Monday, February 24, 2020

Finding Untold Stories in Your Hometown

By Alice Faye Duncan

Schools and libraries require a great supply of nonfiction books to support academic instruction. That is GOOD NEWS for the nonfiction writer.

Conflict arises when writers find the nonfiction market glutted with books related to their special interests. Consider the Holocaust and the American Civil Rights Movement as two examples. Annual publishing catalogs are replete with books that provide pathways for young readers to explore these two historical events. Your book on either one of these topics might be unique and needed, but it is likely a publisher will say, “We have one of those--already.”

I propose that nonfiction writers enter the market by exploring important, but seldom told histories and biographies found in their city or town. It is my opinion that writing about the significant, but obscure, improves a writer’s chance in landing a book contract. I also suggest that you draw from local history because you were shaped by that community. This shaping equips you with a ready voice and perspective, suited to bear witness on the living page.

Where do you find important, but unexplored histories connected to your city? I have three suggestions:

(1) Visit local history and art museums.

(2) Explore special archive collections at the local public and academic libraries.

(3) During family fellowship and reunions, interview senior family members concerning their personal histories and life experiences in your city or town.


When you find a local history or hero that inspires your writing interest, let me suggest three online resources to stoke your research for photographs, video and biographical facts. These sources include:

(1) the Library of Congress--www.loc.gov

(2) the American National Archives— www.archives.gov

(3) newspaper coverage—www.newspapers.com.

When it comes to my writing journey, I live in the city of Memphis. If anybody is going to write about the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, it should be me. Many of the striking workers lived in my South Memphis neighborhood and went to my local church.

What is your city?  What is your town? What local histories require your perspective and voice? The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children.

Furthermore, authors are urged to use primary sources and up-to-date scholarly works in their bibliography.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alice Faye Duncan is the author of Honey Baby Sugar Child, Just Like a Mama, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks, and Memphis, Martin and the Mountaintop—which received a 2019 Coretta Scott King Honor medal. For more information about Alice Faye, her books, and current research, she can be found at www.alicefayeduncan.com.



ABOUT THE PRIZE

One lucky winner will receive two prizes from Alice Faye! She is giving away a digital copy AND an autographed copy of her picture book, A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks. 

Leave one comment below about what struck you in the post.

You’re eligible to win if you’re a registered NF Fest participant and you have contributed one comment below. 

131 comments:

  1. Alice, I'm thankful for your reminder to scout out local stories, especially because travel isn't always compatible with family care and finances. I love the suggestion to interview senior family members, and I'm visiting a local museum for one of the NF Fest activities this week. Congratulations on all your books! I look forward to reading them.

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  2. "Bear witness" - this phrase so poignantly evokes the need for us to find those untold stories, to unearth those voices that did not get to be heard. Bear witness writers! Thank you for reminding us why we do this Alice!

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  3. Great advice, Alice. Local stories are so important to document the unsung heroes and important local events.

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  4. Thanks for the great advice. I think we can often be surprised about the things that happened in our own back yard.

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  5. That is a fantastic suggestion, Alice! I'm glad it worked out for you (and now the world has your books to read). You've inspired me to find out about something new.

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  6. "The dead want to be heard." I love this and so much about your post. Thank you for encouraging us to write about local untold histories.

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  7. I've definitely heard “We have one of those--already.” Thank you for this encouragement Alice!

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  8. I'm currently researching a fellow from my backyard. Thanks for your post!

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  9. I like the idea of exploring local museums for local color and unique twists to my nonfiction writing. Thanks for sharing your resource ideas.

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  10. Thank you for your post, I'm taking a new look at my hometown!

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  11. Thank you for your reminder, look local!

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  12. Great tip to sniff out local unsung heroes and stories. And since home is where the heart is, writing about those folks could elicit a deep emotional layer that will really resonate with readers. Thanks, Alice!

