A Newbie’s Guide to the Archives

Researching at the National Archives, or one of its many branches across the country, is something few of us have the chance to do – or even a reason to do. Unless you’re researching something pretty darn specific, chances are you’ll never need to set foot into one of their research rooms.

The Archives are a whole different experience from doing research at your local library or museum, though! There are many rules to follow, and for good reason:  the files located there are often the only copies in existence. They have to be there, for as long as they last, for anyone who wants to see them. Most of the files are fragile; historic preservation is a relatively new thing in American history, and you may be looking at papers and pages that want to disintegrate before your eyes.

I know I did.

I spent several days (spaced over several weeks) traveling to the National Archives in Kansas City, working with four boxes containing more than 3,000 documents that are all related to the book I’m slowly putting together. Here’s some tips and tricks I picked up:

You can photograph things yourself. Copies are astronomically expensive if you have the Archives do it (though that is an option, particularly if you live far away; you’ll also have to pay for shipping); they’re still expensive if you do it. But if you have a good-quality DSLR or even a good-quality point and shoot camera, you can take all the photos you want for free. I used my Nikon Coolpix L820, and they turned out great. The research rooms have special light tables set up where you can screw your camera into a special ‘upside down’ tripod. They even provide you with the proper settings to get the best-quality shots possible.

No bags are allowed in the research room. Lockers are provided for your coat, camera bag, laptop bag, etc., and you’re given a key to your locker. No purses, either. You can carry your laptop, camera, and cell phone into the research room. You’ll have to open your laptop at the end of the day so they can check to make sure you haven’t tried to smuggle anything out (Yes, apparently this is a thing!).

You’ll have to sign in every time, and you’ll be issued a National Archives Researcher Card. These expire in a year, and they give you permission to do research ONLY at that branch of the Archives. So mine gave me permission to use the records at the National Archives at Kansas City. You’ll have to present it every time you go. If you do research at another branch, you’ll have to get one there, too. Here’s a more thorough explanation:  https://www.archives.gov/research/start/researcher-card.html#orientation

I hope it goes without saying, but no documents can ever leave the research room.

One box and one folder on the table at any given time. If you’ve got a file that has multiple boxes/folders, the rules are simple:  one box at a time, one folder at a time. Put that folder up before you get out another. They will give you an 11 x 14 laminated ‘marker’ you can use to mark your place in the box, in fact. This is so folders don’t become misplaced, and papers don’t end up in the wrong folder.

cover pager kimmel deposition 1Bare hands only! You will never, ever wear white gloves to handle documents. There’s a specific reason for this:  the cotton gloves, no matter how well-made, are far more likely to snag fragile, brittle page edges than your bare fingers are. Don’t believe me? Put on a pair of gloves. Now go pet your dog. How much hair do you get on the gloves? Exactly. For extremely fragile items, you can ask the staff to train you in how to use the ‘spatulas’ to turn pages, but this is tricky too. Honestly, I found the easiest method was to use two hands – one to pick up the edge, the other to help lift and turn. This photo is one of mine; this is an example of just how fragile the documents can be.

The staff are there to help. If you have any questions at all, ASK. Their first responsibility is to the items in the Archives; their second responsibility is to you.

Yes, there really is a Big Black Binder of Bad and Banned People. I’m sure it has an official name, but this is the list of people that are never, ever to be allowed into the Archives. They include people who have destroyed documents and most especially, people – including former employees – who have stolen documents, either for themselves, or to sell online.

And as I found out, not everything is in the online databases. It took me MONTHS to figure out exactly where my case files were, because even though I had the docket number, the case number, and I KNEW where they ought to be, they just . . . weren’t. It took some digging by the Archives staff (more than a month, in fact), to locate them in storage. I picture this storage as resembling the crate-lined cavern at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. So if you’re looking online and you know which Archives location your files should be stored in – just shoot them an email and ask.

Documents are fragile! Just to reiterate. Most have not had the benefit of proper storage for their entire existence. Mine had water damage; some were stuck together. Mold and other allergens are a definite possibility. If you don’t feel comfortable handling a particularly fragile document, ASK THE STAFF. They’ll be happy to help you get it sorted. But please, don’t try it yourself and ruin things.

Working at the Archives is a dream come true for a historian – it means we’ve finally stumbled on something that could be career-making, or at the very least, something we’re passionately obsessed with. H0pefully these tips might make it slightly less nerve-wracking if you’re embarking on this for the first time.

