Memory and History: What do we really remember?

“I don’t recall.”

“I don’t remember.”

“If you give me a minute, I might be able to think it up.”

“Not that I can recall just now, no.”

“I refuse to answer that.”

Me:  ANSWER THE F-ING QUESTIONS ALREADY, YOU BLEEPING BLEEP BLEEP!

No, I didn’t travel into the future and bring back the transcript of Donald Trump’s treason trial – though if I had, I’d also (spoiler alert!) tell you he’d been found guilty. No. This? This is a micro-sample of what I encountered this week, slogging through the deposition of the man who claimed to be George Kimmel.

Any wonder why I started writing OMFG on nearly every page?!

If you don’t remember (hah), George Kimmel disappeared without a trace in 1898. For the past ten years, I’ve been researching his disappearance. Why ten years, you ask? Well! See, the case went to trial several times over a decade, because there were several life insurance policies, and because every time one court made a decision, an appeal was filed the next day by the losing side. It dragged on until, I think, 1917 – and part of the reason it dragged on for-ev-er was because of this guy. This claimant. Whose real name I don’t even know.

All I know is, he was NOT freaking George Kimmel.

In the very first episode of the Serial podcast, Sarah Koenig discusses the problem of memory. Can you recall a day six years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you? Who were your friends? Where did you work? Did you work on that particular day? This is often the problem with solving cold cases – or any cases, for that matter. How can you prove that what you think happened, really happened? Today, we could probably check our Facebook pages, or Twitter. But what if I asked you to recall a day before social media? Could you do it?

That’s the problem I face with this case. Some memories are good. Some are not. Some can’t be trusted. Can any of them be trusted? Who’s telling the truth? And that’s why I have to keep an open mind, even when my knee-jerk reaction is to throw everything The Claimant says out the window.

The dude’s totally infuriating. He spent most of his time either refusing to answer questions, claiming he didn’t remember things he bloody well ought to have remembered, or arguing with the attorneys. How many times did he say “I don’t remember,” or some variation thereof, you ask? My best guess is somewhere around 80-90% of the time. The Claimant claimed that it was because he was hit on the head and thus his memory was impaired. Well, he was hit on the head, that’s true. In fact, he wasn’t just hit on the head; from the description, someone tried to take his head off, possibly with an ax. Having read 657 pages of the claimant’s testimony, I am in complete sympathy with that person.

I think anyone who’s seen a few episodes of Matlock would probably join me in saying, after just a few pages, that this guy is a total fraud. Some things, he’s completely lucid and detailed about – for instance, the crazy story he tells about being kidnapped in Kansas City and held hostage in St. Louis. He can recall that with perfect detail. No problem whatsoever. But ask him to identify people in photos, people he ought to know, like his family? He can’t – and won’t – do it. In fact, at one point, the bum even turned his head away and refused to look at them. The things he should know, he doesn’t. The things he does know, are things that were either published in the papers and readily available, or are things that he has made up in his own mind.

And yet. This deposition was taken in 1908 – ten years after George disappeared. Can you remember what you were doing ten years ago? In 2010, I was an adjunct instructor. I was in my first year of teaching for Newman University, and my work load was really picking up. I think that was the year I taught for Butler, too. That was the year I got my cat Angel. But as for specifics? Students in my classes, books I read? You do it. See how far you get. Because I can only give you generalities.

Big ticket items, we tend to remember. I will always know that 2019 was the year I saw Hamilton live. Just like I will always know that 2020 was the year that the entire world went to hell in a handcart. But ask me to get more specific than that . . . and without some frame of reference, I don’t think I could do it. So why do I – and why do these attorneys – think The Claimant should be able to do it?

A proverbial Catch-22.

Do I believe he’s George Kimmel? No. Absolutely not. For starters, they look nothing alike. See here:

side by side photos - Newspapers.com

The one on the left is The Claimant. The one on the right, George Kimmel. The nose, the eyes, everything is different. Even their eye colors are different! The Claimant has gray-blue eyes; Kimmel, dark brown.

