By Carla Killough McClafferty
Nonfiction books are based on primary sources. As a nonfiction author, I’ve found that gathering research material is the easy part. The hard part comes when you must take thousands of facts and use them to write text in a way that is accurate and interesting.
Your research will reveal many more facts than you can use in your text. That is a good thing because you need to curate the information you gather. It is necessary to make choices about what you will include and what you will leave out of your text. I don’t make up facts, but I use the facts creatively.
Primary source material comes in many forms--anything from a document to a piece of art. The information gathered from those sources can be used in countless ways. Since there are endless types of facts and ways they can be used, I feel the best way to teach how to weave primary sources into a narrative is to give you a concrete example.
As my example, I’m using the first paragraph of the first chapter of my book. This chapter is about William Lee, one of George Washington’s enslaved men. Lee is well known as Washington’s valet who was with him throughout the Revolutionary War.
The primary source for this first example is a ledger from Mount Vernon from 1768 (I have abbreviated this passage here to show you only the pertinent information). Transcription from the ledger:
“By Sundry Slaves bot [bought] at yr [your] Sale . . .
Mulatto Will £61..15..0
Ditto [Mulatto] Frank 50....”
This primary source documents several facts in very few words:
1. Washington bought William Lee.
2. Lee was described as a “mulatto”.
3. Washington paid 61 pounds, 15 shillings for William Lee.
4. Washington also bought William’s brother Frank Lee at the same time and paid 50 pounds for him.
Why did I want to use this particular information in the first paragraph of my book? I wanted to immerse a contemporary reader immediately into the world of slavery as it affected William Lee.
How did I use these facts in the text of the book? Below is the first paragraph that includes these facts along with additional facts taken from other primary sources.
“William Lee, a sixteen-year-old African American boy, was for sale. It was 1768, and Mrs. Mary Smith Ball Lee wanted to sell him after the death of her husband, Colonel John Lee. In an estate sale of sorts, a thirty-six-year-old Virginia planter named George Washington bought William Lee (sometimes called Will or Billy). The price was £61, 15 shillings. That was about the same amount of money it would take to buy four good horses. Washington also bought Lee’s younger brother, Frank Lee, for £50.”
I believe this first paragraph works because I’ve woven a handful of facts together in a way that not only conveys a lot of information, but it accomplishes several different things I believe are important including:
1. A powerful, attention grabbing, no-nonsense statement that a teenager, William Lee, was for sale.
2. It includes the idea that enslaved people were bought and sold, as any other property could be.
3. It introduces George Washington and gives his age as well as the age of William Lee.
4. It includes the monetary amount paid for William Lee--which I compared to something specific. Since American’s don’t know how much money an English pound was worth in the 18th century, I had to explain it in a way my reader could understand. My hope is that readers will be surprised to grasp that the “price” of one teenager was the same as four good horses.
5. It also demonstrates that Washington paid less for Frank Lee because he was younger than William.
This first paragraph is rich with facts, but pulls the reader into this fascinating true story. (By the way, in the second paragraph I explain the term “mulatto” which Washington used to describe the Lee brothers in the primary source.)
Facts gleaned from great primary sources can be woven into the fabric of a nonfiction book in a way that creates a seamless story.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Carla Killough McClafferty writes books about ordinary people who do extraordinary things. She believes history is about the experiences of people, not a list of dry, dusty facts. Through her use of primary source research, she makes her subjects come to life for her readers. She is an award-winning author of nonfiction books and public speaker for students, teachers, and community events. Visit her website at www.carlamcclafferty.com and friend her on Facebook at CarlaKilloughMcClafferty and Twitter @ckmcclafferty.
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