Here’s a link to the National Archives’ ‘Research Our Records’ page:  https://www.archives.gov/research/

And here’s a list of the branch locations across the country:  http://www.archives.gov/locations/

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Photo Challenge: Abstract

I’m learning a new camera. I’m not succeeding. But at least I get to pass off all the mistakes as candidates for this week’s Photo Challenge.

Close-up of a dandelion. I still don’t quite get the macro settings!

dandelion 2

 

The overhead bracings of an abandoned iron bridge.

abstract bridge

https://dailypost.wordpress.com/photo-challenges/abstract/

Everything you needed to know about microfilm . . .

But were afraid to ask!

If you’re writing anything historical – fiction or nonfiction – research is in your future. It can be daunting if you don’t know what you’re doing, or what you’re truly in for.

I’m a regular at my local library, where all the Arkansas City Traveler issues are on microfilm. Ever use microfilm? It’s a bugger. When I was in grad school, I had to do several research papers using microfilmed sources, and it was exhausting. It hasn’t gotten easier!

Microfilm can be fantastic in several ways. For instance:

  • If you have allergies, there’s no worries about dry, dusty, moldy papers.
  • And, one of the greatest things:  if you need a newspaper from another town or state, you can usually get them via interlibrary loan. I’ve done that a few times, and it’s fantastic. As with anything, there’s a time limit on how long you can keep them; don’t order too many at a time. You’ll need to get the card catologue number from the library, but then you should be able to take that to your library and in a week or so, have what you need.
  • Conversely, if you know exactly what articles you need and when they were printed, you can probably pay the library to print them for you, and send them.

Actually using the microfilm is fairly simple, and most librarians will be happy to give you the five-minute tutorial. All the machines I’ve worked with were made in the 1960s. You could run over them with a semi and not hurt them, so don’t worry about that. There’s a button to turn it on; you feed the film through the rollers, and voila! Done. There are small wheels you turn to enlarge, sharpen, and rotate the film.

When you find an article you want, you can print it (they have printers attached). But here’s something REALLY, REALLY important:  make sure it’s set to print black ON white, not white on black. The default is almost always white on black, which is impossible to read. Other than that . . . It’s simple. Almost too simple. 😉

But there’s things to keep in mind:

  • Every library has their own rules about who can use the microfilm. You might have to get a card, or sign you life away in blood. (Kidding. Mostly.)
  • You can’t remove the microfilm from the library (though unless you have a machine at home, who’d want to?).
  • It’s bloody hard work. I’d honestly rather work with real newspapers, despite the fact I’d die of an allergy attack if I did. If you get motion sickness AT ALL, take Dramamine or whatever before you start.
  • Why?  Glad you asked. Because looking at those bloody screens for more than an hour will make you want to poke your eyes out with a stick, that’s why. If you have eye problems, or get eyestrain easily, this might be really difficult for you. Plan on short excursions, and know what you want to accomplish beforehand.

For me, microfilm is deadly. It tends to trigger migraines if I work on it too long. I can be on it for an hour at most. In order to see the articles you’re looking for, you’ll have to enlarge the film – which means you’ll be moving the film up and down and sideways in order to see the entire page. It’s possible to fit an entire page on a screen (sort of), but then the print is so tiny, you can’t read it. If this is a problem for you, plan accordingly.

Alternatively, you can hire people to do the research for you, if you’re not a control freak like I am. Or if you know precisely what you’re looking for. Professional researchers, who often charge $25/hour or more. Retired folk who want something to do. Hungry college kids who’d like to eat protein this week. Libraries may be able to put you in touch; so can local historical societies.

But, I’ll warn you:  this does take some of the fun out of it. You  never know what you’re going to find. When I was researching my historical nonfiction, for example, I kept a file folder on hand just to keep the interesting tidbits that had nothing to do with the research I needed. Serial killers, axe murderers, disappeared children, lynchings . . . small things I want to go back and look at, when I can. And for my YA novel, I keep finding cool things that don’t necessarily have to do with the stories I need (mostly Klan activity in the area), but are just additional bits of color to toss in, like cherry tomatoes in a salad. 🙂

So yes. If you’re doing historical research of any kind, there’s just no getting around it:  you’ll be using microfilm sometime. And microfilm can be your friend in so many ways.

But it can also be your doom.