If I didn’t know this story as well as I do, if I hadn’t read hundreds of newspaper articles and studied the earlier trials, I might be swayed by his arguments. I might say, “But look! He knows all of this stuff! And of course the men who kidnapped him are going to keep quiet about it!”

BUT. I have to admit, there are moments that give me pause. Things I can’t quite explain away – except by remembering that The Claimant is a con artist, and this is a con.

For starters, he clearly lived in St. Louis at some point, or was being fed information about the city by one of the lawyers, for he could pinpoint streets and intersections and locations that actually did exist in 1898. And there are other things, things that aren’t quite as well known, things he would either have to know, or have to have learned from someone. In the deposition, for example, he finally says that his grandmother’s names are Desire (pronounced, I believe, Desiree, but spelled Desire in the parish register and in his testimony), and Ethelina. Seriously, NO ONE could make those names up! And what about the fact that he says (after a great deal of back and forth and refusals) that his paternal grandfather lived on Hickory Lane – and he did? 

Those are the kinds of things that throw me for a loop, every time.

I want to get to the truth. I want to remain unbiased. But I’m not. No historian is, not really. No writer is. I have never known what to think about this story. I have never truly been able to form an opinion about what happened to George Kimmel. I have half a dozen theories, each as realistic and probable as the others. But what I do not think is that The Claimant is him. I believe he’s nothing more than a con artist. A good one, but a con artist nonetheless. Because this is how con artists work. Pick out a few key, important details . . . stand fast behind a facade of “I don’t have to prove anything to you,” and “I don’t remember” . . . and voila! You’re someone else, and no one can quite prove you’re not – especially in an age where fingerprints weren’t even in use yet, and DNA, for all we knew, didn’t even exist. (In case you’re wondering, fingerprints were actually first used to solve a crime in 1892, in Argentina. But in America, the first case that used them to convict someone wasn’t until 1910.) And even if someone had thought to use fingerprints – where could they have gotten a sample of George’s? By 1908, when this deposition was taken, all of his belongings were back in Niles, possibly in storage, possible destroyed, possibly scattered. There was no way to control that sample. No lawyer worth his salt would have allowed that into evidence!

Which, I had to remind myself repeatedly by page 400 or so, was precisely what the claimant was doing. Wear down the lawyers. Wear down the family. Wear down the idiotic historian who decided 100 years later to become obsessed with the case. You know. This is what con artists do. 

And yet . . .

Even I can’t quite shake the doubts.

 

If you’ve never heard Serial before, OMG, where have you been? A link to Season One:  https://serialpodcast.org/season-one

For more information on that first case of fingerprint use, see:  https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-bloody-fingerprint-elicits-a-mothers-evil-tale-in-argentina

And for more information on the first American case:  https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/first-case-where-fingerprints-were-used-evidence-180970883/

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!

“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

NaNoWriMo – The 2/3 Check-In!

How many of us are still hanging in there?! Maybe we’re hanging on by the fingernails, or even by our teeth, to the end of the proverbial rope, but the point is, are we hanging in there? 

I am – barely, but I am.

This year’s different.

If you missed my last couple of posts, this year I decided I would start a massive nonfiction project that has been in the works, off and on (mostly off) for ten years – my research into the disappearance of George Kimmel in 1898. As I mentioned last time, the problem is that I didn’t do the research in time, so working on the actual writing has been problematic.

But what NaNo has done is give me the space, time, impetus – and permission – to really dig into the research in this case. For some reason, although this case has fascinated me for more than ten years now, and I’ve gone to the National Archives and photographed all the files, and I even pay $75 every three months for a Newspapers.com account to do further research, I’ve never really felt like I had permission to do it. I can’t explain it. I mean, I’m a historian, right? This is what I’m supposed to do, right?

