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On January 20th 2009, I had the pleasure of speaking to the lovely ladies of Fredericksburg's Kappa Delta Gamma (Beta Eta Chapter), a sorority of retired educators. The event was held in the conference room at the new Heritage Center in the Maury Commons. The evening began with a wonderful tour of the Center's extensive archive collection of historical documents. Most impressive is their collection of local slave documentation, as well as the Chancellor family's papers. Following the tour, I gave a 25 minute talk on my process for historical research and writing. A Q&A session followed.

NOTE: I have also added some lessons learned and exercises that may benefit new writers at the end of this transcript.


Tips for historical research and writing
(BONUS lessons-learned and writing exercises)

Good evening ladies, it is certainly an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to speak to you tonight. I'd like to thank Ms. Becky Guy for her gracious invitation, all of you for your warm reception, and I certainly hope that my presentation will be worthy of your attention. This is a first for me.

Now there is no doubt that I have been very blessed over the last few years with having the opportunity to speak on a wide variety of subjects at universities, museums, churches, and of course now a sorority. Usually I am lecturing on one of my books, or a special program that I developed for the occasion; tonight however, Becky has asked me to talk a little about the mind-set involved with researching and writing these materials.

More specifically, how I went about researching and writing one of my recent books on Fredericksburg's historic churches. Now this request posed a great challenge for me as it forced me to examine how I do what I do. So tonight, I'd like to share some brief insights into my work, which is by no means the only process and I hope that you will find something that may help in your own writing endeavors. I promise I won't talk too long as I would love to take your questions. And I'll stay as long as you like.

Please let me start by saying that I had absolutely no intention of writing this book. In fact, I will have 6 (maybe 7) books out by the end of this year and this one in particular, which was my 4th, was the first time that a publisher had contacted me first. All of my previous books were completely written and edited. Then the manuscripts were shopped around. This was a completely new approach to me.

At the time that The History Press had first queried me in regards to doing a regional title, my previous books were doing fairly well, and another manuscript was receiving excellent feedback from several publishers. My freelancing career had spread over into the magazine genre, and I was finally taking on larger newspaper articles and cover stories. I started accepting more regular speaking engagements, and I was even doing guest spots on Voice America radio.

With a full-time job, and my wife expecting our fourth child, you could say that my cup runneth over, and that my plate was more than full. Frankly, starting another book at that point in my life was the furthest notion from my mind. All that changed however, after one of The History Press' Commissioning Editors contacted me following a reference from Ms. Gwen Woolf who is my mentor and my editor at The Free Lance-Star. Immediately their enthusiasm and total openness to the possibilities of a regional project impressed me.

And it is not very often that a publisher of this caliber asks an author as relatively new as I am what he would like to write about. The answer for me was obvious, as I had entertained doing a mainstream, or 'secular history' on a local scale. A study of our area's landmark churches during the Civil War and Reconstruction period was a perfect subject matter for a Christian historian like myself, whose previous books had all been religiously influenced.

(On a side-note, I am very proud to say that I have recently signed with The History Press again to produce a book for the new American Chronicles Series. It will be called "Campfires at the Crossroads: Confederate Encampments in Spotsylvania County.")

I typed up a very detailed proposal and my rep at THP pitched the idea to the board and it received some excellent feedback. Still, I wasn't sure if a regional piece would be met with any enthusiasm outside of our conversations. Fortunately my trepidation was put aside after I was able to acquire the support of each of the landmark church's congregations as well as John Hennessy's validation. John of course is with the National Park Service and their opinion really matters to me.

It was John in fact; who told me that a study of our historic churches, especially when incorporating both the white and black perspectives during the Reconstruction period, would be a rich and welcome topic. This was the genesis of "Historic Churches of Fredericksburg: Houses of the Holy."

National Park Historian Eric Mink also expressed an endorsement of the subject matter and both men were extremely helpful in directing me through the collection of bound volumes, which are kept at the NPS offices in the magnificent Chatham Manor. When you have this many wonderful people supporting you, it's impossible to say 'no,' the next thing I knew, I was signing a contract and meeting with archivists.

I made a point to mention each and every one of these people in the back of this book, as it is only through their generosity that I was able to write it. Becky of course was a great help to me. Everyone I worked with contributed information and insights that I would not have been able to obtain anywhere else. THEY are the reason why this book came out a well as it did. Not me.

I'm sure you'll agree that one of the best sources of both primary and secondary reference is of course the National Park's archives. We are so blessed to live where we live as they are an invaluable resource for reference, photography, and illustration files.

It also pays to be a historian in the 21st century. I say this as their entire catalog has been entered into a searchable database. Each item in their bound volumes has a series of keyword designators and a short abstract telling you what the item includes. By typing in a keyword, such as "churches" it provides a PDF document (Adobe Acrobat File) with all of the volumes on file and associated information featuring the word "churches."

