Creating Multiple Identities: the Research Rabbit Hole

by N.M. Cedeño

Setting a story in the past requires the author to do research to make sure the details of the story are correct. For me, researching topics means risking falling down the research rabbit hole and discovering way more information than I need. This week’s research topic: how a character could create fake identities during the 1960s and 1970s.

My current work-in-progress, a short story, involves a character with a penchant for using fake identities in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I wanted to know how hard it would be for my character to have multiple bank accounts and jobs under different identities during that time period. This necessitated research into social security numbers (SSNs) and how they were issued in the past.

Creating a fake identity prior to 1974 took very little effort because laws regarding obtaining SSNs and starting bank accounts were lax. For instance, for my character to open bank accounts under different names was fairly easy. Social security numbers were not required for starting financial accounts at banks or other institutions until 1983. However, even if the banks had required SSNs, my character could have easily provided multiple SSNs for multiple fake identities.

Before April 1974, anyone could request a social security number by completing an application without providing evidence of their age, identity, or citizenship status. Electronic tracking of social security numbers, using a punch card computer system didn’t start until 1979. This ease in obtaining SSNs led to all kinds of irregularities and problems in the system that lasted for decades. As late as 2007, the Social Security Administration identified 4.7 million people who had more than one SSN. Most of those people had requested numbers before 1974 when the requirements for providing evidence of identity and age went into effect.

Why did so many people have more than one social security number? Was identity fraud rampant?  

No. Most of those people weren’t trying to commit any crime. After SSNs were introduced in 1936, not everyone understood how they worked. Some people thought they needed a new number every time they started a new job. If workers lost the card with their number on it, they simply applied for a new number. Other people applied for a social security number when the cards were first introduced. Then, when they started working a new job, they filled out paperwork provided by their employer to get another one as employers tried to make sure their employees had SSNs.

It wasn’t even unusual for more than one person to use the same SSN.

For example, in 1938, a wallet manufacturer in New York sold wallets in stores with a sample social security card inside to show the buyer how the card would fit in the wallet. That sample social security card had a number on it which many buyers of the wallet then adopted as their own. By 1943, at least 5,755 were using the sample SSN that came with the wallet. As late as 1977, twelve people were still using that same number.

Prior to the late 1980s, most people didn’t have to get a social security number until they got a job and had to pay taxes. A pilot program to get children SSNs at birth started in 1987. Before 1986, most kids didn’t need SSNs since they could be listed as dependents on tax forms without one. From the time the SSN was introduced in 1936 until the late 1980s, most people only applied for social security numbers when they reached a point in life where they needed one. Therefore, it was common for adults to apply for cards.

All of this means that the character in my story could easily have created multiple fake identities before 1974 by filling out applications for multiple SSNs. He could hold jobs under different SSNs and keep many unconnected bank accounts. But now, all of this research will be filed away, because I can’t use it in my story. I only needed to know that my character could indeed obtain documentation for multiple fake identities without getting caught immediately.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a paranormal mystery series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter. Find out more at nmcedeno.com.

Note: All pictures by Pixabay.

Alice Littlefield Residence Hall: Inspiration for a Ghost Story

“Alice’s ghost is rumored to haunt the dorm, but don’t worry, she’s a benevolent ghost. She likes to watch over students. Here is her picture,” said the tour guide escorting the new freshmen residents around the Alice Littlefield Residence Hall on the day I moved into the dorm at the University of Texas at Austin back in my college days.

A drawing of Alice Littlefield by her niece, Sarah Harral Duggan, that hangs in Littlefield Residence Hall.

Littlefield Hall was built in 1927 and is the oldest residence hall, or dormitory, on campus. George Littlefield, a former university regent, cattleman, banker, and Confederate soldier[1], donated the money for the building’s construction, specifying that it should be named for his wife Alice and that it should house only women students, to give them a homelike environment while attending the university. Alice and George’s children didn’t survive early childhood, a common tragedy of the late 1800s, so they used their wealth to educate their 17 nieces and 12 nephews, paying for all 29 to attend the University of Texas. The Littlefields housed a revolving door of student relatives in their Victorian mansion on the edge of the campus. Perhaps this is why Alice is rumored to still be watching over students.

