Thursday, February 27, 2020

On-Site Research: The Value of Being Where It Happened

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.

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. 
 


122 comments:

  1. Thanks for this post. This is what makes reading and writing nonfiction exciting.

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  2. The thrill of discovering sensory details in the geographical features of where a story took place or where a subject lived! And how valuable in adding "truth" to your story. Love this post !

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    1. Thanks so much, Jyoti. Good luck in your own explorations.

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    2. Great post, Christy! Thank you for sharing your examples of how to connect with the past, I especially like your “creative time-travel ideas.” I have always been a history nut and love your ideas for bringing history alive!! One of my best friends was a not only a reenactor but an amazing seamstress who researched and made period costumes for people all over the world. When she passed last fall she left a gaping hole that is going to be hard to fill.

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  3. Christy, thank you for the great suggestions about how to access the past. I especially like all your suggestions for "creative time-traveling", including cooking, reading, sewing, etc from the time period you are researching.

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    1. Thanks, Carolyn. There are all kinds of things you can do to bring in the concrete details you need.

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  4. Thank you Christy. You definitely made the case for being on-site and drinking in the atmosphere and surroundings in order to enrich your story.

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    1. Yes, Jane, you have my permission to go travel!! Have fun. :) Chris

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  5. Christy speaks, I mean writes, to my heart when she describes all the sensory and hands-on training, body in the research spot, and examples of writers, like her, who know what it takes to make a story come alive. Melanie Vickers

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    1. Thanks, Melanie, for the kind words. Good luck with your writing!

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  6. Thanks, Christy, for these great examples showing how important on site research is.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Dee, and good luck with your NF writing.

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  7. Thank you for the insight. I'm hoping to make an onsite visit soon, if my proposal is successful ;).

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  8. Your post rang so true to me! Although not for a book but for ancestry research (but now that I'm thinking about it, maybe it should be for a book), my family and I visited a living history museum in Ireland that showed conditions for when my ancestors migrated from Ireland to the USA during the potato famine. It definitely provided a powerful understanding and greater insights into what my family endured and all that people will do and have to go through for a better life.

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  9. I love onsite learning. Thank you for highlighting its benefits, Christy, especially getting sensory details. It's great for gathering ideas too. Wish I could do it more!

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  10. So important to see where your story got its roots! Thanks for the post!

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  11. I love visiting locations! Thanks for the reminder that the internet and the home can also be places to do "on site" research!

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  12. I love your thoughts about bringing history to life!!! Thank you sooo much!!!

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  13. Yes, Christy is absolutely right when she says: "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." I have been stunned by what I've learned traveling to far-flung places for research.

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  14. Thank you! This gave me some ideas about how to approach my story that I hadn't thought of. I am wondering if there is an order to the research--how far along with the research should I be before I visit the site? I'm guessing later on...

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    1. Mary, there's no rule for this. Sometimes you'll get a new story idea by going to a place -- before you've done other research. Visit the site when it's a good time for you. And see what comes up!

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  15. It's often when visiting historical sites and museums that I discover nuggets of stories waiting to be told, as well as experts to help me locate the next steps on my research route. Thanks Christy!

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  16. I have so enjoyed watching my friend Christy's career take off. I appreciate her reminder that sensory details are important, and that no matter how get there, you need to go to the site of your story.

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  17. What a fabulous post, Christy. I am sharing far and wide. I think need to write a book about the Pinzon brothers. Ty.

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  18. This is a lovely post about an important topic. I remember a detail from a talk on a similar topic: that if you go to the actual spot, even if the buildings, etc., are different, you can learn details such as which way the breeze is coming from. That stuck with me. Yes!

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  19. Seeing leads to feeling. And feeling leads to the heart of the story. Thank you for sharing your process.

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  20. I love visiting historical sites, etc. There's something about being there, walking in the steps of people who came before. It gives me chills every time!

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  21. Excellent post about on-site research to enliven your writing! Ironically history was my worst subject in school, so I work extra hard to make it spring alive in my kids' books. Looking forward to reading Free for You and Me: What our First Amendment Means!

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  22. Travel is definitely a catalyst for on site writing ideas. Thanks for reminding us that our own backyards can also be a source of creative flow. I live outside of Boston, a treasure trove of historical sites, re-enactments, homes, museums, etc... The trick--as you convey so well-- is to find that unique 'tidbit' to focus on. Thanks so much for sharing your journey.

