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The Writing Life: Researching History

by Sherri Burr


Researching people and events can be one of a writer’s greatest challenges. The further back you travel in time, the less likely you are to find people with direct connections to interview about the lives of particular individuals. Writers are thus left to forage out documentary information to compile their stories and analysis from multiple sources.

In 2015, I was blessed to receive a fellowship at Monticello, the home of President Thomas Jefferson, which is now run by a foundation dedicated to preserving his role in history. If Jefferson once owned 200 slaves who labored for his happiness, as he once proclaimed, his Monticello estate now employs 300 individuals who toil for his immortality. Fellows are provided housing on the grounds Jefferson once owned, and given a badge granting after-hours access to a shared office within the Jefferson Library.

After receiving a tour of the library I immediately researched their collection and found thirty books related to my topic on the Free Blacks of Virginia. My fellowship goal was to find enough material to support my book and the chapter I envisioned dedicating to Jefferson’s connections to Free Blacks.

What I knew before arriving at Monticello could be described in three general categories. First, as a lawyer Jefferson had represented individuals seeking freedom. Second, as someone who was frequently cash strapped, Jefferson had borrowed money from Free Blacks and some of his slaves. And third, he had formally or informally freed ten individuals either during his lifetime or by the codicil to his will, and that all of these individuals had connections to Sally Hemings. My goal was to document what I previously knew and create an analytic framework.

The documentation came more easily than expected as I listened to the full audiobook version of The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon-Reed. This Harvard professor had won a Pulitzer Prize for her exhaustive research about one family whose lives intersected with Jefferson in ways that were good and bad. Many times he repaid the money he borrowed from his Hemings slaves. And he informally freed two of Sally Hemings’ children, and then formally freed her last two sons and arranged for Sally to go live with them. The discussion of one freedom suit Jefferson lost as an attorney was illustrative of his personality because he then gave the client money, instead of collecting fees, and the client freed himself by running away.

Gordon-Reed’s book presented these issues so well that I decided to expand my topic. After talking to another Monticello fellow from The Netherlands, who was studying Jefferson’s intellectual life, I contemplated Jefferson’s cognitive dissonance about blacks, particularly how he said and wrote one thing (“slavery is an abomination”) while doing another (owning and purchasing slaves). I shared my idea with a Jefferson Librarian whose face dropped as I spoke. “We all know T.J. was wrong,” she said, and encouraged me to expand.

I visited the Library of Virginia in Richmond to peruse documents on microfiche, and the archives of Virginia State University in Petersburg. In between conducting this detailed study work, which involved long hours reviewing manuscripts in cursive writing, I toured Jamestown, Colonial Williamsburg, and the homes of Virginia presidents. It was the slavery tours at the homes of Presidents Madison and Monroe that led to the formation of another idea. I decided to expand the chapter originally planned to focus on Jefferson to include Washington, Madison, Monroe and John Tyler, all of whom were born and raised in Virginia.

Virginia gave our country five of its first ten presidents, all of whom had declared slavery evil while owning slaves. As I drove into the parking lot at Sherwood Forrest, the home of the country’s tenth president, John Tyler, I noticed my car was alone. An hour and forty-five minutes into the conversation with the guide, I asked if he had to prepare for his next tour and he replied, “That’s next week.” While Jefferson’s Monticello receives approximately 700,000 visitors a year, Tyler’s Sherwood Forest was explored by very few. It was then I realized that I had found a history topic to research and write about that was in less-charted territory.

I urge writers to think of researching history as the equivalent of working on a jigsaw puzzle with neither a picture nor boundary pieces. Begin with an idea of what the chapter or book might become. As you acquire more data, be open to expanding your idea until you find what finally clicks.

A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well BeingSherri Burr is the Regents’ Professor of Law at the University of New Mexico School of Law where she teaches Entertainment Law, Intellectual Property Law, and Art Law. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University, and the Yale Law School, she has authored or co-authored 20 books, including A Short and Happy Guide to Financial Well-Being (West Academic, 2014). Sherri is a long-time member of SouthWest Writers as well as the New Mexico Press Women’s Association.