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  13. TY, Alice Faye. I just returned A Song for Gwendolyn Brooks to my library last week. So poetic, such a great structure. I appreciate the tips and online resources. LOC is a gift to al interested in history and primary resources.

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  14. This was a beautiful and eloquent post. Thanks for the important reminder to look for local subjects. I still think they have a greater chance of being published if they're attached to subjects taught in schools around the country, though.

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  15. Such great advice! I especially liked the "significant but obscure" recommendation. Thanks so much!

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  16. You're right, this sounds like a good way to break in and find a topic to be passionate about. Even small towns often have those untold stories that share a universal truth!

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  17. yay for home-town history. I got an idea from a 4th of July parade...

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  18. Thanks for new places to do research. I love the idea of finding someone in your hometown to write about.

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  19. Thanks for the resources and the reminder to mine our own backyards!

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  20. I grew up outside Belfast, Northern Ireland. Lots of stories to tell from my home town but I need to figure out how to make them kid-friendly.
    Thanks for the links.

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    1. Perhaps you can write the story through the POV of a child.

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  21. Great tips for finding the unknown stories. And for how those stories are a way in to publishing. Thank you, Alice!

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  22. I've been trying to decide which of two projects should be my focus right now. One is local with national impact, the other is tied to the Holocaust. I have strong personal feelings about both but I think your post has given me my answer. Thank you!

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  23. What an interesting perspective...I'll have to start digging.

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  24. Great tips about finding stories in our own backyards. -Sara Ackerman

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  25. Alice, this is very practical, usable advice. Thanks!

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  26. I moved to my current town a couple of years ago and definitely need to do more exploring. Within a fifteen minutes' drive of my house, there's a Civil War battlefield, a frontier fort founded by Daniel Boone, and several old estates that predate the Constitution. So, there's definitely a great deal of American history for me to explore!

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  27. I'm a big believer in looking for stories in your own backyard, so to speak--thanks for the resources!

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  28. Local history and characters are often overlooked. This is great advice and helpful resources for additional information.

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  29. Thank you for the suggestion to look close to home. This really addresses the - why are you the best person to write this book- question!

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  30. Thanks for these suggestions and resources. A great way to become an expert.

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  31. GREAT ADVICE FOR WRITING ABOUT LOCAL INTERESTS PEOPLE!

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  32. You have inspired me to go to the local history archives and search for a hero/heroine from my hometown. Thank you.

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  33. Thank you for the push to go local, Alice! I'm planning some field trips in my future!

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  34. Wonderful suggestions, Faye, on where to begin a non-fiction book search. Why not one's own backyard?

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  35. Great suggestions. Our small town, very small, has a storied history. There are many ways to approach it, and I've worked on MG using it as a backdrop, but now I'm thinking about how I can tell a simpler story in a NF/PB form... hmmm. Thanks for sharing!

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  36. I love finding out obscure treasures hidden in history. They are fascinating and need to be told! We need more nonfiction writers!

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  37. I appreciate your post today. I had an idea for a local story and thamks to your post, I now have two ideas. Will be visiting a local history museum to hunt for some interesting information on a famous public figure.

    Thank you for the great post.

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  38. Thank you for the help. I'm searching further on my subject.

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  39. Thanks for the tips and the excellent resources!

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  40. Alice, love the tips and the resources. Finding those local nuggets can be so fun. Thanks.

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  41. These are great ideas! Thanks!

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  42. Great suggestions and resources! Thanks for your post:)

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  43. A most compelling blog post! "The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening?" I tend to be a visual person, but suddenly, voices are all around me. Thank you for inspiring us here!

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  44. Such great wisdom! What struck me first is your title and then the idea of finding hidden gems that publishers haven't yet seen. Thank you, Alice Faye Duncan! Also, I appreciate your generous giveaway opportunity. Best, Lynn

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  45. Wow. "The dead talk. They want to be heard." You got my attention. And thanks for those three great resources.