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  23. "The goal in writing history – to paint a faithful enough picture that those who lived through the events would agree you got it right" -- a lover of history's mantra. I've been lucky to travel as well as observe and even be part of some re-enactments. The level of detail participants insist on is remarkable. And I would not take anything for the teacher training at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts in how to "read" the documents and details I encountered.

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  24. This piece is so timely for me as I'm gather my on-site resources today to begin work on my latest nonfiction manuscript. If only we hadn't moved house in between. I think I've misplaced some valuable notes!

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  25. What great suggestions for finding the truth and heart of a story. Thank you, Christy, for your post.

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  26. '... whether you travel by foot, ship, train, or Internet, go to the site of your story.'

    Love this and thank you for giving us some many ways to get there!

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  27. This is a fascinating post, because I'm now learning the importance of sensory details. And what better way to experience that than by being present in the physical?

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  28. What great recommendations! I admit many of my topics make it hard to "go there" but these ideas might help me incorporate more sensory details into my stories and add or confirm important facts.

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  29. My own children are proof of the validity of your words, Christy. When they were children, I frequently took them to historical sites and museums, many related to the American Revolution because we live in the midst of ”the Colonies.” Their teachers often commented on their excitement and enthusiasm for their lessons and on the details that they added to their classroom discussions and research papers because it was so real to them. I try to channel their childish wonder and enthusiasm when I'm doing my own research--though I think I have a head-start because I was the one who taught them history was fun to begin with!😉 Thanks so much for this, and for the great tips on virtual on-site research!

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  30. I learned to love history by visiting a lot of historical places while growing up. I would always try to imagine what it would have been like to actually live in that place during important historical events. Thanks.

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  31. great post, Christy! Being where stuff happens, whether history or science-in-the-field, is a great way to bring authenticity to our writing. Especially when you are able to capitalize on the opportunity to experience it.

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  32. Thanks for a great post! This past month has shown me that sensory details is probably what I lack the most in my writing. I'm glad to have something to focus on as I improve my craft!

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  33. I love visiting historical sites and often try to capture some of the "feel" of the place in notes - just in case I want to revisit it later. And yes, Google has made armchair travel possible when real travel isn't.

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  34. Christy, I loved every part of your post--sensory details, geography, and the essential truth of the subject. All of it points to the necessity of being there!

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  35. Very helpful! I'm writing about a little-known historical figure and I'm hoping to visit her old stomping grounds later this spring.

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  36. Thanks for all the alternative ways of "being there" for those of us who can't travel to far off lands. Also the "creative time travel" tips.

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  37. “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.“. Wow, thank you for this post filled with great advice! 🙂

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  38. There is nothing like a field trip! Thanks for this interesting post. I was struck by your pitch about a little know fact / person that lead you to a story. Thank you.

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  39. Your article was quite interesting - thanks of the insight on the benefits of on-site research and getting sensory details for our writing. Congrats on the new book - looking forward to reading it!

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  40. I've used travel videos as well as Google maps as a resource. Tourists sometimes talk about smells and you can hear sounds in the background, which adds some more depth. A realistic, rich setting is so important.

    Loved Diet for a Changing Climate, by the way.

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    1. Thanks Roberta! And yes, videos and google maps are other good ways to "travel" to your place.

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  41. The experience you had researching the Pinzon brothers sounds fascinating! I want to learn more about it! Thank you for your overview and suggestions:)

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  42. Sensory details are so important. Even when the site of a small village I was researching held nothing but grass, to go down there and feel the power of the Mississippi River, and imagine what the immigrant's lives were like was powerful. Thanks for this post!

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  43. I love your post! I just want to get out there and research in real life! :)

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  44. Great post, Christy. I did not know about the Pinzon brothers and now need to read your book! I toured two replicas of Columbus's ships a few years ago, and I thought then it was a miracle those tiny ships made it. Now I know who were the Captains of those ships.

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  45. "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." Thank you, Christy, for these tips about the importance of on-sight research.

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  46. Very well put! I love what you said about how the physical sensations of a place are important to conveying its reality to readers.

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  47. Wonderful post, Christy! As you said, on-site research can help you discover that nugget you're looking for.

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  48. On site research is the best, but aren't we lucky to write in the age of internet and search engines! Thanks for this insightful post, Christy.

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  49. Yes! Sometimes it takes a little creativity to unearth the details that provide so much texture to the story. Thanks for the additional suggestions on how to get to a place if you're unable to "get there" for any number of reasons. The physicality of making something or listening to something from that period/location can certainly deepen the imagined world.

