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Researching and Writing Regional History

 

Have you ever wondered where a writer obtains historical information or interviews? I began writing regional history long before the advent of the Internet as a feature writer for a weekly newspaper. Searching for the same facts today is much easier if we’re computer literate. Yet nothing beats contact with the people who have stories to share.

 

During the nine years I wrote for the newspaper, I must have interviewed hundreds of people. My main interest soon became the history of the area where I lived and worked. The editor gave me a page where I began an historical column which I’ve written in one form or another for twenty years. So I must modestly say that I’ve gotten pretty good at getting information out of people.

 

The first thing I learned was to write stories about the people who lived our history. It’s pretty easy to look up a bunch of facts, dates and place names and the like and put them down. Not so easy to tell the stories that will keep your readers coming back for more. So once a writer hears or reads about a specific happening, the next step is to find someone whose family history includes stories of that event. Take the lady who, when we talked about the Battle of Prairie Grove during the Civil War here in Arkansas, immediately remembered that her great-grandmother had told a story that from where they lived it sounded just like popcorn popping. She also told of a man who lived in a cave to keep from having to serve in the war, so he could care for his family who lived nearby. Such stories lend color to any tale about that battle.

 

For years I saved many interviews in the hopes the stories could one day be put into a book. And when that day finally came I  learned that having those stories simply wasn’t enough. I had to revisit all the places where my stories took place. Ten to twenty years can bring about a lot of change. So one entire summer my husband and I drove through four surrounding counties taking photographs that could be compared with old pictures we had and talking to folks in all the little settlements. I wanted some new stories that had never been published in any form.

 

It’s indeed handy to become a good hand at photography. Taking pictures isn’t enough, we have to learn composition as well. In today’s world with digital cameras, much of the work is done for us and what doesn’t work can usually be fixed in the computer. In my day, we took black and white photos that were then screened and developed in the dark room. I learned about composing my shots, focusing, using the proper f stops and watching for shadows that could ruin an otherwise good photo. Whether using film or a digital camera, it’s a good idea to take plenty of shots of your subject, for what looks okay on the small camera screen may not be so great when viewed the way it will appear in your book.

 

After we spent about four months traveling the area and recording stories, I realized that not all research can be done in the field.  A lot of research was done by poring through old books, periodicals, historical quarterlies and the like. The Internet often can’t compete with some of these written words.

 

 

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