Sept. 20, 2020: The Power of Primary Documents
One of the assignments I have been grading this week for the college class I teach, is a reflection on the reading of excerpts of the writings of Oluadah Equine, a slave in the Caribbean in the mid 1700s. My students' writings are filled with heartfelt and raw emotions that I am not sure would have been evoked had they read a simple textbook summary of this time and place.
As an author of historical fiction middle grades novels, historical research is a huge part of my writing process. As a teacher of Gifted Elementary School students, teaching the research process is a major learning goal. And as an adjunct professor of Social Studies at a major university, the study of history is forefront in my planning and preparation.
It is through these roles that I have discovered the power of primary documents when digging into historical events. I not only use them routinely, but have presented at both teacher and writing conferences on the power of these amazing resources.
Primary documents are defined as anything created by the person who is/has experienced the event or situation. This might be diary or journal entries, photographs, essays, articles, maps, or diagrams. Any artifact created or made during the time period being researched is a primary source. And these provide such a deeper understanding of history than the typical secondary sources.
That is not to say that we should disregard secondary sources. They are a vital part of any type of historical research. Secondary sources will often offer the big picture perspective while primary sources typically do not. But knowing when and how to order research and sources can make a real difference. While authors develop their own style and approach to research, sometimes reading about how other authors work can help us to refine how we approach the process.
I use a simple three-step process:
- Step 1: Go Broad and Wide
o This requires focusing on secondary sources- textbooks, books, articles. Anything that focuses on the wide topic or time period. For example WWII. Or 9/11. Or the Titanic.
o The purpose of this step is to build up a great foundation of background knowledge. You may never use the information in your actual manuscript, but the more you immerse yourself in that time period, the more authentic the writing sounds.
o Read. Read. Read. Or watch documentaries on this era. Anything and everything. You want to soak up everything you can about this time period.
o This stage can even include reading other historical fiction pieces of work IF you know the author uses meticulous research.
- Step 2- Now Narrow Your Focus
o Now you need to start honing in on the specifics of your book idea. A specific location or point of view. Is it France in WWII? Captains of boats? Firefighters?
o This stage also mainly focuses on secondary sources. Perhaps you can find an academic paper that focuses on your topic. Books with a narrower, and therefore deeper focus.
o If your first stage research involved reading historical fiction, this is when you want to corroborate or fact-check any details you gleaned from those books.
o During this stage I begin to take notes. The notes may be general informational things, like the names of historical figures I may end up sprinkling in the novel, or they may be more specific- like something I want to braid into the storyline.
o This step involves more deliberate reading. And again- note-taking and fact-checking is critical.
- Step 3: Dig Deep
o This is when those primary documents become invaluable. These are the documents that allow you to truly find out what those who were there, thought and felt. It allows you to get into the minds of your potential characters. It allows you to immerse yourself in the time period or event.
o The information gathered at this stage helps you create those realistic characters, and authentic situations, and believable dialogue.
o During this stage, my research notes and story outline begin to gel.
The research stage typically does not end when you begin drafting. It is during the drafting of your story that additional historical questions surface that also must be addressed. For me, in order to keep the flow of my drafting, I usually just record these questions, and mark the place in the draft and continue writing. It is during the first major revision that I take the time to do additional research and fill in those gaps and holes.
Some of my favorite sources for historical documents are:
- Historical Societies
- Humanities Centers
- University History Departments
- Historical Libraries
- The Library of Congress
While reading historical fiction can be an experience in time-travel, so can researching and writing this genre!