Don’t say you weren’t warned. 🙂

 

Here’s a few other blog posts related to this one:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/historical-fiction-playing-in-the-sandbox/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/03/12/down-the-rabbit-hole/

‘Get a Wiggle On’ in your research

You’re reading a novel. You adore the characters, you LOVE the setting, and you know the topic – it’s about one of your favorite time periods or hobbies or whatever. The author has done their job. Everything flows. Everything’s right.

Until it isn’t.

Until you reach that one sentence where your eyes stumble to a stop. You pause, confused. Because surely the author didn’t get that wrong, did they? You re-read the sentence, certain it’ll be different this time.

But it’s not.

The author has screwed up.

It might seem difficult to believe, that in today’s world of Google and online libraries and Wikipedia and multiple editors, that we could still screw up. Historical novels are especially hard to get right, unless you’ve done your research and have an expert or two in your stable, ready to set you straight if you start to go wrong.

I’m working on these issues right now with my young adult novel. It’s set in 1924, and the dialect isn’t difficult to get right – but the language is! So are a myriad of other things that I don’t know much about, and I’m having to research them.

The 1920s had a language all their own. Most of us are familiar with speakeasies, bootleggers, and flappers. But what about all the other things people said? People who grew up in the 80s can recognize each other within five minutes by the things we say. The 20s must have been the same way. 🙂 What trips me up, though, are the little sayings I keep having to look up.

For example:  there’s a scene where my main character, Nicky, needs to get out of town in order to make a run (of liquor, to a speFord17touring1 -- Abbyakeasy) on time. Originally, I had it written as:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to book it to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

I probably left that sentence like that for a year before it occurred to me to wonder if ‘book it’ was even a term used in the 1920s. As it turns out, it wasn’t! But a quick internet search gave me a proper 1920s phrase instead, and the sentence became:

I rolled out of Silverdale – the train was waiting at the station as I went by, and from the way she was puffing I knew I’d have to get a wiggle on to get to the crossing ‘fore it did.

There were a lot of terms I could have used there instead, to be honest – but I liked this one.

Then there was the term ‘hot rod.’ That gave me fits! Because it was perfect for the line I had to write when the local sheriff comes to give Nicky the shakedown. But I couldn’t get around the fact that the term ‘hot rod’ didn’t come into widespread use until sometime in the 1930s. So I had to default to ‘roadster.’

On top of that, I have to get the car stuff right, because Nicky’s a car guy. He loves his runner more than life, I think. 🙂 So I had to do a lot of research on that, especially since I love cars, but I can’t tell you anything about the mechanical workings of them. I knew I had a kid with a 1916 Model T and a 1917 Cadillac V-8 and how would he marry them together to form a complete car? I’ve got notes scribbled all over about car dimensions, Cadillac ignition systems, and my Holy of Holies, a 1917 car manual that covers almost every car ever made in that year, including diagrams of all the engines (courtesy a trip to my favorite local antiques store, of all things!). And then there’s the greatest writing trick of all:  vagueness. 

Another favorite trick for this novel is newspaper articles. Since Nicky needs to know what’s going on in his world, he reads the local paper constantly. LOVE the fact that my library has them on microfilm! So easy to work them into the narrative – in fact, there’s one very key scene in which Nicky infiltrates an actual event covered in one article. It’s probably my favorite scene in the book, and the speakers’ words are 90% verbatim from the article. (Yes, it will be cited properly if it’s ever published, thank you.)

Here’s a sad fact:  most of your research will never make it into your book. Diana Gabaldon has a great story about this in her Outlandish Companion – when she was researching Dragonfly in Amber, she ran across some information on how the ladies of the aristocracy used the bathroom at lavish soirees, in those enormous hoop skirts. So how did they do it? Let’s leave it at this:  if you have ever wanted a genuine antique carpet, hold that thought. Forever. 🙂 

So don’t let writing history scare you – there’s loads of resources out there. But don’t get complacent, either.

Here’s some links to 1920s – or Jazz Age – language, if you’re interested. 🙂

http://thoughtcatalog.com/nico-lang/2013/09/59-quick-slang-phrases-from-the-1920s-we-should-start-using-again/

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/10/how-sound-bees-knees-dictionary-1920s-slang/322320/

http://home.earthlink.net/~dlarkins/slang-pg.htm

And, because she’s my hero, an interview with Diana Gabaldon about (in part) her research process:  http://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2015/01/08/an-interview-with-diana-gabaldon/

What Can Writers Learn from Movies?

A couple of years ago, there was a question posted on one of the writing forums that I belong to:  can we actually learn anything about the writing craft from watching movies and TV shows?

