An Evening With Erik Larson

“Courage is infectious. He taught people the art of being fearless.” 

This is how Erik Larson summed up the subject of his latest work, Winston Churchill, two weeks ago in Wichita. I was lucky enough to get to see him live in Wichita, on what was probably one of his last stops for a while on his tour to promote his new book, The Splendid and the Vile (which focuses on Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister). It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to go see an author, and I bought my ticket as soon as they went on sale last December (birthday present!). Thank goodness we were still able to get to see him.

Larson is the author of several works, including probably his most famous, Devil in the White City, and Dead Wake. It may surprise you – it did me – to learn that Larson isn’t a historian. He’s a reporter by trade, who started out working at small papers, got hired by the Wall Street Journal, and then one day, “hit on something I absolutely love – which is writing about history.” He refers to himself as an ‘animator of history’ – “My job is to produce a historical experience.”

Larson was interviewed by Ed O’Malley, local politician turned nonprofit starter, and the interview was charming and affable. So was Larson. 🙂 He spoke for a while about his first breakout book, Devil in the White City, a dual-narrative book about the building of the White City for the Chicago World’s Fair, and the work of serial killer H. H. Holmes. Because of the subject matter and the dissonance between those main subjects, Larson said he was sure the book wouldn’t sell. In fact, he admitted that on the eve of the book’s publication, “I was convinced my career was over.” No one, he was convinced, would even like the book, let alone read it.

Of course, we all know differently. But it surprised me to learn that Devil in the White City was a story that took a while for Larson to warm up to. The idea started when he first read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, and fell in love with how evocatively Carr wrote about New York City in the 1890s. He also liked the serial killer aspect of it, and decided that he might like to write about a well-known murder, so he started to research (literally went to the library and got a copy of an encyclopedia of murder) and came across Holmes. But, he says, he didn’t want to do what he calls “crime porn,” and so he set the idea aside, wrote another book.

But the idea hadn’t left completely. One day, he realized that when he’d read about Holmes, he’d also read about the World’s Fair. In fact, he’d read a book about the World’s Fair that he described as dry and boring. “But sometimes the most boring history can yield the best stuff – if you read the footnotes.” In this case, the footnote he read was about Juicy Fruit gum. Yeah, that Juicy Fruit. It was first introduced to the public at the World’s Fair of 1892. And since he knew Holmes was working in Chicago at that time, the two narratives began to work together in his mind for the first time. Dark and light, he called it.

The inspiration for The Splendid and the Vile came when Larson and his wife moved to New York, specifically, Manhattan. After moving there, he realized that New York had experienced 9/11 in a much different way than the rest of the nation. Of course, that seems obvious – but to the rest of us, watching the wall-to-wall coverage on TV, it was more that our nation had been attacked. For New Yorkers, though, the reality was this:  their city had been attacked. They had been attacked. They had lived it. Breathed the ash. Walked the empty streets. Felt the rumble as the towers collapsed – and the piercing heartbreak of knowing that hundreds of their own were still trapped inside. They were the ones walking home at midday, and the ones who saw the Missing posters for days and weeks on end, until winter finally took the last of them. (Okay, Larson didn’t actually say all that; I did, sorry. New York is my city, too.)

But New York – and more specifically, Manhattan – had lived through the worst. And it made him think:  what would it have been like to live in London during the Blitz – those terrifying nights when the Luftwaffe seemed unstoppable, dropping incendiaries and regular bombs not only on London itself, but across the major cities of Britain? How would you deal with what were essentially fifty-seven September 11’s in a row?

So he began to think about how to frame it. He wanted to do it differently – through the lens of a family living in London at the time, perhaps. And the most famous family living in London at the time, aside from the royal family, was the Churchills.

Of course, there are hundreds of biographies of Churchill, and more about World War II itself. Where do you even start a project like that?! Larson realized that “if I set out to read them all, it’d be a fool’s errand. I had to address that early on.” So he decided to approach the research strategically – his word, not mine – and to read just enough about Churchill and the war to ‘get it.’ Then, he’d “jump into the Archives and get my own personal Churchill.”

I’m reading the book now – nearly done with it, in fact – and what I love is that he does indeed focus on the family. While Larson does, of course, tell us what life was like in London during the Blitz, he does so mainly through the eyes of Winston, Clementine, and Mary Churchill; Pamela Churchill is there too, along with Churchill’s other family, his ‘military’ or ‘political’ family. And by doing this, he also makes us feel how Churchill managed to walk an icy razor’s edge of military and political danger. One wrong step, and the world today would be a much different place.

Towards those ends, Larson was lucky enough to be able to use the diary of Mary Churchill; he petitioned for permission to read and use it. Luckily, Mary’s daughter had read Dead Wake and had liked it, so permission was granted. Mary was seventeen when the war started; she turned eighteen during that first year. “Fatherhood informs this book in so many ways,” Larson said; Churchill not only had to worry about the day-to-day running of the war, but also his family. “Mary Churchill kind of makes the book for me,” Larson said. “She’s smart . . . she adored her father, and (she’s) in a situation that is dissonant – she wanted to be part of the war, but they (her family) wanted her in the country.”

Another major source of information for Larson was the diary of John Colville, one of Churchill’s secretaries during that crucial first year. Colville’s diary is published – but while he was at Cambridge doing other research, Larson decided, almost on a whim, to compare the published and original versions of the diary. What he found were massive omissions, and “these were not trivialities.” First, Colville wrote about things in his diary that were top-secret; he worried about what would happen if it ever fell into the wrong hands, but he didn’t stop. Second, Colville was desperately in love, “and the object of his desire,” Larson said, “was not interested!” So this became another theme of the book. Other authors, using his published diary as a resource, have kept Colville in the background, Larson said, but “I felt he wanted to step forward.”

Obviously, even for a seasoned writer like Larson, taking on a challenge like the Churchills was daunting. “Along the way, I found myself . . . I could stand before a mirror and ask myself, ‘If not you, then who?'” Asked how good he is at murdering his darlings, Larson laughed. “I am not good at killing my darlings,” he said “I rely on my wife to kill them for me.” And for those of us who drone on and on and on in that first draft, take heart! Larson’s first draft of this book was 800 single-spaced pages. After revisions, it’s 500 pages. “I feel comfortable if i have 100% more than I need,” he said.

One of the best things about going to see published authors is the sense of camaraderie they instantly give us. Even if we’re not yet published, or if our books sold four copies, it doesn’t matter. They know. They understand the process, and the difficulties and doubts, and knowing that they got through them to the other side is comforting to the rest of us. So thank you to Watermark Books, and to Erik Larson, for making this evening possible.

Research – In Too Deep

“Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose.” – Zora Neale Hurston

Fun fact:  research can also be a slow slog through half-frozen mud three feet deep, while a light sleet coats everything.

