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. 🙂

Now that NaNoWriMo is over . . .

So. NaNoWriMo is over. Maybe you got to 50,000 words. Maybe you didn’t. I did!

But even if you didn’t . .  . Take heart. Take stock of what you’ve written. Was it a novel you’ve had in mind for a long time? Or something you just started on a whim, with no idea where it would end up? Did you have notecards and plans and research done, or did you just say “hey, what happens if you take x and y and mix in this and that and . . .”

Either way, it’s good. You wrote.

But what now?

Apparently (and I didn’t realize this until I found this article – http://www.salon.com/2010/11/02/nanowrimo/), there’s a problem with NaNo novels being pushed onto unsuspecting agents and editors without any thought to the process whatsoever. To save you the trouble of reading the entire rant, here’s the salient point:

I am not the first person to point out that “writing a lot of crap” doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November. And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. “Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?” tweeted one, “Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo.” Another wrote, “Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with ‘I’ve just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and …’”

I’d like to say that surprises me, but – given that I actually once read a message board post that said, ‘I just finished my 88,000 word novel two hours ago and uploaded it to Amazon as an e-book, and NO ONE has downloaded it! What do I do?” – I can’t. This could, in fact, be a pervasive problem.

So what do you do?

The last time I won – three years ago – I knew I wasn’t done with Nicky. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t sure exactly where it was heading, but I did know that Nicky and I stood at the edge of a big adventure together. I knew this would be bigger than any book I’d ever attempted before. Which is probably why I’m still feeling my way through it.

This year, I did a bit here and a bit there. I wrote on three different novels, in fact. None are done yet. But that’s not really what NaNoWriMo is about. It’s not about finishing a novel; it’s about starting that journey. (I think, anyway.)

So if you won NaNo, congratulations! But now, let’s think. What, exactly, have you written?

It’s time to be honest, unfortunately, and that’s hard for a lot of us. But as a writer, you have to be realistic about what you’ve written. I know, I know:  this is your baby. You just spent an entire month (more, hopefully!) writing it, crafting it, bringing it to life. You’re too close to it. Just like no parent wants to admit their child is a screaming, raging, bullying lunatic (and if you’re saying “but mine isn’t,” trust me, IT IS!!!) no author wants to admit their novel has problems.

You have to, though.

If you’re still writing, that’s great. That means you’re not satisfied with it yet. You’re not done. Keep going! Maybe NaNo just opened the floodgates for your characters and you’re only now feeling them come to life. That’s fantastic! Keep going!

But if you feel done . . . let’s evaluate.

  • How many words did you do? If you’re at less than 50,000 words, either keep writing or . . .
  • You need to decide: Is this a novel? A novella? A very long short story?
  • How do you know? Simple. Does it have a beginning, middle, and end? I’m guessing that yours may have only the beginning and the middle. The ending is probably not quite there yet. Keep working.
  • Characters: are they fully formed, or do they feel like cardboard cutouts you’re parading around on a stage? Do you know what they want? Do they know what they want? If not, keep writing. This goes for ALL your characters! Main characters, secondary characters, even – especially – your baddies.
  • Do the characters have believable goals, and do the goals remain consistent throughout? (Do their names remain consistent throughout? If you’ve been on a 30-day writing binge, you might accidentally have renamed someone at some point.)
  • Does the beginning jive with the end? In other words – do the characters achieve the goals they set out to achieve in Chapter 1? If not, keep writing. It’s really not surprising to find that your characters change from the start of your draft – what you thought you were going to write about isn’t what they want to talk about. That means they’re taking on a life of their own. And that’s a good thing! But it does mean some rewrites.
  • Are there plot holes? If so, fix them. Are there places where you just wrote “Stuff Happens” and forged ahead to a scene you really wanted to write? Nothing wrong with that – writers do it all the time – but you do eventually need to figure out what ‘stuff happens.’
  • Do all the characters have a reason to be there? If not, get rid of them.
  • Maybe most importantly of all:  are you scared to death to let your beta readers see it? If so, it’s definitely not yet ready to go out into the world!