Now that I’m spending 1-2 hours a night with the files, though, I’m seeing it differently. Maybe it’s because I’ve been reading so much nonfiction lately – Joseph Ellis, Gordon Wood, Jon Meacham, Ron Chernow. Through reading their works, I see more clearly how to structure such a narrative. The level of scholarship that has to go into it. Sure, I had to read constantly in grad school, too, but honestly, we were reading so much, so fast, that I never had the time to sit down and really read. Understand. Savor. Ruminate. Draw my own conclusions. Scribble in the margins and generate ideas (which has led, in the past six weeks, to acquiring another 20+ books!). In grad school, we did those things on the fly, writing papers so fast that they started to run into each other. We read more to write a paper than to truly understand the words. I think I needed the time away from that to truly start to understand how the process works.

Another reason I tend to “jump in, jump out” with this project is that I tend to get rather obsessive about it. This time around, I’m finding it easier to look at it objectively. Again, I think that’s thanks to the amazing historians I’ve been reading lately – and also because I’m totally obsessed right now with the Revolutionary War and the Early Republic. So my two obsessions are balancing each other out. 🙂

The other, daunting thing about this project is the sheer amount of material involved. None of it is easy to find. None of it, in the forms I have it (jpgs on my computer) are particularly easy to work with, either. So I decided the only way to solve that problem was to start typing. My keyboard is missing some letters now. 🙂

I won’t type all of it – but somehow, it’s easier for me to get through the material, to remember it, when I type it out. It starts to organize itself in my mind, slot itself into chapters. I notice things – like, seriously, every single person who did an affidavit as proof of Kimmel’s death used the word ‘sanguine’ to describe him. Who SAYS that?! Sure, I know it was 1898, but still! He was ‘sanguine about his prospects.’ He was ‘enthusiastic about his business prospects.’ He was ‘robust.’ He had ‘a keen mind for business.’ Two people mentioned that he said he’d rather ‘lay down his life’ than bring harm or disappointment to his uncle. They all say literally the same things about him. Why is that? Because the same lawyer was taking all these affidavits as proof of death for the insurance company, and he gave them talking points, a script to follow? Another, more sinister, reason? But see, if I wasn’t typing that, would I catch it?

So although I won’t probably complete NaNo this year, not in the conventional sense, anyway, I’m continuing on. Just as one of the reasons behind NaNo is to get writers in the habit of writing daily, it’s gotten me into the habit of doing daily work on these affidavits and testimonies.

Which, to me, is every bit as important as writing every day.

 

NaNoWriMo 2019 – You Ready for This?

Oh, yes! Did the date sneak up on you? Never fear, here’s your annual reminder – IT’S NANOWRIMO! 

If you are one of the five people who don’t know what NaNoWriMo is – this is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days – that’s about 1600 – 1700 words per day on average. The goal is NOT to necessarily finish a novel (though if you do that, great!). The goal is simply to get people writing. Here’s the website:  https://www.nanowrimo.org/

nanoWhen you go to the website, you can set up a profile, find other NaNo writers in your area for ‘write-ins’ (where you meet up at a library or coffee shop for a few hours to write) – or, if you don’t live near a group, you can even do virtual write-ins. You can track your progress, chat with other writers . . . for some, it’s not so much a way to get the words down on paper as a chance to be with a community of writers.

I try to participate every year, because . . . why not? It’s a challenge. I do wish it was some other month – May or June, when I’m less busy – but if I’m supposed to be writing anyway, then I may as well challenge myself to do a little more, right? Besides, it’s dark early in November. I’m not outside doing yard work or going for long walks. I’m stuck inside. I can watch TV, or write. (Or, as it turns out, I can do both at the same time!)

There is no right or wrong way to do NaNo, and I think that’s one of the biggest misconceptions about it – any writing counts! Sure, it’s called National Novel Writing Month, but as I’ve said before, 50,000 words isn’t a novel. If you need to do a total rewrite on an existing novel, go for it! If you need to finish a novel you put down a long time ago, go for it! There are even – gasp! – NaNo Rebels, who write short stories, blog posts, fanfic, and other things.

Usual, I spend this month working on fiction projects – the first 50,000 words of Nicky came pouring out of me during NaNo 2014, after all. Some years its an assemblage of random projects; other years, I concentrate on just one.