But Zora Neale Hurston is right about one thing:  research IS about curiosity. It’s the curiosity that keeps you going. No one has to research anything. Just ask Trump supporters. But for some of us, there is a deeper need to know. An itch about something that won’t leave us be. Benjamin Franklin, wondering how electricity is conducted. Louis Pasteur, wondering if there was a way to keep milk safe. That random weird guy, thousands of years ago, who looked at an oyster and thought, “Hell, yeah, I can eat that!”

Of course, sometimes that research becomes quicksand. You take a step off into it and . . . suddenly, you’re sucked in, with no end and no rescue in sight. You’re curious – you’re burning with it, in fact – and so you have to dig . . . but in the digging, you uncover more than you thought.

Truthfully? It sort of becomes your neighborhood dealer. That initial thing, that first question, was the freebie. We did a little digging, and we found something! Suddenly, we’re excited, because we think we’ve hit the jackpot. So we go back. We dig deeper. We get sucked in. The research starts to say, Hey, good to see ya! Back for more? Sure. Ah, but this time, it’s gonna cost ya. Cost what, we ask? Time. Effort. Frustration. (Yes, at times, actual money.) Your sanity, too.

At some point, the doubts start to manifest. Sure, you found something, and it was fun. But it didn’t answer your question. Or worse, it only spawned more questions, which you must answer . . . By the time we realize we’re in too deep, it’s too late. We wake up one morning and realize that initial question, that first mystery . . . that was the gateway, my friend. Now, there’s no escape.

“Research is to see what everybody else has seen, and to think what nobody else has thought.” – Albert Szent-Gyorgyi

newspaper clippingWhenever I talk to people about my research into George Kimmel, the inevitable question is:  how did you find out about this? I explain the story of seeing those little tidbits in the newspaper, those dozens of clippings that littered my desk for months and months, the fact that those clippings eventually weren’t enough. Those were my gateway, those tiny scraps of mystery that begged and enticed and mocked. Others saw the same thing. But I was the only one who followed them.

I’m currently reading a book by Australian historian Shane White called Prince of Darkness. It’s about Jeremiah G. Hamilton, the first African-American man to become a millionaire on Wall Street – and he did it in the 1800s. I’ll review it when I’m done, but one reason I picked it up was because of the extensive research White had to do. Like me, White stumbled across his subject almost by accident. His subject, like mine, left almost no written trace of himself; we know our respective subjects not from what they said, but from what others said about them. There are no other biographies to rely on, no other secondary sources that mention him. Hamilton moves in the shadows of New York in the 1830s and 40s, a man walking between two very distinct worlds, fitting into neither. George Kimmel – at least, the more I dig and the more I discover – seemed to do the same.

So how do you write about them?

In fact, this is the very question White asks himself in the introduction to the book:  “Is it possible to recover the story of someone who, for well over a century, became all but invisible?” (7)

And it’s the very question I ask myself almost on a daily basis.

White, at least, does have quite a lot of primary source material in Hamilton’s hand; letters and articles he wrote, court cases he was involved in, testimony he gave. He knows how he spoke and wrote; he can extrapolate some ideas about him. Me? Not so much. I am seeing Kimmel completely through the eyes of others – and everyone involved in this case had something to hide.

For instance:  George built a grain elevator and mill here in Arkansas City. They existed. Of that, I have no doubt. I have a newspaper article in which George is looking for stone masons to build the foundation. There are advertisements in the papers. It existed, it operated. I know it did. But the insurance company claims that this was nothing more than a dummy corporation to cover up George’s illegal speculating on the grain market. And the men who served on the company’s board all testified – later – that they didn’t think it was a real corporation; they invested no money in it, and recalled no meetings. Yet it did exist. And in the very next breath, they testify that George made money from it. I’ve even discovered advertisements for the elevator published months after George disappeared – advertisements made in the names of the very men who denied its existence.

Here’s the thing:  You don’t advertise something that doesn’t exist. You certainly don’t advertise a business that doesn’t exist, in a small town, where you are a well-known and respected man.

So what do you believe?

Sometimes, historians try to determine what someone may have done based on what kind of person they were. With George Kimmel, this simply doesn’t work, because I don’t know what kind of person he was – because I can only see him through the eyes of others.

When I read the affidavits and testimonies, I get two ends of a spectrum:  on one end, friends and family; on the other, the insurance company. According to his friends, he was social, friendly, honest; a good businessman; loyal to his friends and more devoted to his mother and sister and uncle than almost any other person on earth; the kind of man who could never, ever leave them without a word. According to the insurance company,  George was a consummate con artist – a charming, sly embezzler and forger who got in over his head and orchestrated his own disappearance. An 1890s Neal Caffrey, if you will. And while it is possible for a man to be devoted to his family and a con artist . . . where, along this spectrum, did the real George Kimmel lie?

And, if I keep going, can I find out?

When you study someone at a distance, you may never know them, not really. Historians spend two years, five years, maybe eight years, researching a particular topic, a particular person, and never feel they get the entire story. There’s always a curtain of distance and history separating us from them. Thanks to the newspapers and their intrepid reports, I have a better idea of what some of the other key players were like. They’re described at the trials. I can see their reactions in the transcripts.

But for George, I have none of this.

So when I doubt my ability to find the truth, I have to fall back on curiosity. It was curiosity that got me in too deep to back out, after all. And hopefully, curiosity will keep me in the game.

 

https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/wall-streets-first-black-millionaire-shane-whites-prince-of-darkness – More information about Shane White and Prince of Darkness. Yes, White is Australian!

Inspiration, Derivation, Plagiarism – The Fine Lines in the Murky Fog

Where do you get your ideas? 

This may be, aside from when will you finish your book?, the most-asked questions of writers. It’s one we all struggle with.

Some will say – and I am among them – that we can find inspiration everywhere. In old photos, in overheard conversations, from NPR broadcasts, from books we read. In fact, I think most fiction writers will tell you that. Sometimes, it seems like the ideas come so fast and thick that we’ll never get them all down. And some of them – the most ephemeral, the ones we doubt – will drift away, maybe to find another home with another writer at another time.

In Founding Brothers, Pulitzer-Prize winning author and historian Joseph J. Ellis gives credit for the structure of this book to author Lytton Strachey. Ellis says:

My problem, at least as I understood it at that early stage, was a matter of scope and scale. I wanted to write a modest-sized account of a massive historical subject . . . His (Strachey’s) animating idea, a combination of stealth and selectivity, was that less could be more. (p ix)

Ellis already had the idea for the book he wanted to write; however, the scale was an issue. It always is, when you deal with history. What he needed was the example, the tacit permission. Once he had that, the Pulitzer wasn’t far behind.

That may not be the example you were thinking of. But consider the TED talk I heard this week, by Steven Johnson, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?” Here, Johnson makes the point that in the 18th century, no scientists or inventors kept things to themselves. They shared their ideas in salons and coffee houses and colleges and pamphlets and books. They had large circles of acquaintance and friends with whom they communicated regularly. This gave them freedom. This inspired innovation. As Johnson says, Benjamin Franklin “sent his ideas out into the world so that they would attract the attentions of the ingenious.”