Now what this enabled us to do in mere seconds is identify 44 volumes that held potentially usable reference material and sources. It would take months to do that by hand. Each item with the word "churches" in it was listed by vol. number, section number, page and chapter number, and a brief description outlined the major topics. I then told the NPS guys which ones I needed and they pulled them for me to research. I spent days up at Chatham, copying and photocopying page - after page - after page of documents and memoirs, recollections, and other unpublished sources. The pile that I walked away with was staggering.

Research of course is only step one: obtaining reference. But how do you manage it - especially when you end up with everything from old newspaper clippings and diary pages - to official reports and meeting minutes?

Organization is a top-priority. For "Houses of the Holy", each church had its own folder with a contents and index. As I gathered more and more sources, books, clippings, photos, contacts, and archived materials, they all went into the folders. By the time I was done I had a stack of folders bursting at the seams with reference. This kept everything categorized and organized for me as I wrote each church's section separately. It also helped when it came time to credit people and I referred to these sources for the bibliography.

What is extra nice is that I now have an extensive collection of prepared materials that I can refer to again and again for future projects. So through this one book, I now have sources for a dozen more projects. I would like to add that I simultaneously collected the data on Spotsylvania's churches and I am already prepared to draft a companion volume when the time comes.

Of course I also made a point to personally contact and meet with representatives from each of the churches. All of them were very gracious and I had the opportunity to sit down with historians and librarians in some cases who also provided me with copies of information.

Two rare gems that came out of this particular project were copies of all of the church's insurance claims petitioning the U.S. Government to pay for damages incurred during Yankee occupation and the subsequent battles. These documents contain the damage estimates, associated govt. inquiries, and the local interviews that were held.

The other gem was copies of the rolls for Shiloh Baptist (Old Site) that recorded the date that the African-American members were dismissed when the Baptist church split into separate white and black denominations.

Without the firsthand assistance and insights of members of each church's congregation, this book would have been one-dimensional and stale in my opinion. They provided me with materials that were not available anywhere else. I also used (sparingly) some previously published church books, commemorative programs, sermons, and timelines that are available on most of the church's official websites.

The Internet of course has opened up a whole new world to historians, but it must be used with caution. We can now get access to tons of cyber information, but we must always keep in mind that the facts on the Internet are only as good as the person who posted them. Therefore I always compare multiple sources whenever possible. And I tell my kids that Google is NOT the end all. It is a great tool - but it does not provide all of the answers.

So research is THE most important aspect of my creative process. It's the brick in the foundation of my work. And with the assistance of our National Park Service, which is the BEST in the country, I was able to assemble a priceless library of my own and in turn share it with my readers.

The focus of this book was rooted in a much broader perspective and I intentionally entered this unique project knowing that:

1. I knew very little ahead of time about the subject.

2. I had to compose something original and inclusive.

3. I had to get feedback and fact checks from the experts.

I actually went through 2 major rewrites after completing the manuscript due to the critical feedback that I got from my friends at the National Park Service. It created more work, but it also made the book so much more well-rounded. It forced me to grow as a writer. John Hennessy's critiques and in some cases corrections, helped me to paint an accurate and unapologetic look at our town's legacy - especially in regards to race relations.

Many Southern historians who specialize in the history of the Confederacy, myself included, tend to approach this period in a 'bubble' of sorts. As a result, we often find ourselves writing strictly from the perspectives of the white-southern-secessionists. And although I maintain that it is extremely important to honor and acknowledge this aspect of our heritage, we also have to recognize that there were two other groups of our citizens sharing in the same wartime experience.

This would be the local Unionists and the free and slave African-American population. Therefore, there are actually three completely different perspectives to our areas' experience during the Civil War. Far too many times we only show one. With this book, I hoped to encompass all of that in order to present a complete narrative in regards to our landmark churches. Each one is just as important as the other and they all deserve to have their stories told.

I didn't shy away from the ugliness either. It was not my intent to paint a negative impression of any of these fine churches and I worked hard to include a balance. But I was also brutally honest when it was required. The sensitive nature of secession, state's rights, and the institution of slavery, as well as other racial tensions and injustices were acknowledged when applicable. Some of the verbiage that is used in this book, specifically when quoting slaves and/or overseer narratives contain obvious racial slurs. I decided to keep them in their entirety for historical accuracy and to illustrate period-speak.

Throughout this project I also discovered a distinct difference in how the white and black churches viewed the War Between the States for obvious reasons. The whites in many cases were either benign about slavery or practiced paternalism over the black population. In some cases conflicting stories were presented while giving equal weight to both sides. It was my hope that by sharing these accounts, however uncomfortable at times they may be, I would pay tribute to the congregations of today whose ancestors survived the 'Great Divide' to form a much stronger community.

Why? Because to me this is not just a story about our city's churches during the Civil War. It is a story about faith under fire, and the spiritual strength of these extraordinary houses of worship.

All of these churches witnessed some of the most significant events in our nation's history, and many of them hosted some of the most influential citizens who make our area's history worthy of remembering. Each one stands today as a testament to the generations of believers who built them, rebuilt them, and who have maintained them. This book is about their legacy.

I spent months researching these little-known tales of triumph and tragedy and tried to select the most interesting and/or inspiring pieces for the reader.