While these are obviously big, overarching things – that’s where you need to start, because any one of these will cause a publisher or agent to toss your submission like yesterday’s cat litter. As harsh as that blog post I quoted above is, let’s face it:  it’s true. Agents and editors are looking for reasons to reject you out of hand. Your job is to force them to read your manuscript.

There are many published books that started as NaNo projects, but they all have one thing in common:  the authors took the time to craft them afterwards, to mold and shape them into a readable, marketable work.

Now, that’s your job, too.

 

Here’s a link to some novels that got their start as NaNao projects: http://mentalfloss.com/article/53481/14-published-novels-written-during-nanowrimo

And here’s a link to the NaNo Official List of published NaNo projects:  http://nanowrimo.org/published-wrimos

And, to give you some inspiration and make you feel better about that first draft, here’s a great blog post from NaNo published writer Alan Averill:  http://blog.nanowrimo.org/post/128034053636/i-spy-with-my-critical-eye-trusting-your-inner

Notes from a First Page Panel

Let’s face it:  first pages are hard work. Half the time you start your first page without knowing where your novel’s going; many times, those original first pages end up getting heavily edited, if not actually deleted. Been there, done that! And what might seem fine to us just isn’t fine to agents and editors.

The Rose State Writers Conference was in September. One of my favorite parts of this conference is what’s known as the ‘First Page Panel.’ Attendees bring the firs page of their manuscript and drop it into a box when they arrive that morning; at noon, the box is brought into the main auditorium, we all gather with box lunches, and the panel – composed of the guest agents, writers, and teachers – tell us what they like and don’t like. Each page is read aloud; anyone on the panel has the right to stop the reader at any time.

At first, the panel’s nice. After they get through about 10 pages, they start to get a bit tougher. 🙂 Here’s some notes from this year’s panel:

First – not too much backstory or dialogue. A lot of the pages broke this cardinal rule. In fact, one agent went so far as to say this:  No backstory. No exposition. Start with the character and their problem. You can fill in everything else later. Otherwise, it’s lazy writing. 

Don’t start with dialogue. Especially when there’s no speaker delineated, or grounding for the reader. There’s no context; it’s just wasted words. And contrary to popular belief, it generally doesn’t incite curiosity in the reader, unless it’s the right dialogue. Most isn’t.

While I’m on the subject of dialogue . . . Dialogue cannot be used to get information across. “As you know, Bob . . .” Just don’t. Agents will throw your manuscript across the room and curse you forever. Well. Maybe just for a bit. 🙂

And before we leave the subject of dialogue . . . Give us an idea of your MC in your dialogue. Age? Speaking voice? Dialect? (Not too much of that, though.) Remember, show us what they’re like. That means the voice, too. What words they use. How they structure sentences. What they talk about.

Make sure you set the time and place, and let the reader orient themselves. Don’t set them adrift! This is one of the reasons why starting with dialogue is bad – because there’s no context. Think about your favorite movies. Do they start with dialogue? Or do we start with a few opening scenes that let us know when/where we are?

But:  Choose your details carefully. Watch the pacing. Too many details will slow it down and the reader will walk away. This is NOT an info-dump. This is not backstory. Setting is never separate from the story. Choose your details well. Give just 1-3 telling, specific details; the reader will do the rest. More, and the reader will start to skim, or even get resentful. If you describe a house as a “pink Victorian,” for example, the reader knows what that should look like, and they’ll fill in the rest with their own imagination. And this gives them buy-in! The house they imagine won’t be like yours, and it won’t be like anyone else’s, either. It’ll be theirs.

Create conflict from the get-go – or at least, create interest intrigue for your readers. Hook them with a question. As I’ve said before in other blog posts, that’s the job of the first sentence, the first paragraph, and the first page – to lure the reader in by asking questions they must know the answers to. 

The first page should ask questions. Questions should be asked throughout the book. Picture these as stepping-stones, leading the reader from one to the other, until they are done. But don’t lay down your questions in a way that confuses the reader! Lay them down in order. Answer one, raise two more. Sure, we’ve got this solved – now what conflict arises because of that?  Or, as author Katherine Center put it so eloquently,

“The readers are in your roller coaster. Lock them in and take off!”