Here’s the thing:  ideas cannot be conceived in a vacuum. Again, as Johnson pointed out in his TED talk, epiphanies that are truly original hardly ever happen. Instead, “more often than not, they’re cobbled together from whatever parts that happened to be around nearby. We take ideas from other people, from people we’ve learned from, from people we run into in the coffee shop. And we stitch them together into new forms, and we create something new.”

soapboxWithout Ron Chernow, there would be no Hamilton. Without the novels of Jane Austen, or the Gothic novels of the Bronte sisters, there would be no romance genre today. Without Dracula, there could be no Twilight. (Remind me to hop in my TARDIS and go stop Bram Stoker, okay?). But without the myriad legends and cultural tales of vampires, there could have been no Dracula, either. And where did those legends and stories originate? They had a cause, once. There was inspiration, and no doubt centuries of re-tellings and innovations by successive generations.

Writers – whether we write fiction, nonfiction, or both – are readers. As we read, we get ideas. I can’t tell you what some of my historical books look like – barely legible scribbles in the margins where my imagination starts to take over and push past the sentences on the page to a totally different meaning and view. Oh wait, I can! Here’s a photograph of my copy of Founding Brothers, chapter 1. Those notes sparked the desire to know more about not only the Burr/Wilkinson Conspiracy, but also a nascent Federalist plot in the early 1800s to have New England secede from the United States (also, not surprisingly, something Burr may have been part of). And I still want to know more about that – so I’m reading about it now. Before you ask, yes, most of my historical books look like this. 🙂 73019443_1593261380815453_4079028731337768960_o (1)

Historians, fiction writers, scientists . . . if you do research, if you’re a professional or even a very gifted and devout amateur, then at some point you’ll be inspired by something you’ve read or heard about. BUT. Being inspired is one thing; being derivative is another entirely. So we’re clear, I’m defining derivative as “Imitative of the work of another artist, writer, etc., and usually disapproved of for that reason” (Google).)

220px-Cassandra_Clare_City_of_Heavenly_Fire_book_coverFor an example of this, just go Google ‘Cassandra Clare criticisms’ and see what pops up. Forget the bad writing (and the incest storyline, which I still don’t get; were they, or were they not, brother and sister and who, precisely IS Jace and which freaking Shadowhunter family does he belong to, because I still don’t know!), and focus on the plagiarism charges instead. Very eye-opening. I begin to see the reason why I loved her Infernal Devices series more. But is the Mortal Instruments truly derivative? If you didn’t know she’d written a Harry Potter fanfic/ romance novel about Ron and Ginny (ewwww, right?!), would you think the Mortal Instruments series was, essentially, Harry Potter fanfic? (I’m off to take a shower now, with bleach. Ugh. Seriously. RON AND GINNY???)

Okay. I’m back.

Now, I admit, I read the Mortal Instruments series before I even knew Clare had written that fanfic. I didn’t see echoes of Harry Potter then, and I still don’t (of course, I haven’t read the fanfic, and no, I never will! EWWWW!). But sadly, with Cassandra Clare, it’s not just the Harry Potter fanfic (ewwww!) – she was also sued by fantasy novelist Sherrilyn Kenyon in 2016 for plagiarism. The charges (according to Clare’s website) were dropped at a later time, but still . . . the taint remains.

As I try to explain to my students, the lines that separate inspiration from derivation from plagiarism are fine indeed, lost somewhere in a murky gray swampland covered in fog. Sometimes, it’s clear as day – you steal three paragraphs from three different sources and turn them in as your original essay (dear students, please stop doing this, for there’s really no sport in it anymore for me). Sometimes, it’s great – you see a way to improve an existing idea or technology, and as long as you’re not violating any copyright laws and you’re creating something new and better, why not? But is that derivation – or inspiration? And does that depend on the end result?

If you’re wondering why I’ve spent the last 1100 words wandering around in this murky realm . . . frankly, so do I . . . no. Truthfully? It’s because for the past few months, I’ve been toying with the idea of returning to graduate school.

More and more, I want my doctorate in history.

It’s a scary thought, for a number of reasons – the most important being that I haven’t been in school in ten years, and the second most important being that I never did a thesis. Normally, your thesis in some way lays the groundwork for your dissertation – at least, that’s always been my assumption. But I couldn’t think of one, back then. I was pretty sure my little obsession with the Kimmel disappearance didn’t qualify as a thesis (even if I could have pulled it together in a year, which I now know I couldn’t have).

But now . . . that’s changing. I’m tired of lying in wait. And more importantly, as I dig and read and work and investigate, as more and more ideas come to me, as more and more questions beg to be answered (either by me, or by me finding that someone else already has), I realize that I really, really want to do this. And my big question is:  are these ideas, which insist on keeping me up at night (one decided to arrive at the most inopportune time of 11:45pm Tuesday night, as I was trying to sleep) worth investigating? Are they original enough? Am I being inspired by the works I read – or am I going over well-trod ground? Is there anything new there?

I suppose time – and a hell of a lot of groundwork and research – will tell.

 

 

“The American Story” -Part Review, Part Inspiration

My birthday was a couple of weeks ago. Typically, I go find myself something small – my mom and I used to hit a local antiques shop, but the shop has been shut for a few years now and frankly, let’s face it:  I saw Hamilton three times this year, along with Les Mis. What else could I possibly give myself that would top THAT?! 🙂

Well . . . as it turns out, there is something.

the-american-story-9781982120252_lgBack in November, I picked up an amazing book, The American Story:  Conversations With Master Historians. This is a collection of discussions hosted by the Library of Congress, for Congressional members, facilitated by David M. Rubenstein. If you have ever wanted to know why and how historians do what they do, this is the book you want to pick up. It’s part historiography, part inspiration, and completely unique in its approach.

This series was conceived by Rubenstein:  what if major American historians were invited to speak before members of Congress to talk about their work and the major figures they have studied? So in this amazing book, we have conversations with some of the most eminent historians of today, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Jon Meacham, Cokie Roberts, A. Scott Berg, Robert Caro, and yes, of course, my favorite, Ron Chernow. (I am such a freaking fangirl.)

As a historian, this is a fascinating look into not just the men and women these historians have studied, but also into the process of history. We get an up-close, intimate look at the men (and women!) immortalized in their works, and you may definitely learn some new things – I sure did! For instance, did you know that Thomas Jefferson burned every letter his wife ever wrote, even those she wrote to her friends? We don’t know why. He just did.

Each interview covers at least one book written by the author (sometimes, two or even three). So we have broad overviews – and yet, each author has the ability to choose small kernels of insight, those moments that make each person come alive. Those are the tiny details I strive to put before my students, and those are the tiny details that enliven almost every page of this book.