And I sincerely hope that my readers will enjoy these stories and share them with future generations. After all, that is precisely what we as writers - and as historians - and as Americans should do.

Thank you Ladies. I would love to take your questions.


ADDED: The following lessons-learned and writing exercises are quoted from a piece I contributed for FaithWriters.

Find YOUR inspiration.

When I do a speaking engagement for a local historical or heritage group, I always try to work in a part of my presentation based on memories. I show a slide of one of our local battlefield sites that I took on a beautiful sunny day. Then I cut to a shot taken after a battle, with bodies littering the exact spot I had just shown.

And I say this: "It's far too easy for us to look back today, especially here in our little piece of Central Virginia, known as the 'Crossroads of the Civil War,' and forget the carnage that took place here. People come from all over the world to tour our hallowed grounds. And when they get here, everything is perfect. The grass is neatly trimmed and the markers are polished. The freshly painted cannons are all lined up in neat rows. Yet they are standing in the 'shadow of death.' Can you imagine the stench of rotting corpses and animal carcasses, or the resultant proliferation of millions of flies surrounding them? Try to picture the nightmarish scenes that were witnessed by the townsfolk following the battle. So the next time that you find yourself touring one of these postcard-pretty places, remember that although our local National Parks appear romantic, the war that took place there was anything but that. Today this ground is beautiful, but the reason we hallow it was ugly."

Still in the middle of all this death and destruction, in the midst of all this ugliness were countless examples of God's glory. That is the reason why I write what I write.

Historical non-fiction requires a lot of research.

I use a wide-variety of materials. I study our local National Park's archives, historical society records, old newspapers and magazines. I have a large reference library in my house and I also use the Internet (cautiously). Over the years, I have developed a wide network of sources and friends who are usually gracious in sharing their contacts and information.

My background as a baseball historian also helps me, as the research that I did for Baseball-Almanac was extensive. I learned very early on to use many different sources and to verify accuracy. If 5 out of 7 sources said "X=Y," then I'd use it. If not, I'd either dig deeper, or go another way. In the historical genre, bad research and writing becomes sources for future pieces of bad research and writing. I made mistakes from time to time and readers let us know and we corrected them. Nobody is perfect, so strive for perfection, and be willing to admit your mistakes. Readers can be some of the best editors, especially baseball fanatics and Civil War buffs.

Another technique that I use is outlining. It helps me to see the overall structure of a project. It also helps me determine what sources are required, what visuals can accompany the piece, and what I need to do to accomplish my goal.

It's very easy as a writer to become egotistical.

First off: GET OVER YOURSELF. When you are just starting out, and writing for free, YOU make your own deadlines, YOU choose your own topics. YOU edit your own work. When you get picked up by a publication whether it is a website, newspaper, magazine, or book, YOU are no longer in charge. Chances are someone else with far more experience and qualifications will be selecting your topics, setting your deadlines, editing your copy etc. This is a shock at first. But I say listen to these people. THEY know what they are talking about. And if you work hard enough at it, you start to earn that control back a little at a time. Today, I pick my own features, pitch the ideas to the various newspaper, magazine, and book editors that I have a relationship with, and we collaborate. I learned that after doing years of assignments.

Second: THINK BEFORE YOU SPEAK. I'm a fairly active webmaster and blogger. I have been recognized in the industry for my websites and editorial postings and I am part of a thriving Civil War Blogger's Community that has been featured in magazines like North and South and Civil War Interactive. We all post about our various projects and interests and sometimes people can get personal and/or political. Unfortunately these tend to erupt into heated debates and sometimes even arguments. The reality of cyberspace is that once something is uploaded it can come back to haunt you in the future. Always try to think before you post something online. The Internet is a great tool, but it is also a repository for things you wish you could take back. I learned through my own mistakes that professionalism must always be maintained. You never know who will be at your next lecture or signing. Treat everyone with respect, even those who attack you online.

Determine what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. Play to your strengths, but never stop working on your weaknesses.

An editor once told me, that to be a truly good writer, you have to be able to write about the things you don't care about with the same passion and enthusiasm as the things you do. I took that advice to heart and decided to test myself. I wrote 1000 words on a topic that I really enjoyed and then another 1000 words on something in which I had no interest. I put them side-by-side and the difference in the quality of the pieces was startling. Clearly, I needed to work on looking at each and every piece individually and commit myself to giving it my best effort. Try it yourself.

Rememberů it will have your name on it.

Finally, remember to enjoy the process. Pursue it passionately, but also remember that someday it will become work. That is if your goal is to do this professionally. If so, then approach it like any other craft. Practice your skills. Educate yourself. Stay abreast of the industry. Make contacts and build a network. And once it becomes a job, it is no longer a hobby. Your feelings about it will change. Not necessarily in a bad way, but it will be looked at differently. It will be serious, and you will have to be serious doing it.

Your reputation is your greatest asset, but it can also be your downfall. Miss a few deadlines, or turn in something less-than-par and you can blemish your rep. Always do your best work and protect it. It's YOUR name on the by-line or cover, no one else's.

 

 

 


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