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  50. Christy, Thank you. Enjoyed your article. This line grabbed me--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.

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  51. Thank you Christy for motivating me to plan a research trip via on-line or on-site! Be Inspired, Nicki Jacobsmeyer

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  52. Thank you for the valuable suggestions on how we can make our writing true and authentic for our readers. You gave some workable ideas for us to try - some of which sound really fun!

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  53. Thanks for all of the suggestions! I agree that writing comes alive with sensory details, and what better way to gather them than to get as close as possible to the person, event, or time.

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  54. Thanks for a great post, Christy! I appreciate all your pointers for researching sensory and historical details, both in person and through the internet. I really love the idea to cook a food or learn an instrument from a historic time period. I'm so excited about your new book - it's fabulous!

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  55. I love these suggestions for those who can't visit the actual places. Play their music, eat their food. My take-home is to basically try to "get in their heads and lives" to find the heart.

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  56. You're so right that standing in the actual space gives you a whole different level of understanding! And thanks for you suggestions about other ways to "be there" in person when it's not possible to visit the actual space.

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  57. Thanks Christy! Though I can't go visit the place I'm writing a nonfiction story about yet, I'm hoping to find some old maps to help me set the scene of where people lived, worked, etc.

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  58. After reading your post, I was spurred to go on line and find recipes for some 18th-century food. I was delighted to come across "pepper pot," a soup still served in Philadelphia. It was a dietary mainstay for the subject of my biography. Now to make it at home! And imagine trying to survive on it!

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    1. I love this, Jenny! Hope you're enjoying the pepper pot!

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  59. So true that being on site helps you gleam those critical sensory details. Thanks for the reminder in this great post!

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  60. I completely agree that we gain so many insights into our subjects by walking in their footsteps! Thanks so much!

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  61. Thanks so much! I appreciated your perspective on how sensory details can help enliven your writing, bringing it that much closer to the 'heart' of your story. This seems so critical to the writing process -- arriving at the heart of the story, and your post reminds us of the role of on-site research in getting us there! Great post!

    Celia Viramontes

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  62. I love the idea of visiting the sites of historical significance to experience the sensory details. -Sara Ackerman

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  63. History is my passion, so your post resonated with me! Any excuse to go see a historical site, property, graveyard, dusty archive, etc. gets me planning and out the door. First-hand accounts are so powerful and engaging. I also appreciated reading the preview about Mary and the Trail of Tears and look forward to reading it. Thank you - Priscilla

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  64. I can really relate to this post, Christy. A bit of research a topic seven years ago led me to a historical re-enactment group. With them I've experienced the full force of a cannon blast against my skin, the hypnotic sway of keelboat travel, and an authentic keelboat wreck on the White River, the taste of bear oil, the pungent odor of burnt black powder, and the smell of nasty three-day-ripe pioneers in riverside sandbar campsites. All to enrich and authenticate a story. Loved your affirming post.

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  65. Wonderful examples of finding and using sensory details. Thankyou, Christy!

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  66. Thanks for the great post. As a long-time reenactor, I can also relate to what you say here.

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  67. I so agree with you on the importance of being there. When I was teaching in New Mexico, a field trip to El Rancho de las Golandrinas, a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, really made history come alive and led to an article for Appleseeds magazine that wouldn't have been as good without my having experienced the ranch myself.

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  68. You are fortunate that you were able to visit the place you were writing about.

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  69. This was such a great post that questioned whether I can write nonfiction stories.
    1. "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."
    Will I be able to capture what it felt like for people during that time?
    2. "For compelling writing, you need to identify the essential truth, or heart, of your story."
    I often think, why is THIS story important? Why would the reader care? What will they walk away with after reading THIS story?
    Thank you for these reminders.
    -Ashley Congdon

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  70. Christy, thank you so much for a great post. It is amazing what you discover when you can spend time in the "shoes" of your subject. I just wish I had a time machine or teleporter. Thanks again.

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  71. Thanks for sharing your important ideas on being there in person, if we can.
    Looking forward to reading your stories,!

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  72. Absolutely agree with in person research, just wish I could travel more!

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  73. It's true; there's nothing like being where history happened. Thanks for your great ideas, Christy!

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  74. I love being able to research on site. Thanks for sharing your experiences! I cannot wait to get my hands on your new book!!!!

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  75. Hello from a fellow Vermonter! Great article with wonderful examples. Thank you!

