By Nancy Churnin
In nonfiction, your stories are only as sturdy as the facts that you use to build them. So where can you find facts that will hold up? We’ve had and will have many great posts about where and how to do research during NF Fest. I want to address sleuthing something more personal – family sources.
How do you find family members of your subjects to interview and verify information? Put on your detective hat, take out your magnifying glass, and look for clues. When I wanted to write about the artist Laura Wheeler Waring in Beautiful Shades of Brown, I couldn’t find books about her. What I did find were images of her paintings – in particular, one of Marian Anderson – that I wanted to include in my story. The painting was my first clue. It led me to search for the museum that had those paintings in their collection. That museum was the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
It was hard at first getting someone at the National Portrait Gallery to answer an email or the phone. But I was persistent. Finally, a kind person directed me to the archives and someone at the archives provided me with an email that eventually put me in touch with Erin Beasley, who provided me with a wealth of information on Waring. Erin Beasley also reached out on my behalf to Waring’s heir, Madeline Murphy Rabb.
Each subject presents its own puzzle. Because Waring was a painter, my research path led me to a museum. When I was researching Katharine Lee Bates for For Spacious Skies, the clue that opened up my research path was that she had been the chair of the English department at Wellesley University. I reached out to English department at Wellesley, and was referred to Rebecca Goldsmith, college archivist at Wellesley College, who provided copies of some of her papers that gave me access to Katharine’s thoughts in her own words. Rebecca Goldsmith also put me in touch with her heirs and great-great grandnieces, Katharine Lee Holland and Elizabeth Olmstead Null.
Clues can be found in the subject’s work history and/or profession. If you’re exploring a sports figure, try contacting any hall of fame or sports organization where that person is honored. If the person is a scientist, find out where that person worked or taught. In each case, someone in that institution may provide you with valuable information and be able to put you in touch with family members. The way this often works is that the institution, respecting the family’s privacy, will forward your request and leave it to the family if they wish to be in touch with you.
Now you may wonder if you need to contact family members. Sometimes, there is already a lot of information available in books about your subject. Sometimes, talking to family members is not always possible. When I was researching Queen Charlotte for The Queen and the First Christmas Tree, I didn’t bother trying to reach out to someone in the royal family for an interview as I knew it was highly unlikely anyone there would return my call. However, I did reach out to Dr. Carolyn Harris, a royal commentator and professor of history who wrote multiple books about the history of the royal family, including Raising Royalty: 1000 Years of Royal Parenting (Dundurn Press 2017).
If the person is a public figure, you aren’t legally obliged to reach out to family members. But I’ve never regretted trying. Not only can family members correct mistakes that are floating out there about your subject, but family members have supplied my best nuggets of information. Children have told me that a favorite moment in Beautiful Shades of Brown is when Waring bribes her siblings to sit for portraits by giving them peppermints that she kept in her pockets. That detail came from Waring’s great grandniece, Madeline Murphy Rabb, who laughed on the phone as she shared the memory of how Waring bribed her nieces and nephews with candies, too.
So put on your detective hat, get out your magnifying glass and look for clues. Is your path through your subject’s alma mater? A workplace? A museum that holds paintings or artifacts or plaques of commemoration? Is there a source or survivor named in your subject’s obituary, or maybe a reporter in the person’s hometown or last city of residence who might be able to point you in the right direction? You never know what precious facts are out there, glittering, waiting to be found.
Create a family tree for a subject of interest and fill it out as thoroughly as you can. List at least three specific sources for where you would you go or who would you contact to fill in the missing parts or to make sure you have all the key members of the tree, such as your subject’s alma mater, hometown, places of work, home at end of life, places that have recognized or honored.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nancy Churnin, one of the Nonfiction Chicks and a Nonfiction Ninja, is the author of 10 nonfiction picture books, two of which are coming out in October: Dear Mr. Dickens and A Queen to the Rescue, the Story of Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah. Among her awards: South Asia Book Award, Sakura Medal finalist, Anne Izard Storytellers Choice Award, three Notable Social Studies Trade Books, three Silver Eurekas, three A Mighty Girls, a Notable Book for a Global Society, a Sydney Taylor Book Award Notable and multiple state reading lists. Nancy lives in North Texas with her husband, a dog named Dog, and two cantankerous cats. Visit her at nancychurnin.com; on Facebook at Nancy Churnin and Nancy Churnin Children’s Books; and on Twitter and Instagram @nchurnin.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Nancy is giving away an autographed copy of For Spacious Skies, Katharine Lee Bates, and the Inspiration for
“America the Beautiful,” A Mighty Girl book, illustrated by Olga Baumert
(Albert Whitman & Company).