But there are also amazing insights from the authors themselves about the process of writing history. And yes, anyone who has ever done even so much as a decent research paper will tell you that there is a process to it. Even when you think you know everything about a person, as A. Scott Berg thought when he wrote Lindbegh, there are things you don’t know. The records don’t exist. No one talked about it. And Berg realized that when  he met seven of Lindbergh’s illegitimate children, after his book was published. But he knew Lindbergh so well that when one of the German children faxed him letters Lindbergh had written to her mother, Berg recognized his handwriting on sight. It was true. But no one, ever, had talked about their existence.

For me, though, the greatest takeaway from American Story isn’t the knowledge – although that is a fantastic takeaway – but the insights into the authors. If you know anything about my blog, you know I’ve been on again, off again obsessed with the George Kimmel disappearance for years. I get obsessed . . . and then I back away. And I wait six months, maybe a year, before I re-submerge myself into the research, only to back out again as soon as I feel those tentacles of mystery start to grab at me. Obsession isn’t healthy, everyone says, and so I get cold feet. Get out.

That ended as soon as I read the interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin about Team of Rivals. Rubenstein asks her why she wrote another Lincoln book, when we have hundreds already, and she said:

“I don’t think I thought that the world needed another book. I just knew that I wanted to live with him Because it takes me so long, as I was saying, to write these books, and because I get so involved with whoever it is – I haven’t written twenty books like a lot of my historian friends. I knew that I wanted to live with Lincoln.”

I paused.

Underlined this.

And then, in the margin, I scribbled, Okay. So it IS okay. 

Ask Robert Caro about obsession. He’s been writing the master work of biographies about Lyndon B. Johnson for decades. He spends almost every day at Lyndon Johnson’s presidential library, at the Archives, at the presidential libraries of Roosevelt and Kennedy and Nixon. Digging. Talking to those who knew him. Not taking no for an answer. Coming back time and again, as long as it takes, to get the answers he needs. (I actually just finished Working, Caro’s book about his process in writing – extremely interesting and well-worth the read as well.)

So for me . . . this was a revelation. I don’t think we covered ‘Getting Obsessed With Your Subject 101″ in grad school. Because we cover so much, so fast, there isn’t time to get obsessed – unless you’re writing a thesis, of course, and even then you may not dig deep enough, because you don’t have the time. Robert Caro moved his wife into the middle of Texas nowhere in order to understand Johnson better. Goodwin simply wanted to spend as much time with Lincoln as she could.

And it suddenly occurred to me that Ron Chernow did not write Alexander Hamilton in five years without a slight bit of obsession. (Well, and full-time assistants, I’m sure.) Robert Caro has not spent two decades writing about Johnson without a teensy bit of obsession driving him. Bottom line:  historians become obsessed. It’s what drives us. And it’s okay to give in to it. Because if we don’t, then how will we ever finish the research? How will we find the courage to ask the hard questions? To stay at the desk a little longer, to look in one last file folder, to dig deeper?

It’s necessary. 

It’s what has driven me to the National Archives, to keep returning to those files again and again. Only this time, I’m sticking with it. And that was my birthday gift to myself this year:  permission to stick with it. Permission to remain obsessed, to follow the trails, to get lost in the research, to try whatever it takes to find the truth.

So if you, too, struggle with those kinds of issues – or if you just want further insight into some of the most important historical people in American history and their biographers – go pick up American Story. There are a handful of editing issues – mostly dates, as on page 62 when the wrong election year is given – but I adored this book. It’s a master class not only in American history, but in American history writing. 

And it was precisely the book I needed, at precisely the moment I needed it.

 

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-american-story-david-m-rubenstein/1130641281?ean=9781982120337#/– link to the book at Barnes & Noble

Those Pesky Historical Characters . . .

Have you ever read a work of historical fiction? The setting, the clothes, everything seems okay – until suddenly, the characters do things that you know they’d never really be able to do!

This is one of the reasons why authors who write historical fiction often stay within one era – not only do they have to get the minute details correct (what kind of clocks did they have? What hats would they have worn? Wigs? Shoes? Speech? Table manners? Foods?), they also have to get the characters correct. For instance, your medieval miss isn’t going to go rogue, run out of the church in her wedding dress, and run away with a dashing knight. For starters, she belongs to her father! She can’t marry just anyone she wants!

And nowhere is historical fiction more dominant than in the romance genre.

A couple of years ago at the Rose State College Writing Conference, author Callie Hutton presented a great workshop on how to write historical characters. Callie writes historical romances, so this is something she deals with on a daily basis. She gave us some great hints for how to write good historical characters, and here’s a few of those:

1.) First, you have to think about what your readers want. Readers, she said, want to read about today’s issues in a historical setting. Sounds hard, doesn’t it? But if you want to write about women’s issues, then you could write about a suffragette in the early 1900s, or a young woman rebelling against marriage by entering a convent in the 1300s.

Readers want to read about the following in historical romances:  issues of parenting and motherhood; reproductive rights; different perspectives, especially between the hero and heroine; marriages of convenience and/or strategy. For example, most women in colonial America were terrified of getting pregnant, because they knew the odds were good that they, or the baby, would die. It was customary to not even name a baby until it was a year old, so you didn’t ‘get attached to it.’ What if your heroine just watched her best friend die in childbirth . . . and her new husband wants a family right away?

2.) Second, you have to consider what you readers don’t want Callie said the #1 thing readers hate is language that isn’t authentic to the time period. (There’s a famous example from a Neanderthal series that said something like “the mastadon moved towards him like a freight train.”) Accents and dialect can be used as long as they don’t distract the reader. Along with that, inaccuracies in clothing, word use, etiquette, etc. Assume the reader knows all about this era. That’s who you’re writing for. Now, having said that, too much information will stifle the story.

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy23.) As in any kind of fiction, one-dimensional characters are NOT to be tolerated! ESPECIALLY those that ‘buck the trends’ and do their own thing and step outside the bounds of society – and yet don’t pay a price for it. If your characters do this, they have to do it for a really good reason, they have to face the consequences, and you have to ground it in reality. There are people in history like this – Hildegarde of Bingen, for example, who was a well-educated nun who wrote music and advised popes – but they’re rare. Very rare.

4.) Readers despise heroines who depend on the hero for rescue. Modern women want to read about historical women with some backbone. We want heroines who know how to think for themselves, how to extricate themselves from situations, and who can make choices and decisions.

5.) That said, modern readers actually want alpha males. We want the strong, handsome guy on the proverbial white steed (mostly because we never get that in real life!). We want a guy who can command a room – BUT, we also want a hero with compassion and smarts.