BUT . . . There’s a subtle line between making people curious and overwhelming them. Once they’re confused, they’re lost. Don’t pull them out of the story! And don’t let them put the book down.To hook readers, give them one little thing that’s out of place. Set up questions for them. One example from the conference was this gem:  “When I got home the door was locked – and I never lock the door.” Doesn’t that put a question in your mind? Maybe two or three, even?

Emotions:  make the reader feel them. Show, don’t tell. Every single word needs to be there because it’s important to the story. Make sure the reader knows what they have to know. Give the basics – that’s it. Description kills the urgency. The pace of the story should reflect the characters’ emotions.

And on that note, watch your writing. The first page may be all you get to entice agents, editors, and readers. Do. Not. Use. Adjective and Adverbs. Too many adjectives make agents and readers ‘too aware of the writing.’ They notice and stumble over it. Make the words disappear. Never pull them out of the story. And don’t make them think about the language. Or again, as Katherine Center said, “Thinking is hard. Stories should be easy!”

One tidbit I learned is that agents have what they call the ‘modifier zone’ – the point at which agents stop reading because the author is putting in too many modifiers (dapper, plush, etc.). Just tell us what’s what. Tell us what we have to know to move forward. Picture the first page as the opening scene of a movie. Do we need to know everything? No. Should we have some hint, some clue, as to the central conflict and characters? Yes.

Prologues:  it’s hard to gauge a novel on the prologue, especially if it’s about 5 pages long and the agent or editor has asked for the first five pages. It’s often written differently than the rest of the novel, and usually it’s info-dumping. Get to the story.

More importantly, ask yourself:  why am I starting the book here? What is the purpose of this scene? If the answer has anything to do with backstory, you’re not staring in the right place. Backstory = prologue, in most cases. Get rid of it.

We weren’t able to get through very many in an hour and twenty minutes – of the 50+ submissions, I think we read about 15 aloud. But those 15 bold guinea pigs helped their fellow attendees, and I hope they may have helped you. 🙂 I do, however, want to leave you with just one more tidbit from Katherine Center:

“Anyone who writes has to know what they LOVE to read.” And then they should be writing that. Not something else. That. “Write the story you wish was out there in the world. If it’s romance – great! Whatever it is that lights the reading fire in you is what you should be writing.”

 

Katherine Center’s website:  http://www.katherinecenter.com/

https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/01/04/first-month-first-week-first-lines/

 

 

Buried: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921

It’s Memorial Day.

And in Tulsa today, they are remembering one of the worst incidents of the 20th century – the Tulsa Race Riots.

In fact, it got started just about the same time as I’m writing, late in the evening of May 31, 1921. But let’s back up for a second, because I’m pretty sure most people have never heard of the Tulsa Race Riot. And that’s because for years, it was kept under wraps as much as possible.

This is a story I never heard until I started to teach US History. As I was preparing to teach the 1920s, I kept running across the race riots of other places – like Rosewood – and of course the KKK. But then I stumbled across a website that discussed the Tulsa Race Riot.

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Greenwood, before the Riot. From hoodline.com

After World War II, Tulsa was actually two cities:  Tulsa proper, which was predominantly white; and Greenwood, known as the ‘Black Wall Street of America.’ A beautiful African-American community, it boasted a thriving business district with theaters, shops, restaurants, milliners, clothing stores, banks – everything a city needs. Tulsa had a population of more than 100,00 at that time; an exact census for Greenwood is difficult to find, but certainly at least 20,000.

But all that changed. Because of one man and one woman and one scream.

According to the story, Dick Rowland worked in Tulsa as a shoe-shiner. Sarah Paige operated the elevator at the Drexel building in Tulsa. Stories vary, but the fact is, at some point that day, they were alone in that elevator together. Since she was white and he was black, this was already an issue.

Then she screamed.

