read many articles in aviation publications that were written by both Joan and Trixie. I also explored 99 News Magazine Back Issues from the 1950s and 1960s, as Trixie was often the one writing updates for her chapter. I hand typed Trixie’s original manuscript into digital format so that I could read her story without scribbled notes, and I explored all of the items she had saved related to the book. From there I started reaching out to organizations, such as the Ninety Nines Museum of Women Pilots and the National Air and Space Museum archives to see what information they may have on file. I joined newspapers.com, and intently collected any articles I could find related to Joan and Trixie (of which there were hundreds).
  • Perspective Building Period – With a much better understanding of who Joan and Trixie were, I next moved into a phase of learning all that I could about women in aviation, world flights in general, the 1960s time period in American history, and the history of aviation accomplishments. I read several books for pleasure, beginning first with Paula McClain’s book about Beryl Markham entitled Circling the Sun (which turned out to be a fascinating hook for me to want to learn all I could about the early female pioneers of aviation). From there I checked out Amelia Earhart’s book Last Flight, Nancy Wilson’s book The Racy Life of Mary Petre Bruce, Taylor Wilson’s book Racing to Greet the Sun, Jerrie Mock’s book Three-Eight Charlie, and several others. After that I read Mike Campbell’s book Amelia Earhart: The Truth at Last and Fred Goerner’s book The Search for Ameila Earhart. I subscribed to podcasts about aviation, including The Chasing Earhart podcast, which provided a really fun way of learning about aviation, Amelia Earhart, and the various accomplishments of other people tied to her cause.
  • Clarifying Phase – With a good baseline of information, I naturally started to form questions that directed the final stage of my research. This is the stage where the idea for a book really started to come together. At this juncture, I went looking for very specific information to support facts. For example, I collected notable statements published in newspaper articles. I reached out to author Mike Campbell to get clear on the research he included in his book about Earhart’s disappearance. I connected with author Taylor Phillips to get clear about the information he collected for his book about Jerrie Mock and Joan’s race around the globe. I organized specific documents from National Air and Space Museum archives that I felt were important. I asked probing questions of family, fellow pilots, aviation historians, and friends of Joan and Trixie’s. I connected with G. Pat Macha of Aircraft Wreck Finders to get perspective on Joan’s plane crashes, Claude Meunier of Earthrounders to get specific details about known world flights. Eventually I felt like I had enough to work with to form a story.

In the very beginning, I was simply trying to find some answers to a few big questions. But before long, I felt like I was being pulled into a rabbit hole—a time warp, if you will—the further along in the process I got. Eventually, there came a point when I became so consumed with finding information, that I was collecting so much that I didn’t know what to do with it. Sorting through the information I had and making sense of it was half the battle, but it’s also where I experienced the most “aha” moments, made the most connections, and had the most fun.

If all of this sounds like a lot of work, indeed it was! But as a full-time working mom, it really wasn’t as bad it sounds.To make room for this type of research, I simply made a couple of really big adjustments to my every day routine, for a specific period of time:

  1. I woke up early every morning for months on end to dedicate a focused, uninterrupted hour or two before work.
  2. I put the social calendar on pause, and spent most of my “lunch hours” at work dedicated to this. (Over time, the number of hours can really add up!)
  3. I completely stopped watching TV or going on social media for the better part of a year, trading in empty time for focused work.
  4. I often jumped back on the computer late in the evening to conduct more casual research and outreach.

In the end, it really wasn’t that hard. Never once did I feel like this work became a chore. The trick is—at least I think—uncovering the questions you are most passionate about, and secondarily, being open to the adventure, and not being afraid to explore.