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  46. A fantastic post! Thank you for the links and for sharing your wisdom with us.

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  47. 'The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children.'

    Love this! The person I'm researching right now definitely needs to be heard and wants to be heard.

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  48. This is so great and I now have an idea which I am excited about. Thank you for this post and advice. Can't wait to read your books, also!

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  49. Great idea, since this allows the author to visit places and likely get access to documents without paying for travel. I have know of a historical figure from Austin, Texas (my current home) who'd be an interesting subject but I haven't pursued it because I mainly write picture books and her story seems more suited for older kids. Perhaps I'll have to explore MG NF, too!

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  50. This is a wonderful suggestion to look locally. I had an idea in the back of my mind and jotted down. Now I'm going to look into it further. It's very local but applies universally when some are treated as second class citizens.

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  51. This is a fantastic and accessible idea. There is so much history around us. I was struck by, "The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children." I personally feel that I have to help make up for the incomplete history that I learned in school!

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  52. This article is super. There is so much in my area that needs to be told. I've participated in years of research and special activities. Now, I have to craft my collection of experiences and background into a children's book. Thanks, Alice.
    Melanie Vickers

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  53. Great advice. I love this line: The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children.

    Thank you!!!!!

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  54. Thank you for pointing out local sources!

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  55. Alice is so right: there are hidden gems in everyone's town!

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  56. Terrific post--I can't wait to read all of your books!

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  57. This has me wondering about what local events would be considered important. Would something that kids think is really cool but in the overall grand scheme of history would be considered entertaining and quirky and part of what gives San Francisco its character—would something like that be worthwhile to publishers? Hmmmm.....

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  58. Thank you so much for this timely post about writing about where you live!
    I have a question. I am shopping around my local, Portland, Oregon (where I live and also am from) narrative NF PB manuscript , which publishers do you suggest sending it to if I may ask?
    West Coast? East Coast? Everyone?
    It is a story that applies to kids everywhere, the biggest kid parade in the nation, possibly world.
    Thank you very much!

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  59. Great suggestions and resources here, thank you! I so agree about looking to find the lesser-told stories!

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  60. I love what you said about "being shaped by that community." Thanks for the great suggestions!

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  61. "The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children."

    Those words were the perfect ending to a terrific post.

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  62. I love this so much! I'm writing a PB biography about my mom's next door neighbor at her assisted living place. She mentioned going on a trip to D.C. because she was getting an award at the Library of Congress. That lead to me asking her a million (almost!) questions and getting her story. She's amazing. Thanks for the great post!!

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  63. Your post really resonates with me as I'm a history geek. Thank you for the suggestion and shout out to investigate local history - there are stories to uncover! Priscilla

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  64. I love and appreciate your perspective here! There is so much that resonated with me -- the ways in which certain histories and stories remain buried and the great promise we hold as writers to help "resurrect these untold histories." I am inspired by your comments. To persist and persist in this writing and research journey can be challenging. Your words and your work inspire me. Thank-you!

    Celia Viramontes

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  65. Alice, this line grabbed me--writing about the significant, but obscure, improves a writer’s chance in landing a book contract.
    Thank you for the post.

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  66. Although yours is a fantastic idea for biographies and history, I can see potential for mining local sources for STEAM books as well. My eyes are open for opportunities now. Thank you!

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  67. I visited my local museum this weekend, and there on a shelf for sale was the book I wrote about a local woman many years ago! It was great fun researching her and finding photos. It's just a small book published at a local print shop, but seeing it and reading your post made me think I should find another local character to write about! Thanks, Alice Faye!

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  68. Great post! I never even considered looking in my home town.

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  69. " . . . unexplored histories connected to your city." Thank you Alice for your insight into researching local history. Feeling the inspiration!

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  70. I have two home town ideas. Thank you for the encouragement ❤️

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  71. Well said. Thank you for your words: "The dead talk. The dead want to be heard. Are you listening? Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children." I hear you and them.