If Sarah Paige ever said why she screamed, it’s not recorded. By all accounts, she refused to explain. It didn’t matter. Whites immediately jumped to one conclusion:  a black man tried to rape a white woman. Rowland was arrested, and on the night of May 31, a white mob gathered at the jail. Leaders from Greenwood went to the jail to help protect Rowland, but the sheriff told them to go home; when they tried to leave, the mob attacked them. They fled to Greenwood, with the mob in hot pursuit.

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I think the caption speaks for itself. This image is found all over the ‘net; probably in the University of Tulsa Collections.

Over the next fourteen hours, thousands of whites, probably led by the local KKK, systematically destroyed Greenwood. Blacks were rounded up and kept in ‘concentration camps’ while houses were searched, robbed, and burned. Those who tried to escape were shot. They even set up a machine gun on a grain elevator at one end of Main Street. At dawn on June 1, airplanes dropped homemade bombs on Greenwood. There was even an effort to go through the wealthier areas of Tulsa and force white home owners to send out their black servants – which, thankfully, most refused to do.

It wasn’t until noon that the state troopers arrived – but by that time, it no longer mattered. The riot had fizzled.

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And Greenwood was gone.

Thirty-five square blocks had burned to the ground. More than a thousand homes, 21 churches, and 600+ businesses were gone. The Tulsa Fire Department had tried to get through all night long, but were held at gunpoint  by the attackers. Likewise, anyone trying to get through to give first aid to the blacks was held at gunpoint. tulsa_riots_theater.1406030191283

Now, there were whites who tried to help. A family outside Tulsa hid more than thirty people in their barn for a week. One woman at the local YWCA saved their porter’s life by hiding him in the walk-in freezer and then standing up to the whites chasing him with shotguns. Red Cross workers moved in as soon as they could to help the wounded and bury the dead.

Because there were dead.

But the sad thing is, we have absolutely no idea how many died that night.

Most who fled Greenwood never returned, so just doing a census doesn’t help. For decades, it was known that somewhere between 39 and 55 graves were dug in cemeteries for riot victims – the lucky ones who got headstones, anyway. It was also known that there was at least one mass grave, but as one Red Cross worker admitted, they were told to bury the bodies as quickly as possible, and didn’t keep track. Then in the early 1990s, another mass grave was discovered in a vacant lot that is presumed to be from the riot as well. So estimates range between 55 and 300, with many believing that number to be much, much higher.

The Tulsa Race Riot was, we know now, the worst of the 1920s. An entire town, destroyed in less than 24 hours. All because one woman screamed. All because some people thought they were better than others.

Tulsa buried this story. Who can blame them, really? It was never discussed. Never published. The KKK still had enough sway in the area to keep it hushed up, and the city officials swept it under the rug. Later, reporters who tried to tell the story said they were threatened. It wasn’t until 1997 that Oklahoma finally published a report on the riots, and today, a small museum in Tulsa commemorates the event.

And, because I know you’re dying to know:  the charges against Dick Rowland were dropped. He left Tulsa, never to return. And as far as I know, Sarah Paige never told what happened on that elevator.

One thing I always ask my students is do you think this could happen today? Before Michael Brown, they always said NO. They always said that America had grown beyond this, that such wanton destruction would never be allowed to happen.

Now? Now they look at me with eyes that say otherwise. Now, before they speak, they remember Michael Brown, and Freddy Gray, and all the riots that have ensued over the last two years. They think about all the Trump rallies where minorities are beaten for daring to protest his policies. And they hesitate.

Because they know the truth.

 

More on the Tulsa Race Riots:

http://tulsahistory.org/learn/online-exhibits/the-tulsa-race-riot/ – the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum’s site for the riots

http://www.tulsaworld.com/app/race-riot/timeline.html – The Tulsa World’s page dedicated to the riots

http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/7/19/survivors-of-infamous1921tulsaraceriotstillhopeforjustice.html – from Al-Jazeera America, a story about the riots and the survivors still seeking justice

 

 

 

When a Historian’s Dream Comes True, part 2

For the first time in a LONG time, I’m not teaching face to face classes this summer. And after the year I’ve had . . . yeah. Let’s just say it’s better that way.