In my two years of residence in Littlefield Hall, I never saw any ghosts, but I could see how the age and character of the historic building could inspire ghost stories. At that time, the building still featured an ancient Otis elevator that required the user to manually close, first, a gate and, then, a door before it would operate. Residents were only allowed to use that elevator if injured or if they were moving something heavy to an upper floor. The dorm rooms themselves had original doors, with giant old-style keyholes and transom windows painted shut above the door. Utility pipes added in decades after the building was completed ran along the walls in the rooms. Windowsills were crusted deep with layer upon layer of ancient paint. Air conditioning units had been added to the rooms under the windows, which we were forbidden to open, but many girls opened anyway. The building had atmosphere and charm, and was very old: the perfect place to imagine ghosts.

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Exterior of Littlefield Residence Hall, photo by N. M. Cedeno

In fact, some of my fellow residents insisted that they had experienced something paranormal in the dorm. One girl described seeing her books move off her desk and fall to the floor. Another swore to me that she had seen a ghostly girl, wearing only panties and bra, standing in front of the mirror inside one of the two walk-in closets in her third-floor dorm room. When I visited the dorm recently, one of the residents told me that she had selected the building because it was the closest she could get to living in a Hogwarts dorm[2].

2019-DegreesofDeceit-eBook (1)Therefore, when I decided to set one of my Bad Vibes Removal Services paranormal mysteries at the University of Texas, I didn’t have to look very far to find inspiration. My former residence’s history and reputation for ghosts inspired me to use a fictional version of Littlefield Hall as the setting for my paranormal mystery novel, Degrees of Deceit. And, of course, my fictional dorm, called Dellonmarsh Dorm, is occupied by a benevolent female ghost, looking out for the residents as they are harassed by a malevolent prankster intent on disrupting the academic semester.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Footnotes:

[1] George Littlefield is a controversial figure. He was a generous philanthropist and supporter of women’s education, and a former slave-owning, proud Southerner with the attendant prejudices of that position. His heroes were Confederate generals, and he paid for their statues to be placed on the UT campus. Those statues were removed from campus several years ago. 

[2] The fictional Harry Potter school also known for its stately antiques and ghosts.

Inspiration for My Short Stories

Sometimes, as an author I am asked where I get ideas for my short stories. I get my inspiration from books and articles I read, places I visit, and events in the world around me. The six new short stories in Arson Vibes and Other Tales, which came out recently, can all be traced to these sources.

ArsonVibesAZBThe story Victorian Vibes features my characters Lea and Kamika finding a gory, sealed room inside of a house under renovation. This story, which opens the collection, was inspired by a driving tour of Victoria, Texas, an old Spanish colonial town south of San Antonio. Victoria is home to more than 114 historic properties all listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings are mostly restored architectural gems. A driving tour through town will take visitors past 80 of them. Creating a similar house with a haunted past and ‘bad vibes’ for my characters to explore wasn’t a difficult task.

Feline Vibes, the second story in the collection, features Lea and Patrick trying to solve a murder in which the police have made no progress. The story was inspired by the many scattered properties I’ve driven past in the Texas Hill Country on the way to Fredericksburg and Enchanted Rock State Park. The natural beauty of the area draws hikers and campers and people looking to escape the fast-paced life of city living. But the isolating hills, cactus, and long distances between neighbors also make a wonderful backdrop for murder.

abstract-2726482_1280Texas Frontier Vibes was partially inspired by reading the book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S. C. Gwynne. The long and bloody battle between the Comanches and every wave of settlers that tried to take their land is fertile ground for ghost stories. In the story, a collection of arrow heads is bound to the ghost of the person who died being shot with the arrows. While the injuries sustained by the character in the story are drawn directly from history, the idea that the arrow heads could be haunted was inspired by my father’s inheritance of a collection of points, axes, scrapers, and other stone tools from his deceased brother who had been a lifelong collector of these items.

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Monument to Columbia, by Pixabay

Space Shuttle Vibes owes its existence to my memory of the disaster involving the Space Shuttle Columbia when it came apart catastrophically over Texas in 2003. That accident led to the largest search and recovery effort ever carried out in the United States and is well-detailed and explained in a book that I read entitled Bringing Columbia Home by Michael Leinbach and Jonathan Ward. Sixty percent of Columbia remains lost in the swamps and thickets of East Texas. This fact inspired my tale of a man who dedicates his retirement and apparently part of his afterlife to finding and returning the pieces.