So how can you accomplish all this with your characters? It’s really kind of simple:  human nature just doesn’t change. This is one thing I always try to get through to my students, too. Romans were just like us. The Greeks were just like us. So were 12th century Chinese and 17th century Germans. Human nature does not change. Societies do. We don’t. You encounter the same archetypes no matter what. You will always find inventors, explorers, artists, bullies. You’ll always find the cruel – and the good. Human weaknesses – and strengths – are the same. How society deals with that is the crux of your story.

silent in the grave6.) Readers do NOT want:  ‘too-stupid-to-live’ heroines (like Bella Swan); racism; discrimination or non-acceptance; sexual abuse or rape; violence (especially violence created by the hero or heroine); and stereotypes. (I know! I just told you to go out and create an Alpha Male, and then turned around and told you readers hate stereotypes. So how can you make your Alpha Male different and well-rounded? A great example is Deanna Raybourn’s Nicholas Brisbane, a societal outcast due to his Gypsy heritage. Another is my favorite, Jamie Fraser – Diana Gabaldon gives us so much about his upbringing and life that we can’t help knowing him inside and out, and knowing that whatever he does, he does for his own reasons. (This is why Facebook always lights up with fury every time the show’s writers get Jamie wrong! We know him. Better than they do!)

7.) Callie gave us one final great tidbit:  what is acceptable to editors. Editors, she said, will accept:  feminist slants, older women as protagonists; series (they want them!); and diversity – in race, society, age, body size, etc. Readers want to read about real people. Don’t go for the seventeen-year old blond beauty with lavender eyes and a 17-inch waist; go for something slightly more real. Is your heroine widowed at the horribly old age of twenty-six? Or was she basically sold into marriage, but knows now that she’s not pretty enough to attract another husband – so she turns instead to studying a skill that can bring her income, something that will bring her into contact with the hero of your story?

Remember, romance is the #1 selling genre in today’s publishing world. But the rules have changed since the ‘bodice rippers’ of the 1960s and 70s. Then, rape was a perfectly acceptable thing to have in your romance novel. Not anymore. Then, heroines didn’t have to think for themselves or save themselves. Not anymore.

So if you’re thinking of writing a historical work, or historical romance, you might keep these things in mind. Read some primary sources – not only will they give you a feel for how your characters should think and speak, but they’ll clue you in to the fact that that humans remain the same over time, no matter what.

Then, harness that in your writing.

“Can This Story Be Told?” The limits – and frustrations – of historical research

“It’s not a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?” – David Grann, 2017.

This quote, more than any other, was my takeaway from seeing David Grann two years ago on a nationwide tour for his new book, Killers of the Flower Moon. This book details a little-known aspect of history:  the murders of several wealthy and prominent Osage people during the 1910s and 20s, murders committed by the whites who were supposed to be working in the best interests of the very Osage men and women (and children) they killed. It’s a gripping story, and I reviewed the book here https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2017/07/26/killers-of-the-flower-moon-a-review/ (along with the experience of being able to see author David Grann talk about it).

But since then, the thing I’ve heard over and over, on countless Facebook pages and discussion groups, is this:  why were’t we taught this in school? 

Well, as a history teacher, I can tell you that one reason is that we have too much ground to cover in class. In an Oklahoma history class? Sure, this should be discussed. In a general survey of US History, however, it’s impossible to cover everything. We want to. As teachers, we want to so much, because it’s these kinds of stories that pique our students’ interest, keep them listening, and might even convince them that history isn’t so bad. The best we can sometimes do, however, is mention them in passing, in support of some other Big Important Topic we have to cover. Then, if students are interested, we can discuss it in more detail, either during class (yes, I will sometimes jettison other things to talk about smaller, but equally important, topics), or after class.

But there’s more to it. As historians studying the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921 know, the truth can be buried. It can be buried so deeply, so thoroughly, that bringing it to light is a miraculous thing – if it can be done at all. When people want the truth to be buried, it’s easy to make it happen. Particularly if they are the people in power. And believe me, the people who committed the Osage murders had a reason to bury that truth. So did the perpetrators of the Tulsa Race Riots. But bringing it to light can be done – if the story is there. 

And that’s the question I face now.

As David Grann said, for him, it was never a case of should the story be told; rather, could he tell it? Did the evidence exist? It’s one thing to know something happened; proving it, telling that story, is another. One is easy; the other is not.

Grann was both lucky and good. He walked into the right museum, asked the right questions. He’s a good journalist; he followed his instincts. But he was also lucky – because in this case, the evidence was there. It wasn’t gone, just buried. It was just that no one else had ever asked the questions, followed the leads, gone to the lengths he did to find the truth. No one else had picked up the scattered remnants of this story and pulled them together into a coherent narrative.

But what do you do when, in fact, the truth is gone? Or, at least, you suspect it is?

Right now, I’m simultaneously reading Ron Chernow’s Washington and Alexander Hamilton (my second time). In these books, Chernow is upfront about what we do and don’t know about these men and their lives. We are lucky that Eliza Hamilton made it her life’s mission to collect every document Hamilton ever wrote, to gather as many stories about him as possible, to document his life so thoroughly, that historians have been able to mine that rich lode of information for two centuries. But even then . . . we don’t know the whole story. We don’t know what she burned. What was lost by other people. Likewise, Martha Washington burned most of the letters she and George Washington wrote to each other. What did these two have to say to each other? What insights into their marriage did they provide? What would Washington have told her in confidence that he’d not have told anyone else? We’ll never know. (Soapbox:  STOP BURNING LETTERS, LADIES! WE NED THEM!)

I’m absolutely in awe of the work Chernow did on both of these biographies. His task was downright herculean. From Washington’s diaries, to Hamilton’s letters, to the recollections of Jefferson and Madison and the diaries of others who knew them, he is able to sort and sift through it all to provide us with masterful biographies of both men that also give us insight into all of those around them. The treasury of information is almost bottomless. Like Grann, the story could be told. He had the information. Documents measured not by number of boxes, but by linear feet.

But . . . what if neither Chernow nor Grann had had that?

Historians don’t refuse to tell stories because we don’t care. Ask any historian – we care about everything! But we have to pick and choose our battles. And sometimes – as with the Tulsa Race Riot – the evidence doesn’t come to light for decades. The stories might exist – but the evidence might not. Without evidence, it isn’t history. It’s an anecdote. The problem is, how far do you dig before you accept that the evidence isn’t there? How much evidence is enough – or not enough? Can you tell the story right, if you’re missing key elements?

That is where I am now.

For ten years, I’ve been chasing the ghost of a story. I am, without a doubt, the world’s leading expert on George Kimmel. I’ve spent years tracking down every single court case. All the appeals. Looking at thousands of pages of depositions and testimonies. Reading hundreds of newspaper articles. I know the ins and outs of the cases. I know the theories about his disappearance.

What I don’t know, however, are the people involved. 

There are times when I think I do. When I get an insight into them via their depositions, or their behavior in court, and I think okay, I’ve got them now! I understand this person. And then . . . I realize, when I turn the page, that I really don’t, not at all. I’m not seeing them through their own words and actions. I’m always seeing them through a veil of secondary sources and hidden motives.

I’ve spent so much time tracing their footsteps – the lawyers Bacon and O’Brien, Kimmel’s sister Edna and his mother Estelle and his uncle Charles Johnson, his friends in Niles, Michigan and here in Arkansas City – that it’s easy to think I get this case. That I get all of their motives and know exactly what happened.