But it gives me the chance to catch up on things I’ve had to abandon this year, and one of those is my research into my nonfiction historical project. I’ve written about this before (https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2014/12/14/when-a-historians-dream-comes-true/ , https://kswriterteacher.wordpress.com/2015/02/01/digging-deep-the-perils-of-historical-research/), but to recap:  about 10 years ago, I started to read in our local paper’s ‘100 Years Ago Today’ column about a man named George Kimmel, who disappeared from my home town of Arkansas City in 1898, and then mysteriously reappeared some eight years later . . . or did he? At the time, no one was quite sure if the man who claimed to be Kimmel was really Kimmel or not. And the testimony from the trials didn’t make it any clearer.

I spent days photographing some 3,000 +/- documents from just one of the trials, and some of the things that I found astounded me. I thought I had a good handle on the case and on who Kimmel was, and how things would turn out. Turns out, I didn’t know nearly as much as I thought I did.

This week, I started on the testimony of a man named John Boone Swinney, who was a surprise witness in the 1911 trial. And when I say surprise, I mean full-blown, people popping out of cakes with machine guns, kind of surprise. See, before Swinney, everyone assumed that what ‘Kimmel’ said was true:  that he’d been kidnapped from Kansas City, taken to St. Louis, and beaten up. He then lost his memory and had only recently regained it. But Swinney came in with a totally different story, one that for most, put that entire St. Louis story out to pasture permanently.

But this is what I love so much about this case. Every single time I go back to it, there’s a surprise. Not Easter eggs; Easter bombs. 🙂 I’m not finished with Swinney’s testimony – I have more than 200 pages to print and read – but I’ve already got two pages full of notes of things I have to chase down.

I think what I love most, though, is that through this testimony, I can see the trial. Hear these people. I know precisely what kind of gun Kimmel was carrying (a 32 caliber designed by Otis Smith, if anyone cares). I’ve even laughed out loud in a couple of places – for example, Swinney said he was in Utah, ‘doing nothing’ and staying in hotels. Of course, I’m thinking in the back of my mind:  Wait. You’re a part-time farmer, you’ve been convicted of attempted railroad robbery . . . um . . . where was the hotel money from again? The attorney must have wondered the same thing, because he finally asked:

“What were you doing?”

Swinney:  “Nothing.”

Attorney:  “Well, did you commit any train robberies out there?”

Swinney:  “I – at least, I wasn’t charged with any.”

I’m so mad at the attorneys, though!!!! So many places where I want to go back in time and beat the crap out of them! I want to know what the hell happened to George Kimmel. That’s it. I want to know. So when I see testimony like this:

Q:  “Well, how long did you talk with him there?”

A:  “Maybe he was there half an hour. He told me to take this (valise) and meet him . . .”

Q:  “I didn’t ask what he told you; how long did you talk with him there?”

SERIOUSLY????? You can’t wait FIVE BLOODY MINUTES for this guy to tell us WHAT WAS SAID BETWEEN THE TWO OF THEM???? He never does let Swinney tell what Kimmel told him. So I have no idea – yet – why Kimmel was brought in on this ‘treasure hunt’ or what was said between them or why he was convinced to go. I have my suspicions, but as of yet, nothing to back them up. Very frustrating.

Another frustrating thing, for me, is the knowledge that I’m dealing with real people here. Yes, they are all dead now, but – in Arkansas City history, men like Albert Denton and A.J. Hunt are practically paragons. One of the men Swinney incriminates in his treasure hunt story is R.M. Snyder, a banker in Kansas City – and yes, another freaking paragon. What do you do? How do you reconcile what I think they did in 1898 with what they did later?

I’m hoping, in cross-examination, that the other attorney will let Swinney tell more about his interactions with Kimmel. Because so far, this bloody idiot has led us through 20 pages of Swinney being part of an attempted robbery in Oklahoma and a bunch of other crap that has no bearing whatsoever on George Kimmel. I still have about a hundred pages to go. So here’s hoping!

Man. I am so glad I don’t have any classes this summer. 🙂

 

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/

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/