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  72. Thank you for such an informative article reminding us that great ideas can be found in our own towns and for challenging us to find them. These stories, significant, but obscure, need to be told. I appreciated the resource tips too.

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  73. Thank you for sharing. I really appreciate your suggestions. I didn't move to my hometown until I was in high school, but I will definitely plan a trip to our local library.

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  74. I know my town has a lot of history so I can't wait to dig deeper and see what I can find.

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  75. Great advice! Thank you! 🙂

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  76. What great suggestions! I can only imagine how many significant stories have never been told. Thank you!

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  77. Thank you Alice. You have inspired me to do some research.

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  78. Wonderful. There are stories everywhere.

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  79. Thanks for inspiring us to dig up nuggets in our own backyard and for providing helpful resources.

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  80. Hometown is a fluid term for me. I've moved around quite a bit. But I do like the idea of looking close by because I'll be more likely to catch the nuances of the subject. Thanks for the resources list.

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  81. Thank you, Alice, for this reminder: "If anybody is going to write about the Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968, it should be me." and so with this, I'm glad that I'm working on a series of biographies of women in Southeast Asia whose stories are seldom told. :) These are also women close to my heart and close to my home.

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  82. your post makes so much good sense!

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  83. Thank you! I agree find that story that fills a less used niche.

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  84. Thank you for the boost to find and write our local stories.

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  85. I've been researching a hometown story for a little while, and this is encouraging me to keep at it. Thank you!

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  86. These are great suggestions for finding a niche in the NF market. Thanks so much for your insight!

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  87. So true! My hometown is overflowing with great subjects. Thanks for this reminder and for the online resources.

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  88. I think we often assume that others will not value our stories: that we come from ordinary families who lived ordinary places. But talking to my grandmother was fascinating! There were no maternity clothes in her day, and she only went out after dark when she was pregnant! And she had six kids! What was that about? Also I bet these stories might sell well at local historical sites or museums and might be of particular interest to hyper local publishers. An idea: if you have small local parks, why not find out who they were named for?

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  89. A treasure trove of ideas hiding right before your eyes in your own hometown! Great idea, Alice. Thank you for sharing!

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  90. This post is excellent and one of those that make me say Wow to all the gems I might be missing so close to home. Thank you for opening my eyes to excellent idea possibilities.

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  91. "I propose that nonfiction writers enter the market by exploring important, but seldom told histories and biographies found in their city or town." I've been thinking about finding topics from my hometown for a long time. My hometown has many topics to explore. And I'm sure even more I don't know about. Thank you so much for the research tools. I haven't started researching a topic as I was afraid I might not be exploring the most credible resources. Thank you!
    -Ashley Congdon

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  92. Well said! I just picked up a book at a yard sale that's all about the history of the county where I live--perhaps there's a gem of an idea (or 2) hiding in those pages! Thanks for the links, too.

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  93. Such good advice, Alice. And I am pursuing a local subject right now. Glad to have the affirmation!

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  94. Oh, great post! Thanks for sharing!

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  95. I heard an older woman tell a story today about local history and thought it would make a great children's book. Listening to and asking asking elders is a great tip.

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  96. Great post, Alice! Thank you for reminding us to look locally for our stories. It is so important to document our local history through biographies of little known subjects.

    “The dead talk! The dead want to be heard! Are you listening?” Yes I am! Quite a few years ago I began researching a person who made a vital difference in this country and believe that if anybody is going to write about this person, it should be me.

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  97. Yes! I just discovered a little known protected animal local to a specific area when I visited my parents this weekend! I couldn’t find any books in my preliminary search. I’ve already started research and excited about this topic.

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  98. Thanks for the tips. I can think of least one idea for a book that took place in our little town.

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  99. I love the tip about writing about the significant but obscure. Thank you Alice! Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  100. Alice, I love this spin on "write what you know." I'm inspired to visit my town's historical museum!!