After ten years, I can honestly say I don’t have a damn clue about any of it.

Who were they, really? How did they really feel about Kimmel? How did they deal with his disappearance, and the subsequent trials? Where are their letters and diaries? Where are their conversations with others? Where are they in this narrative?

The truth is – they are nowhere. Because I don’t know them. Because I don’t have the very things that would let me know them. Diaries. Letters. Records of conversations. Memories from those who knew them. Things that could clue me in as to their motives. Things that could tell me if my suspicions are on track – or hopelessly off base.

As I said a couple of weeks ago in this blog, when you write history, you have an obligation to your subject and your readers to be fair, honest, and objective. When you haven’t got the sources that would enable you to be those things, how far can you morally go? How do I bring these people to life when they are little more than shadows moving through newspapers, or across the pages of depositions? How do I get at the truth of who they were and what they did?

That is why some stories are never told.

When I started this research, I had no end goal in mind. I just wanted to follow the story and see where it led. And then, as I got deeper and deeper into it, I wanted to know what really happened to George Kimmel on that July night in 1898. And when I did that . . . it changed everything. In part because of all the twists and turns the trials took, I never knew what to make of anyone involved in the case. How, for example, could you possible explain a woman who would sign away nearly $1 million in life insurance money just because her uncle told her to? There had to be more. I had to know why. 

This is not a biography; I get that. This is a mystery story, at heart. But in fiction, we say that there are no plots, only characters that want things. That’s what I’m missing here. It’s like I’m working backwards, precisely counter to where I would start if this was a fictional story. What did these people want? And what were they willing to do to get it? And it brings me, sadly, back around full circle to David Grann’s question:  can this story be told? 

This is the crossroads I find myself at now. Having gone so far, have I gone too far to go back?

Can the story be told – or at the very least, can it be told right? 

I honestly don’t know.

* For more on the Kimmel case and my research into it – including numerous times I’ve had my head meet my desk in frustration! – see these posts:

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2018/03/10/when-research-becomes-obsession/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

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

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

When Research Becomes Obsession

missing ad 2If you’ve followed my blog for any length of time, you know that one of my obsessions is with a disappearance that occurred in 1898 – that of George Kimmel.

And it is an obsession. I freely admit that! For about ten years, I’ve tried to discover what really happened to this guy. Here’s the bare-bones of the case:

  • On July 29, 1898, Kimmel took school bonds to Topeka, deposited them, and then went to Kansas City.
  • On July 30, Kimmel checked into the Midland Hotel. He withdrew precisely $530.20 from his accounts, got into a cab . . . and disappeared.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got. After  that, there are at least five different options. Sort of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Sadly, at least three of those options end with Kimmel being murdered on or just after July 30, 1898.

Okay, there’s more. I didn’t tell you about the fact that Kimmel had worked with his uncle, Charles Johnson, in Niles, Michigan, at the First National Bank of Niles, or that Johnson asked Kimmel to come to Arkansas City, KS (my home town) to become cashier at a bank Johnson managed here. I didn’t tell you that Johnson was later found guilty of purposely failing and defrauding banks, possibly to cover gambling debts. I didn’t tell you that somewhere along the line, someone – Kimmel? Johnson? – insured Kimmel’s life for nearly $30,000. (In today’s terms, this is hard to convert, but is somewhere between $850,000 – $970,000. In short, the guy was insured for nearly a million dollars.)

And I didn’t tell you about the court cases – three of them – to decide if Kimmel was alive or dead, because I didn’t tell you that in 1905, a man in Matteawan Asylum in New York suddenly announced that he was the missing George Kimmel.

And then . . . It never ends! That’s why I have to take so many breaks from this research, because it literally never freaking ends!!!!! I’m a historian. I’ve done loads of research. Written loads of papers. None of it ever prepared me for the sheer lunacy of this project.

What makes it more difficult is that I’m sort of feeling my way in the dark, on several levels. First – I don’t have colleagues who care about this. I teach at a community college. What that means is that my colleagues don’t do research. It’s not even encouraged by the administration. So when people come into my office and see the big pages tacked to my wall that have calendars and bubble charts and a Who’s Who of confederates and allies and possible suspects . . . they just sort look past it, like it doesn’t exist. I’m doing something I shouldn’t be doing. I’m not sure if they resent that I am doing it, or if they are afraid of guilt by association, or if they’ve finally cottoned on to the fact that I’m a bit of a freak. But it’s hard not having anyone to bounce ideas off, to brainstorm with, or just to commiserate with. I hate that. A lot.

It’s not just that the research itself is difficult, although it can be. Documents disappear – sometimes accidentally, sometimes purposely. For example, I discovered that if a case did not go to appeals, all supporting documents, testimonies, evidence – everything! – was discarded when the case was over. So although I had the summary and sentence for Charles Johnson (for failing the Niles bank), I had nothing else. Whatever evidence was entered into the record, whatever he might have said on the stand that may have shed some light on my own mystery – it’s all gone. Nope. That’s tough enough to deal with. It’s also the fact that every single time I turn on my computer, look at the court documents, read the newspaper stories, it all changes. 

Questions never get answered. Literally. Questions. Never. Get. Answered. They just beget more questions! I’ve been researching this, off and on, for years, and every single time I pick it up again, I find new things that put a new spin on what I’ve learned before, or take my research into a totally different direction. It’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and I keep wanting to put a ‘villain/victim’ spin on it, like we would in fiction. But I can’t. Every stone I turn over reveals a new clue, something else that changes how I see this case. For instance:  did Charles Johnson pay off Kimmel’s debts and hide the fact that he was missing because he was covering up crimes of his own . . . or because he was trying to protect a wayward nephew? Two days ago, I would have absolutely told you the former. No question. But after reading some testimony last night, I’m no longer so sure.

Yet another reason for the long breaks!

The obsession is tough. I’m following in the footsteps of a very good lawyer, a man named Ed O’Brien. Every single suspicion I’ve had about Kimmel’s disappearance, he had. Every single question I have asked, he’s asked. I find myself staring at the charts on my wall, trying to piece it all together, wondering if O’Brien ever did the same. Wishing I had access to his private notes, his papers, anything he might have collected about the case. Sure that the answer might be in there. Somewhere.

But there’s other things about it that make me – hesitant.

For starters, I am never immune to the fact that these were real people, and they have real descendants somewhere. Well, George doesn’t, not direct descendants, anyway. But his sister does, and Charles Johnson does. One of the potential main players, Robert Snyder, was a major figure in Kansas City. How can I even begin to talk to them about the things I need to ask? “Hey, I’m researching your great-great uncle’s disappearance. I suspect it might have something to do with your very corrupt great-great-great uncle. Can we chat?”

Yeah. Probably not.