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  76. One thing that I've been struggling with is finding the heart of a story when it is history. I tend to think that it being historical should be enough, but it's not. We need to search for something deeper.

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  77. Christy, I enjoyed this post! You've traveled to many interesting places, and I can see how that enriches your writing. I also loved your suggestion to do some "creative time-traveling" by tasting, hearing, and feeling what historical people may have experienced.

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  78. Great article. I love history and "visiting" people and places from long ago through books. You gave great suggestions - but wouldn't it be great if we could find that portal in the tree house! : )

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  79. There’s nothing like going to experience a site in person and talk to the elders. And I liked that you shared google resource. Technology has certainly helped our research in amazing ways recently. Thank you Christy.

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  80. Ressearch on site sounds like an enriching experience--for writing the book, and for life!

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  81. I visited the site of my story's subject and left connected to my characters. Thank you for this post.

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  82. "Three-dimensional understanding" and "finally felt qualified to write their story" are the two phrases that resonated with me. Thank you for this reminder to use as many resources as possible to create a vibrant story.

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  83. My favorite statement in this post: "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." I just love this idea! Thank you, Christy!

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  84. Thank you, Christi, for sharing the importance and value of thorough research. Doing so shares the heart of the story and makes history come alive.

    Suzy Leopold

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  85. I love this. I think it is so important to walk the ground to understand a place.
    there is nothing like being there.

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  86. Yes! The sensory details you glean firsthand make history come alive. Thanks so much for sharing ways to glean those details for our work.

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  87. Thank you for the tips on recreating some aspect of a time/place if it is no longer available to visit. I'm looking up Possett recipes right now.

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  88. Christy, thank you so much for your post! Visiting the location of whatever historical event/place/person you’re researching can help create a better vision of your story.

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  89. I can see that being at the actual location of where our story happened only makes our writing better. I can think back to many historical sites I've been too, and am regretting not have written many of my thoughts about the sensory details at the time. And, even thought I may not be able to travel to some of the locations I'm researching now, your advice about "creative time-traveling," was just lovely! I'll be sure to be more aware of possibilities when visiting places in the future. And, I'm grateful you shared ideas about other ways to "be there."

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  90. I hope to be able to travel more for research in the future. Thanks for your post!

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  91. Christy, I had no idea that you also wrote for Cricket. Eight years ago, I too wrote an article for the Age of Exploration theme, creating a historical fiction piece for AppleSeeds about a cabin boy sailing the high seas. Alas, I didn't travel anywhere for that piece, but it definitely spurred me on to write many more NF articles. One day Cricket will fund some on-location research for me :) Thx for sharing your tips!

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  92. I love this post! I'm so excited to be going on a "research" adventure today. Sometimes the research we need, isn't as far away as we think. Part of my research involves a particular painting ... and it just "happened" to go on tour about a month after I stalked it. AND it just "happened" to be on tour, in the museum, nearest my home! Of course, I see none of this as pure coincidence-- Fate, is with me and Muse has my back!

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  93. Fascinating post! You’re so right about visiting an important place for your story. 2 of my picture books were actually inspired by trips to museums, birthplaces and historic spots!

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  94. Nothing like experiencing things first hand to add sensory details and enliven a manuscript. Thank you!

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  95. Thank you! I appreciated learning about other ways to experience the past.

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  96. Great post. I especially loved the fun idea of making a recipe that might match up with a timeperiod or a person's favorite meal.

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  97. Thanks so much for that story about Andrea L. Rogers — it really illustrates the lesson of thinking that you know the story, then understanding, with the visit to the place, that you missed the heart.

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  98. Perfect information. Thanks for sharing!

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  99. Terrific examples of connecting to your story sensually and energetically. Thank you!

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  100. Thanks for this advice. I see how it is important, remember now how personally it was only when I visited Gettysburg (with a boyfriend) that I really felt what happened there.

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  101. Nothing can replace seeing the place where a person lived or an important event occurred. Very inspiring.

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  102. Yes! That would have been neat to see.

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  103. The sensory details you can gather in person really do make a story come to life. Thank you for the encouragement to get out there (or get on Google Earth!) and explore!

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  104. Wonderful comments, Chris. Congrats on your new book! Great post.

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  105. Steeping oneself in the location of the history you're writing is such a great way to walk in your character's shoes!

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  106. There are some great and insightful comments here -- thank you all!

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  107. You make good points, especially with the the goal being to paint a faithful picture. Thanks. Maria Johnson

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