But this year, I decided – at the last minute – that I was going to do something different.

This year, I’m focusing on nonfiction. 

Obviously, to do this thing properly, I should have started the prep work about three months ago. Because I decided, literally yesterday, to start writing my book about George Kimmel. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, right? Or, maybe more accurately, into everyone’s world a little cray-cray must fall.

I should definitely have started the prep work earlier. I am working with half-assed notes and half-remembered quotes, and all my files are either on my laptop or in my office, but are not in both places. I should have had notes about everyone all ready to go, to start drafting their bios. I should have sketched out what the chapters would look like ahead of time, and started slotting testimonies and depositions into those. I should have gathered up my research into Ark City’s history so I could write an accurate description of it in 1898. You know, basic stuff like that.

Give me a break, though; I’ve never tackled something this big before! The papers I wrote in grad school were often written on the fly; I could rely on my writing talent and research ability to pull them off. (The most famous example of this, which I often share with my students as an example of what not to do, is the term paper I started at 11pm, finished at 5am, and submitted at 8:30am. Yes, I got an A. Let me reiterate:  DO NOT DO THIS.). This? This is not that. This is real. And frankly, that’s why I keep pushing it away – because not only do I get completely obsessed with it, to the point where I drive everyone around me batcrap crazy, but I get overwhelmed by the thousands of pages I already have – and the unknown amount of information I still need.

But. I was going to have to do that anyway.

Today I sat down at my favorite coffee shop, opened a blank document in Word, and started typing. I thought I knew how I would start George’s story:  it would start with him leaving town on the train. I even had the first line running through my head:  On July 31, 1898, George Kimmel waved goodbye to his friends ,and boarded the train for Topeka. They never saw him again. 

Instead . . . the first line from my keyboard was:  How do people disappear without a trace? 

It was an intriguing opening, and I hadn’t expected it at all. So I went with it. I talked about the number of cold cases in America right now, and the number of cases that go unsolved every year (the numbers, according to the US Justice Department, are 250,000 and 6,000, in case you’re curious). I wrote, very generally, about the uses of DNA and the difficulties in using it to solve these cold cases (NONE of which will ever make it into the final draft because it’s totally fluff and filler gleaned from years of watching Forensic Files). And then I asked another question:  if it’s this difficult today, to solve a case in which a person appears to have disappeared without a trace, how much more difficult would it have been in 1898?

In truth, what I started out writing was not so much a first chapter as a prologue, my reasons for researching Kimmel, and for ultimately writing this book. But that idea – How do people disappear without a trace? – has intrigued me.

How did Kimmel walk out of the Midland Hotel and into oblivion? How did he disappear, so completely that no trace of him was ever found?

I wrote almost 1800 words today. It’s not good – but then again, that’s not the point. The point of NaNoWriMo is simply to write. 

Which, when it comes to this project, is the thing I’ve needed to do all along.

 

Want to write nonfiction but don’t want to do it via NaNoWriMo? Check this out! https://writenonfictionnow.com/about-write-nonfiction-in-november/wnfinnanonfiwrimo/

 

“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/

“Killers of the Flower Moon” A Review

Sometimes, historians run across stories that won’t let us go. Stories that haunt us, that creep up on us at odd hours, that refuse to go away quietly. And yet. We hesitate, because these are often the stories that have no resolution, no sources, no proof.

For us, as author David Grann says, it’s not “a case of should this story be told; it’s a case of can this story be told?”

51wnupYTkOL._SY346_Last Thursday, Grann was in Wichita, a guest of Watermark Books. A friend called, and I dropped everything to go. Grann’s new book is called Killers of the Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. As I read up on the book ahead of time, what I couldn’t believe is that the book’s events took place not only right in my own backyard – the Osage Nation is maybe 30 miles from my house – but that I’ve been researching the same time period for a couple of years and have never run across any mention of this event.

If the name David Grann sounds familiar, it might be because he’s a writer for The New Yorker. It might also be because he wrote a little book called The Lost City of Z, which was recently made into a movie with Brad Pitt.