And again . . . part of the problem is simply that . . . the documents, I highly suspect, simply don’t exist. Even things that should exist, I haven’t been able to locate. For example, Johnson hired the Kansas City branch of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate. But those records have evaporated. They are not housed with the official Pinkerton Archives at the Library of Congress. No one can tell me where they are. Did they get submitted as evidence, and misplaced? Were they destroyed? I’ve no idea. I also have yet to locate Johnson’s deposition, which should have been taken in 1905, while he was incarcerated. There’s no way O’Brien wouldn’t have done that. But where IS IT????

I can’t explain why this case obsesses me so much. But I need to figure it out, because I’ve been asked to present on my findings in May.

If they want answers . . . I’m afraid they’re going to be as frustrated as me.

 

For more on my research into George Kimmel, see these posts:

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

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2016/05/29/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true-part-2/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/

 

 

 

Getting to know you . . . Research and Characters

Have you ever had one of those ideas for a novel – or even a character – that sort of teases at the edges of your mind? There one second, gone the next. Coming just close enough for you to get a glimpse of it. To get an idea of what it might be about. But it never does more than that, and it’s frustrating as hell.

Please tell me I’m not the only one who’s had that happen . . . !

A few years ago, when I was taking my course on Young Adult Fiction from Oxford, I had an idea in my mind about a book. I thought it might end up being a series, in fact – maybe not open-ended, but maybe a trilogy. I’d written about it in our discussions, in fact, but I never got a good solid sense of who this character was and what he was about. His name was Chase; he was about fourteen; he was living in the 1930s; and he had an interesting side gig. But every time I tried to write about him, it was like trying to get a stray cat to come close enough to be petted – he just stood there and stared at me, with this sense of Really? I’m not that easy. 

But then Nicky came along in all his full-fledged, hotheaded glory, and Chase tipped me a nod and said, “We’ll meet again when you’re ready for me.”

Well, hell’s bells, I wasn’t ready for Nicky! But I’m beginning to understand why, although Chase and I have danced around each other a bit over the past few years, we’ve never connected.

It’s because I need to know more about how and what he is. And about his world.

Nicky, I knew. Nicky was easy to get to know. Not only did he come with a full set of operating instructions and a mouth bigger than Texas, but I got him. I knew all about the 1920s and rumrunning, and what I didn’t know, I could easily find out. But Chase was different. His story was different, and the things he knew were different.

Sometimes characters come to us, and because they’re like us, or because they’re already part of something we know, it’s easier to relate to them. Maybe they have the same outlook on life, or hate or like the same things we do, or grew up in the same town – or at least, the same kind of town. But those characters who come knocking, nodding shyly, holding everything back until they’re absolutely 100% sure you’re The One? Those are the ones that elude us sometimes, that make us worker harder than we’ve ever worked before.

So last year, I ordered books. Lots of them. I do this a lot. Most historical writers do. We need to know something specific, so we go buy everything we can. I’ve got books on 17th century witch hunts, bootlegging, the KKK, every ghost legend in England, and more. But I realized I had nothing about Chase and his life. So I bought books.

I’m reading one now, in fact, and not five pages into it, I started to get ideas. Started to hear Chase talk to me, just a bit. Not a lot, but enough. He knows I’m here. I know he’s listening.

Yes, I can hear some of you now – But I don’t believe characters talk to us! So what does this have to do with me? 

Glad you asked!

If you’re researching a historical novel – or any novel for that matter – you have to remember that personality only goes so far. Environment shapes character. It shapes you and me and the cat in the tree, and it shapes your fictional characters, too. It’s just a fact of life. Take the 1930s, for example. A farmer fighting to keep his land in the Dust Bowl is going to be a far cry from Joe Kennedy, ex-bootlegger and now Ambassador to England. They had different upbringings, took different paths, made different choices. Knowing about the Dust Bowl will help you see how your farmer should behave. You know he keeps plowing his fields, even when all common sense says not to – why? Research into the farmers of the era will tell you why. And while your farmer may have other reasons, I’m guessing he shares a lot in common with the others.

Or let’s take a common trope:  a historical novel with a woman fighting for her rights in any era – let’s say the 14th century. That’s grand, but she doesn’t exist in a vacuum; she exists in a real world, full of real laws and real consequences. She resists an arranged marriage? Then what are her legal, realistic options? And is she ready to face them? (Now, if you want to put this young heroine in the midst of the Black Death and its aftermath, this might work – lots of opportunities opened up in Europe once 1/3 of the population was dead. But before that time? No.) So your research would naturally need to include all the jobs available to women in the time period, any women who were like your heroine, the laws pertaining to women, etc. This will help you get a better sense of who this character really is and make her much more three-dimensional and believable.

That’s what I needed with Chase. He resisted every attempt I’d mentally made to put him into a cubbyhole, a place I thought he should go. I had to go to him. I had to get into his world, see things through his eyes, first.

No, we’re still not quite talking – but the researching is really opening my eyes to all the possibilities. And I know that when the time’s right and I’m ready, he’ll be there.

Just like Nicky. 🙂

Those who ignore history . . .

As I’ve been working on my young adult historical, I’ve been doing a lot of research into the local area. This includes reading the local paper for 1924 – the year that most of my novel takes place. Since my protagonist, Nicky, is a bootlegger, I’m focusing especially on any articles that have to do with those issues – local stills being raided, etc.

But the KKK was also active in this area. There were, as far as I can tell, chapters of the KKK in Winfield (approximately 15 miles north), Newkirk (about 10 miles south), and Blackwell (about 35 miles southwest). I suspect there were numerous other small chapters for which there’s not much documentation. Heck, I even found this rather creepy advertisement in the Winfield paper:  klan barbershop

(This is actually pretty typical of Klan advertisements. A student even told me that there’s an abandoned building in her hometown that used to be a grocery store that still has a sign in the door that says “Klan Friendly!” I admit, as a historian, part of me wants to salvage it. Part of me wants to burn it at a crossroads.)

But there was one article that has continued to haunt me. I know it well; it features prominently in a major scene in my book. On February 7, 1924, Z.A. Harris, a ‘Klan lecturer’ (who knew there was such a thing, right?) appeared at the Fifth Avenue Theater to a “capacity crowd” and gave a rousing speech. The Fifth Avenue Theatre was THE theatre of Arkansas City in 1924 – it was the most upscale, the most lavish. Or, as my protagonist Nicky says, “Only four theatres in town, and I knew they wasn’t gonna be at the Rex. The Strand – maybe. The Isis – not big enough. That left the Fifth Avenue Opera House, and it was the biggest and nicest theatre in town and I reckoned the Klan didn’t do nothing by halves. They wanted to recruit people, they’d get the best.”

Though the article doesn’t quotefifth avenue theatre Harris verbatim all the time, it gives enough quotes to get the majority of the speech. So I want to post parts of this here. I put the actual quotes in italics. As you may pick up, the reporter wasn’t terribly keen on the guy. 🙂

‘Like any other secret society there are restrictions placed on membership. We have a right as Americans to form such an organization. Our membership is confined strictly to white, native born, gentile, protestant American citizens.’ He spent twenty minutes or so in defense of the organization . . . In his defense of the United States constitution and Americanism he directed his shafts, by innuendo or inference only, against Catholicism, the Jews, and another clement ‘constituting a membership of one and a half million,’ which probably alluded to the IWW or the Bolsheviks or perhaps the socialists.”

