By Christy Mihaly
NF Fest author Mary Kay Carson has explained the role of field research in science writing. Well, on-site research is also important when writing about history. Of course, unless you keep a time-travel portal in your treehouse, you can't directly observe long-ago events. But you might be able to travel to where they happened.
I learned the value of on-site history research eight years ago, at the beginning of my writing career. I had pitched an article for "Cobblestone" magazine's issue on "The Age of Exploration." I got the assignment—my first assigned article. Then I panicked. How to start writing?
|statue of two of
the Pinzon brothers |
I was living for a year in Spain with my family. My daughter attended a Spanish school, and I was intrigued with something her teacher said about Christopher Columbus: The Italian explorer's expedition would have failed without the courage, skill, and leadership of the Spanish sailors who sailed his ships—in particular, the Pinzón brothers. I pitched my article based on this tidbit.
I'd done some background research, but when the assignment came through, I wasn't ready to write. I knew that in 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella directed the seagoing townspeople of Palos de la Frontera to provide Columbus with ships and crew. The people rebuffed Columbus until the Pinzón brothers—Martín, Vincente, and Francisco—stepped up. The Pinzón brothers agreed to finance Columbus and signed up to join the expedition: two as captains of the Pinta and Niña, the third as navigator. And they recruited capable sailors as crew.
Interesting stuff. But to bring my facts to life, I needed some onsite investigation. I traveled to Palos, Spain, for the town's annual Pinzón Day celebration. For several days, I toured the Pinzón homes (brimming with nautical gear), prowled around the docked replica of one of Columbus's vessels (cramped and tiny), and visited a historical fair and re-enactment. I gathered many more facts and photos than I'd ever use in a 250-word article. I also gained a more three-dimensional understanding of the Pinzón brothers, their family, and their times, and finally felt qualified to write their story.
I consider this kind of on-site research well worth the commitment and time it requires. Consider these three benefits:
Experience the sensations of being there
|Not all historical sites are well-preserved.|
Written sources teach you many facts, but they don't give you the physical sensation of rough wooden planks under your feet or handwoven wool garments scratching your skin. Inside Columbus's ship, I was struck by its small size: I couldn't stand upright belowdecks, and the stores of food and water were terrifyingly sparse. You'll write more authoritatively about a medieval dungeon if you've personally seen and felt the damp, cramped darkness, and heard the slam of heavy iron doors behind you. Sensory details like these will enliven your writing.
If the place that you're writing about is inaccessible or has drastically changed, look for other ways to "travel" to the time period. Many living history museums and re-enactments transport visitors to bygone days. The Boston Tea Party Museum, for example, re-creates a meeting of the Sons and Daughters of Liberty and re-enacts the colonists' rebellious vandalism in the harbor. You can find similar historical re-creations and re-enactments from St. Augustine, Florida to Dearborn, Michigan to Sutter's Fort, California, and beyond.
Even at home, you can investigate those sensory details with a little creative time-traveling. If you know that a person in your book loved eating her mother's home-cooked posset, locate a recipe and make your own. Learn to play an instrument from the time period you're writing about; try sewing or crafting something that people made back then; read the books that were popular at the time. "On-site" investigations like these let you experience the details that bring history to life.
Nail down geographical features
Geographical details can be critical. If you tour the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier, you'll be impressed with the Cedar Creek Room, which is dominated by Julian Scott's massive, mural-size oil painting. It depicts the Battle of Cedar Creek, a Civil War battle in which the arrival of the Vermont Infantry helped win a Union victory in the Shenandoah Valley. When Scott was commissioned to paint this, he searched out and interviewed veterans of the battle.
Then, he traveled to the site. According to survivors, he portrayed the battlefield accurately. That's our goal in writing history – to paint a faithful enough picture that those who lived through the events would agree you got it right.
Today's writers and artists can also conduct virtual geographical research. Google offers a stunning level of detail on satellite views, and you might find video footage of your site on YouTube or other websites. These tools can help you get the vital physical details of your historical site just right.
Find your story's heart
For compelling writing, you need to identify the essential truth, or heart, of your story. For history writing—nonfiction and historical fiction alike—on-site research can help you discover that nugget.
Author Andrea L. Rogers provides a powerful example in the endnote to her middle grade novel, Mary and the Trail of Tears: A Cherokee Removal Story
(Capstone 2020). Rogers, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, recounts that growing up out west, she thought she understood the history of forced removal, and wasn't interested in writing about it. Then she visited New Echota, the capital of the Cherokee Homeland in Georgia. There, she finally comprehended how much the Cherokee people lost when forced from their land. "As we walked around the site," she explains, "I realized how much I hadn't understood." Rogers knew then that she wanted to share the story of her people's great loss, "the loss of the places where our stories were born and our ancestors were buried." From this essential truth, Rogers built her moving novel.
So, history-writing friends, whether you travel by foot, ship, train, or Internet, go to the site of your story. There are sensory details waiting for you there.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Christy Mihaly writes nonfiction for all ages. Her forthcoming picture book, Free for You and Me
: What our First Amendment Means,
introduces young readers to the five First Amendment freedoms. Other books include Hey, Hey, Hay! A Tale of Bales and the Machines That Make Them
(about haymaking); the YA nonfiction Diet for a Changing Climate: Food for Thought
, co-written with Sue Heavenrich, and a couple dozen books for the educational market. Christy also writes articles, stories, and poetry. She lives in Vermont, and loves taking her dog for walks in the woods and playing the cello (though not simultaneously).
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Christy will give away a signed copy of Free for You and Me
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