Killers of the Flower Moon is broken into three parts. Part 1 focuses on the early days of the Osage Nation, including the discovery of oil on their lands, and the first murders. Part 2 focuses on the story of Tom White, the FBI agent assigned to solve the crimes, and his investigations. Part 3 is David Grann’s story of finding out about the murders, his research, the questions he still has, and his own suspicions.

OSAGE_COUNTyThe Osage Murders are a little-talked about event in Oklahoma history. During the years 1921 – 1925, at least twenty-four wealthy members of the Osage tribe, as well as whites who were trying to help, were brutally murdered. But Grann thinks the murders began much earlier, and involved “scores, if not hundreds” more murders than the twenty-four officially acknowledged. Why were they murdered? One word:  money. In the early 1900s, there was an oil boom throughout northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas. Tiny ‘boom towns’ popped up everywhere, sometimes within just three or five miles of each other.  And nowhere was the oil boom bigger than in the Osage Nation.

Each member of the tribe had headrights – the profits from the wells – and most of those headrights made hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Per capita, they were the wealthiest people in America. The owned huge mansions, the best cars (according to legend, families owned up to 11 cars each!), and even had white servants. Maria Tallchief, the first prima ballerina in America, was Osage.

And then the murders began.

Wealthy Osage were being poisoned, shot, and simply disappeared right and left – and those who would have talked about the murders were also killed. After local investigations led nowhere, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover sent in Agent Tom White to put together a task force to investigate and solve the crimes.

Osage_murders_9

Document from one of the murder trials – held by the Oklahoma Historical Society. By Rmosmittens – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47663712

As a historian, I’m always fascinated by the research end of things. Grann said he first learned about the Osage Murders by accident. He took a trip to Pawhuska, to the Osage Nation Museum, where he saw a huge panoramic photograph of the people of the area – with one corner cut out. That corner, he was told, contained a photo of “the devil” – the man who most believe orchestrated and perpetrated most of the murders.

Grann began to research in earnest, spending years in archives, libraries, and courts. He found, as have most writers and historians, that while there were enough primary sources to work with, they didn’t answer all his questions. The things he most wanted were the very things that had been destroyed or lost over the years. In fact, last Thursday, Grann admitted that this was the hardest book he’s ever worked on. He spent weeks at the National Archives in Fort Worth and other places, digging through tribal records. He sought FBI files. He sought out descendants of both the victims and the murderers – though, as he says, sometimes they were one and the same. For him, this was never a case of ‘this story needs to be told;’ it was always a case of ‘can this story be told?”

Killers of the Flower Moon takes an even keel – you can senses Grann’s eagerness to discover the truth, and his frustration when he can’t, especially in the last section. But a true journalist, he never inserts his own views in the first two sections. Even in the third section, which he writes from his ow perspective, he holds back. He does make it clear that he thinks the FBI screwed up. But he doesn’t level accusations, just presents the information as he’s found it, and leaves it to the reader to decide.

It’s well-written and fast paced, and I enjoyed it a great deal. I certainly am floored that I’ve never heard of these murders before. However, as a historian, I came away feeling that it was ‘History Lite.’ This is a book of popular history, meant for the masses. As such, it’s a great introduction to this time period, the history surrounding the murders, and the Osage themselves. If you’re looking for a true historical account, you’ll be a bit disappointed. There’s no footnotes and no proper end notes. I wish Grann had used a historian to help him with citations, because anyone seeking to follow his sources are going to have a tough time of it.

Still. As someone who has also spent years chasing leads and sources and knows deep down that they may never find the answers to a historic cold case, I understand how difficult this book must have been for Grann to research and write, and I think he did a good job with an introduction to the subject.

Now it’s up to the historians to follow his trail and tell even more of the story.

 

Slate.com – Review of Killers of the Flower Moon – http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/05/killers_of_the_flower_moon_by_david_grann_reviewed.html

An article on Atlas Obscura written by Grann about his research – http://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/osage-murders-photos-killers-of-flower-moon

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