So far, not so bad. But! Wait for it . . .

“He pictured a big task which is to engage the attention of the Klan organization – ‘the preservation of American nationalism, American ideals, American institutions, the preservation of the flag and the liberty, freedom, and manhood for which the flag stands, as understood by the founders of the American government.’

AHA! Here we go! The usurpation of ‘American ideals’ and God help me, the ‘founders of the American government.’ Written clearly by people who don’t understand a bloody thing about the founding of America. I’m waiting for someone in Trump’s campaign to find and plagiarize this.

But it goes on!

“In the last twenty years we have been taking in more immigration than this country can assimilate. We have, according to the last census figures, 94,820,915 white inhabitants. Of these, only 58,421,987 are of native born parentage. There are nearly 15,000,000 of foreign born parents, 6,991,665 had one parent born abroad, while 13,712,754 were foreign born.

“He pointed out that laws passed to restrict immigration were evaded by reason of the fact that the nations restricted did not include Mexico and Canada. ‘Something like 750,000 foreign immigrants have found their way into the United States by the Canadian or Mexican route, being “bootlegged” into the country by law evaders for profit,’ Harris charged.”

See? Not much has changed. ‘Coyotes’ still charge outrageous fees to bring people across the border. Sometimes, those people are left to die in the deserts. But back to the program:

“‘Of these hordes who come, speaking a foreign language, many of them are so ignorant that they would never be able to learn the English tongue. The east is overflowing with foreigners. Eighty percent of the population of New York is made up of foreigners. To get into America, in fact, it would be necessary to come west of the Allegheny Mountains.'”

Harris claimed that in 1924, the Klan had membership of 5 million. That number might seem high, but it certainly was over 3 million members by 1923, so 5 million might not be too far off the mark. Today, we might think that these people were whites against blacks, but that’s actually not entirely true. As you can tell from this lecture, the Klan of the 20s was against everyone who wasn’t Just Like Them. Catholics, Jews, divorced people, men who were unemployed, Eastern Europeans (Commies, you know!) – and, of course, bootleggers. Sure, they lynched blacks as well, particularly in the South, and burned black churches and homes – but the major push of the Klan was pretty simple:  enforce Prohibition, keep ‘undesirables’ out of America, and keep America as white and Protestant as possible.

What scares me the most is not that we still have this crap going on – of course the Klan still exists, and so do neo-Nazi and white supremacy groups, each one as hateful and ignorant as the next – but that we have a presidential candidate that is spouting the same godforsaken nonsense.

Now Trump is encouraging his followers to go to the polling places on Election Day and ensure that there is no voter fraud. Hmm. The Klan did this, too, in the 1860s and 70s, and again from the 1920s – 60s. To ensure there was no ‘voter fraud.’ Dressed in their hoods and robes, grabbed their shotguns, and stood in front of polling booths. Imagine you’re a black man in the 1920s coming to vote for the first time, and that’s the first sight you see when you get there. Of course you’re going to turn around and go back home.

Because if you don’t, you’ll get a cross burning on your front yard – or worse.

What strikes me as I watch Trump and listen to his ignorant, fictional rhetoric is how very, very close he comes to being Z.A. Harris. How very, very close he comes to being the spokesperson for hate. You can tell from the original speech that Harris 100% believed every word he said. Though the Klan of the 1920s attracted all kinds of people for all reasons, one thing remained the same:  the purpose of the organization. Which, of course, boils down to just one thing:

Hatred.

The same hatred Trump shouts in every single speech.

The same hatred his followers seem to embrace.

Just like people did in 1924.

 

 

 

The Dangers of Minimalism (to a historian)

I adore The Diane Rehm Show. Not only does she always have interesting and timely topics to discuss, but she has the most fascinating guests and panels.

Today’s topic was Minimalism. I didn’t get to hear the entire story, but I heard one short bit that REALLY freaked me out. See if you can guess why:

The guest practices minimalism – the art of decluttering. Living with as few possessions as possible. I’m all for it. I’m a bit of a ‘collector’ myself, but if you can do it, more power to you! Of course, most of mine is vintage and antiques, stuff for my online shop, and things that have personal meaning. They admitted that it’s hard to get rid of those kinds of items but you should – take photos of important things like report cards, awards, and personal letters and then throw them away.

Yeah. Now you see why I got a bit upset.

Look, I get that everyone’s different. I understand that to some people, inheriting a house full of cool stuff is the worst thing that could ever happen to them. That they may feel zero connection to the boxes of newspaper clippings, letters, photos, journals and memorabilia in the garage or attic.

photo 1But PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE. Don’t throw it away.

I’m a historian. Right now, I can tell you that the story I’m working on – the Kimmel case – may never get solved to my satisfaction because key players in the case threw stuff away. Admitted it on the stand. Of course, that’s a bit different – that was more about self-preservation than decluttering – but the fact remains that there will always be those holes in my research because those primary sources burned more than a hundred years ago. Think how much more heartbreaking it would be to find a treasure trove of sources – only to find that they had been thrown out just days before I discovered their existence!

I love antique shops. Haunt them, really. I’m always amazed by the family histories I find there. The photos, especially. Most of them have no identification, no names or locations; I can well imagine that after a generation or two, no one has any idea who those people were. But once, someone did.

Trust me. Those family Bibles and old letters and photographs and advertisements and whatnot may not seem very important to you, but they are important. To someone. Maybe your kids, or your grandkids. Or maybe to someone like me. There’s loads of people out there who collect vintage and antique photographs. Who collect vintage letters and other things you may want to throw away. AND VINTAGE CLOTHES. NEVER, EVER THROW AWAY THE FREAKING VINTAGE CLOTHES. PLEASE.

So what can you do with them besides take them to the dumpster? Here’s some ideas:

  • Call your local historical society and see if they’re interested (I bet they are!).
  • Call your local antique shop and see they’ll take things on consignment (they often do, or they might just make you an offer then and there for it).
  • Contact a local historian. Every town has at least one. They might not pay you anything, because they’ve got to store it, but if all you’re going to do is throw it away anyway, so what?
  • Call the history department at your local college or university. It’s a long shot, but there could be a historian there who can give those items a good home, or knows someone who can. Often, historians at universities are interested in research into that town or area.

Please. Stop throwing away your family’s history. Maybe you don’t want it – but someone else might.

And if it’s got anything to do with George Kimmel, Edna Kimmel Bonslett, John Boone Swinney, Andrew J. Hunt and his wife Margie, or Charles A. Johnson of Niles Michigan, PLEASE, I WANT IT! 🙂

A link to the story:  https://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2016-07-28/the-lure-of-minimalism