Museum Vibes, the story of a haunted living history pioneer farm, was inspired partially by my interest in all things historical, from gold-rushes and frontier life to the tuberculosis epidemic that plagued the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It’s also based on my many visits to pioneer farms with living history exhibits in the Dallas area and in the Austin area. What ghosts wouldn’t want to stay in a place that looked and felt like the time period in which they lived?

The final story in the collection, Arson Vibes, was inspired by a terrible fire that engulfed a lovely wood-frame church in a small community in Texas a few years ago. Texas has a number of famous, painted churches built by European immigrants in the late 1800 and early 1900s. The Painted Churches Tour in Texas is a great way to see a handful of them. While the fire in the real church was accidental, the one in my story is, of course, an act of arson which needs my investigative crew to solve it.  And old churches, with their adjacent graveyards, should come with a ghost or two, shouldn’t they?

These new stories in the collection Arson Vibes and Other Tales are on sale this week, May 4 to 11, 2020. At the moment the stories are only available on Amazon, later in the summer they will be available from other retailers. I would have the stories available everywhere, but the coronavirus and its attendant issues have put a crimp in my schedule at the moment.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Down the Research Rabbit Hole

Have you ever fallen down the research rabbit hole when looking for details for your writing?

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by Pixabay

I have. Because I read extensively in a variety of nonfiction areas, I usually know where to look for information that I want to include in my novels and stories. However, my extreme curiosity, while helpful in writing, is a dangerous thing when researching. It’s very easy to fall down the internet research rabbit hole. While searching for a simple detail I need, I may find one article that leads me to another and another. Before I know it, I’ve lost an hour reading fascinating articles when all I really needed was a single detail for a single sentence in a story.

In my Bad Vibes Removal Services series, the character of Lea, who sees ghosts and is ultra-sensitive to other people’s emotions and moods, is a student of ancient history who is working to earn her master’s degree. As a student of history, she is particularly interested in studying the daily habits of people in ancient civilizations. She is fascinated by hair styles, clothing styles, perfumes, and hygiene practices from bygone eras. Her interest in the subject drives her to try ancient clothing styles, hairdos, and makeup as a hobby.

When I chose this pastime for the character, I foresaw that I would have to do some research to bring the character to life. For each successive story, I had to add details about what historical look Lea was trying on herself. Sometimes, I chose simple things, like kohl around her eyes in an ancient Egyptian look. More complicated styles I researched, looking for scholarly articles on ancient hair styles.

For example, in the book Degrees of Deceit, Lea wears her hair in a Suebian knot, a typically male hairstyle described by Tacitus in the first century as being worn by certain Germanic tribes. I was familiar with this hair style because an interest in mummies led me to read articles about bog bodies. Bog bodies are corpses recovered from peat bogs, some of which were mummified and showed signs of having been murdered.

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Osterby Man with Suebian knot

To put details about the Suebian knot hairstyle in my book, searched for what I remembered seeing in a picture, an odd looping hairstyle on the side of the head of a partially mummified skull from a bog body. So I found the picture I remembered, Osterby Man’s head with its peat-dyed reddish-orange hair. That led me to another article I hadn’t seen before, the Dätgen Man, who also wore a Suebian Knot, but his hair loop was on the back of his head. That led me to the hair on other bog bodies including one with a 90-centimeter braid tied in a complex knot. After that I lost lots of time down the rabbit hole of bog bodies. Here is a link to a list of bog bodies for the curious.

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Bust of a Roman woman, from the Met Collection

Statues and portrait busts from ancient Greece and Rome provided another great resource for hairstyles for my character Lea. The plethora of material from these ancient civilizations has been a wonderful source of details for my writing. However, because of the enormous volume of information, it’s very easy to get lost, even lose hours of time, in reading. I’ve read about the plaster casts of victims of Mount Vesuvius in Pompeii, some of which are so detailed you can see clothing and hair outlines. I’ve read about lower class hairstyles and upper-class hairstyles, children’s clothing, and hygiene practices, far more information than I’ll need for my stories.

Then, I really fell down the research rabbit hole. I found Janet Stephens’ helpful YouTube channel videos. As a hairstyle archaeologist, she walks the viewer through creating an array of ancient hairstyles. This is exactly the kind of thing my character Lea would love. For those who want to join me down the rabbit hole, watch a few of Ms. Stephens’ videos. They are fascinating.

How about you? Have you ever “fallen down the rabbit hole” while looking something up on the internet? If you haven’t, please tell me how you avoid that pitfall.