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  101. Your words, “Resurrect untold histories,” resonate with me.

    Thank you, Alice Faye, for writing stories that must be told.

    Suzy Leopold

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  102. Great reminders on looking into our local history. Although I do sometimes feel that unless the event happened on either coast that publishing houses may not be interested. I will keep digging!

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  103. Such fabulous advice. I have an idea already! Thanks so much!

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  104. Alice, this whole NFFest is challenging me at every point. This challenge is particular, and I'm feeling the draw toward researching some local untold stories. Thanks for the encouragement.

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  105. Congratulations on your Coretta Scott King Honor medal!

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  106. Great advice about finding those local stories. And thank you for the online source recommendations!

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  107. There's so many great local stories to tell! And I agree - the deceased need a voice, too. I bet writing about our hometown adds more heart to the story, too, since it's personal.

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  108. Thank you for these tips--especially the one about talking to older family members!

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  109. Beautiful and succinct post. Such memorable and important concluding lines: "Resurrect untold histories. Educate the children."

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  110. I may have to visit the local history museum up the street from me. I haven’t gone before. Now I also wish I’d taken the cardboard thick almanac from 1920 that was pinned to the wall in our garage when we moved a few years ago. Wonder what I could have found on that (I don’t remember, now!).
    I had the honor of meeting Gwendolyn Brooks and reading We Real Cool when I was in high school back in 1988. I may just have to buy your book now!

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    1. Yeah, I couldn’t wait for the chance to win it. Thanks, Alice- I can’t wait to read it!

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  111. Some great ideas here. I have a story like this, but publishers are all about selling books. I wonder how likely it is that the story a little-known local person would appeal to a publisher’s bottom line. Which publishers are the best ones to approach?

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  112. Love how you talk about sources - but more importantly where to begin. Locally Kathleen M. Blasi just published HOSEA PLAYS ON, about a local musician, Hosea Missouri Taylor, Jr, who played at the Public Market every weekend - and used the money to buy instruments fo those who needed them. Great read!

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  113. I like discovering people who have done great things but have not become famous or who faded from the news quickly. Thanks, Alice for a great post!

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  114. I predict your advice will launch some great books about otherwise unknown individuals! Thank you!

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  115. What wonderful advice to hear today. Each town/city must have historical figures with investigating. We are lucky to have a reporter who writes about our local inspiring people. Thanks for reminding us to research close to home. 😎

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  116. What great insight! "...write about the significant, but obscure." Can't wait to get started! Thank you, Alice!

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  117. I love the idea of looking at local lives and events as subjects! I was inspired by a recent local art exhibit, and I'm delighted you shared your go-to resources. Thank you Alice.

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  118. Great advice and valuable resources. Thanks. Maria Johnson

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  119. Alice, I am listening now! Thank you for reminding me that "If anyone should be writing about...it should be me." I have lived in several small towns rich in history, and should be a better listener to tell the stories. And, my own family has stories to tell from The Great Depression, D-Day, shipbuilding and more. I appreciate your post!

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  120. There is no place like home, what a wonderful place to scout at stories. Thanks for the reminder.

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  121. Thank you for the resources. I didn't know about the American National Archives. The Smithsonian just recently released 2.8 million photos into the public domain. https://www.si.edu/openaccess
    Thank you for a great post !!

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  122. Thank you for the wonderful suggestions for finding local heroes and historical events that would make good subjects for nonfiction!

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  123. Just thought I’d mention, too, that I have an African American Cultural Center in my town that has been wonderfully inspirational! I’ve found many nuggets on local historical figures to write about there.

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  124. I got the chills. You are right x 1,000.

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  125. Yes! I'll be visiting an interesting archive in April and I will have to see if I find anything that inspires me.

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  126. thank you for the inspiration to write about people we might not KNOW, but were part of events in our town or life. Thank you for the web sites as well, to help us.

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  127. Thanks for the inspiration and wonderful resources.

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