The person who posed the question was hard-core NO. In fact, the question wasn’t really a question as much as a challenge to prove her wrong. As I recall, it blew up into one of those multi-page virtual fistfights before the mods shut it down, because many people were arguing that there’s a lot you can learn from other forms of writing.

We always say that in order to write well, you have to read. But what about our other guilty pleasure:  TV and movies?

I say YES! If you’re willing to study them, that is.

Here’s some examples.

S1L-CartazLucifer. OMG, I love this show and the reason why is the characterization. Yes, the one-liners are great and I’m sorry, but the Prince of Darkness as a tall, dark, gorgeous Brit is just icing on my fantasy cake. 🙂 But this show takes the basic premise most of us have grown up with and does a 18o with it. Lucifer is charming, suave, elegant. But he also sees himself as both the hero of his own story, and the victim. It’s a coming-of-age story with a twist. He doesn’t see himself as the rebellious archangel gone bad. He sees himself as a son, unfairly treated and abandoned. (The show is also based on some work by Neil Gaiman, so . . . if you needed another reason to watch, there you are!) If you want an example of how the traditional villain views himself – this is the one to watch.

dpsDead Poets Society. My Philosophy class just finished watching this, and I was reminded anew of how perfectly this story unfolds and draws you in. Sure, it can be difficult to do in writing what movies can do in visuals – set the scene, drop a few hints and clues as to what’s going on – but it’s certainly something to strive for. From the opening minutes, we know we’re at a boys’ boarding school; from the cars, we see it’s the 1950s or 60s; and the convocation clearly demonstrates what the school’s motto is:  tradition, discipline, excellence. We know these are going to be part of the plot; it’s a great foreshadowing technique. We also see quite a lot of book-ending in this movie. Take, for instance, the first class in which Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) has the boys rip out the introduction to their poetry books, and encourages them to stand on their desks in order to see the world differently. Then – that last scene (that always leaves me in tears!), when the headmaster orders them to read the introduction – which they can’t do – and then, when Keating comes back to the classroom for his items . . . the boys stand on their desks in salute to him, even knowing it will result in their expulsion. The lesson is learned, for them; tradition, discipline, excellence have given way to something else.

indexDirty Dancing. Yes, I hear the groans, but again – the character development! Watch it again, and not because those of us in a certain generation still consider Patrick Swayze to be one of the most beautiful men ever. Study the characterization this time, and how the different plots weave together seamlessly and merge in the ending. Look at the themes and the symbolism, like the lift. The lift is about trust, which is one of the reasons why Baby can never do it – until the very end. And watch how the different characters evolve and change, even the minor characters like Lisa. (For this, you need the full version; I swear I see new scenes in this movie every time I watch it!) And watch how the characters’ internal struggles are actually more important than the external forces acting on them. There are no real villains in this story – not even, I would argue, Robbie the Creep. Yet there’s conflict.

76e94e70-1d77-40c7-83bc-ffdf4ab3a32cThe X-Files, Doctor Who, and Supernatural. Yes, I just love them, but . . . even if you’ve never seen them, go online and read synopses of the seasons. What do you see? Story arcs! (Okay, to be clear, I’m talking about The X-Files the way it used to be, not that 6-episode whatsit that Chris Carter gave us in January.) Doctor Who is probably the best at this, back in the days of Russell T. Davies. Clues left in the first episode were perfectly slotted into place in that last episode. Some carried over into the next season, even. For example:  River Song. We firs meet her in “The Forbidden Library,” with David Tenant’s 10th Doctor. She clearly knows him, and knows him well. The question is, how? We don’t really know . . . until three seasons later! Look at the first season of Supernatural. Sam and Dean have two goals:  find their father, and hunt down the demon that killed their mother and Sam’s girlfriend. Yes, there are stand-alone episodes in which they are hunting monsters, but everything comes back to focus on those two goals.

In fact – I think most writers should study how TV series are structured. Study episodes. Look how they open; look at the resolution. Look at all the conflict in each one. Study the flow. Can you make your chapters do this? You should! The best-written chapters, especially for thrillers and mysteries, end on mini-cliffhangers. Never let the reader go. Each chapter should work hard to move the story and all the plotlines forward.

You may not like shows that I do, or movies that I do – but start studying your own favorites. If you’re a writer, chances are that you already like well-written shows with great characters and excellent story telling – you just might not be aware of it. Yet! 🙂