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N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is active in Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.

Death in Small Town Texas: Who Collects the Body?

Mystery authors deal in death. They must get the details correct when writing about the untimely demise of a character. Because laws for responding to death vary by location in reaper-2026350_640the United States, authors have to do research depending on their setting. Without a national standard, each state and frequently each county within a state sets its own rules for handling unexpected deaths. In January, Sisters in Crime: Heart of Texas Chapter was fortunate to have Tiffany Cooper-Aguilar, a licensed funeral director and embalmer, walk authors through the legalities of collecting, handling, and storing bodies after death in small town Texas.

In Texas, the handling of medically unattended deaths varies by county population. Larger, more populous counties are required by law to have a medical examiner’s (ME) office. The ME’s office collects the bodies of those who die outside of a medical facility, abstract-2726482_640and the medical examiner determines the cause of death. Less populous counties aren’t legally required to have medical examiner’s offices. They rely on contracted mortuary services or funeral homes to collect the bodies of the dead. Lacking a medical examiner, these counties rely on a justice of the peace to decide if a cause of death is apparent or if a body should be sent for an autopsy to determine the cause of death.

According to Ms. Cooper-Aguilar, in central Texas alone, laws and practices vary considerably by county. Some counties may have a single funeral home contracted to retrieve all bodies. Other counties may have several funeral homes contracted on a rotational basis. One county is even known to force family members to choose a funeral home as soon as a death is discovered to prevent the county from expending the funds needed to transport and store the body. Still other counties may use a mortuary service, which is a small company created specifically for collecting and storing the dead temporarily until a decision is made to either send the body to an autopsy or to send it to a funeral home for burial.

In counties where a funeral home is contracted, a licensed funeral director and one assistant director will go to the scene of the death to remove a body. Fire, EMS, and law hospital-1978209_640enforcement personnel in less populous counties leave the body where it is discovered, so that the funeral director and assistant have to go into water, fields, ditches, wrecked cars, or other locations to retrieve the decedent.

Depending on weight, the state of decomposition, rigor mortis, and traumatic injury, the funeral home employees may need a variety of items to collect a body. Ms. Cooper-Aguilar states that a plain white sheet is her best tool in these situations. A sheet can be knotted for gripping, is an aid in unwedging bodies in awkward locations, and is perfect for ensuring that the entire body stays together during removal.

In most cases the funeral home or mortuary services personnel will wrap the body in the white sheet first. Some counties, but not all, require the remains also be placed in a zip-tied body bag. The body is then transported to refrigerated storage until the justice of the peace’s official paperwork is completed determining the next steps in the process. During this storage time, the deceased remains untouched until the legal formalities are settled. Family is not allowed access to the body during this period.

body-4076102_640The justice of the peace orders autopsies when the cause of death is unknown or questionable. If an autopsy is required, the body will be transported to the medical practitioner responsible for carrying out the autopsy. Small counties may contract with larger counties to use their medical examiner for autopsies. After the autopsy is complete and the body is released for burial, the legal next of kin must sign a release allowing a funeral home to collect the remains from the medical examiner and prepare them for burial or cremation.

If no autopsy is ordered, the deceased is released for burial and the next of kin may choose funerary services with any funeral home. The decedent may be transferred between funeral homes at the family’s request.

death-2421821_640Burial may take place as soon as the family is ready. Texas law does not require embalming to occur before burial. Cremation, however, requires additional legal paperwork which can take up to two weeks to be completed. While reducing human remains to ash can be accomplished in a matter of hours, acquiring the paperwork needed to begin the process takes time. Getting authorization for cremation is a longer process because a buried body can be dug up and studied if foul play is suspected at a later date, a cremated one can’t.

Ms. Cooper-Aguilar provided highly detailed information about the legal handling of unexpected death in counties with small populations in Texas. She explained the steps required to prepare a body for identification by family and the entire embalming process, including discussing how the embalmer deals with a body from which tissues, organs, or bones have been donated. Ms. Cooper-Aguilar answered many questions from the audience, providing a thorough overview of the legal handling of death in small town Texas.

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All pictures provided by Pixabay.

N. M. Cedeño is a short story writer and novelist living in Texas. She is currently working on a series called Bad Vibes Removal Services. The second novel in the series, entitled Degrees of Deceit, came out in August 2019.  Ms. Cedeño is currently the president of Sisters in Crime- Heart of Texas Chapter.