The Challenges of Writing Historical Fiction

by Chris Eboch


Hot trends may come and go, but for some writers and readers, nothing takes the place of great historical fiction. So in honor of Black History Month (February) and Women’s History Month (March) let’s look at this enduring genre. It can explore any period, from ancient—even prehistoric—times, to recent decades (that’s right, your childhood is now historical). The best books let readers explore a fascinating time in the past, through a character who appeals to modern tastes.

Regardless of the time period, historical fiction requires heavy research, in books, online, at museums and through interviews. D. Anne Love has published seven historical novels for young people, including The Puppeteer’s Apprentice and Semiprecious. “Although the former is set in medieval England and the latter in Oklahoma and Texas in 1960, my research process for both books was similar. I read as many primary sources (diaries, letters, journals) as possible, and followed up with other books on the topic. I conducted much of my research online, but I also used libraries for hard to find materials. For Three Against the Tide, a Civil War novel set in Charleston, South Carolina, I visited the area five times, taking photos, notes, and visiting local libraries and historical societies.”

With all this research, authors must be organized. Albuquerque author Lois Ruby (Shanghai Shadows), says, “I take extensive notes, each fact on a separate index card, all arranged by detailed subject. I do about two years of research before I even begin writing, then recheck for details after the writing is underway.”

By nature, historical fiction writers love research and the minutia of the past. But resist the urge to include every fascinating detail. Patricia Curtis Pfitsch, author of Riding the Flume, says, “I read my work aloud and I tune my ear to anything that sounds too ‘teacherly.’ I keep reminding myself that it’s not nonfiction. It’s okay if the readers don’t learn everything I learned.”

Mary Ann Rodman, author of Yankee Girl, agrees. “Sometimes it’s hard to keep from showing off all that research you did! For me, a detail only works if it adds to the story in some significant way. If I am unsure, I ask myself ‘Would I include a comparable detail, if this were a contemporary story?’”

The People of the Past
Character is key in bringing stories to life, and in making the past appeal to today’s readers. Love notes that, “I try to show young readers that although we may be separated by hundreds of years from the characters in books, their emotions, goals, struggles, and dreams are very much like our own.”

Historical characters must be appealing, yet believable for their time. “I have to watch myself carefully for ‘thought anachronisms,’” Rodman says. “I like strong, feisty female characters, but if you are going to have one in a book that takes place in the pre-feminist world, you better have a good reason for her behavior.” Changing social standards produce another challenge. Rodman adds, “It is really hard to write characters who have what are today considered racist or sexist beliefs (but were widely accepted in their time) and make them likable…or at least not villains. I hope that my books show the complexity of events that shaped the way we live in twenty-first-century America.”

Character authenticity is one of the big challenges of historical fiction, but authors risk confusing readers if the language is too authentic. Doris Gwaltney suggests, “In some instances, as in my Elizabethan novel, Shakespeare’s Sister, the language had to be altered a bit for today’s readers.” She kept the basic language clear, and then “I threw in a few words of the period to create the flavor of the time.”

To Market
Like the authors who write it, the editors who publish historical fiction tend to love the genre. Dianne Hess, Executive Editor at Scholastic Press, says, “We learn from the past. History repeats itself when we are unaware of it. I also feel that we appreciate the value of life when we see it as a continuum.” However, she notes, “As an editor, I’m charged with publishing books that will make money. We need to find books that will have a significant readership.”

An unusual setting may attract attention, but the story comes first. According to Jennifer Wingertzahn, Editor at Clarion Books, “More important than time period or location, I feel, is a fresh and unique story. It’s not enough to simply set a story against an exciting historical backdrop—readers want depth, layering, texture, and vivid characterizations.”

The path to great historical fiction is clear: A spark of inspiration, months of research, carefully chosen details to bring the setting to life, and a dynamic character who appeals to today’s readers, while expressing the differences of her time. With a little luck, the end result is a book that will last long beyond modern trends.

BanditsPeak150Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her Workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at

This article was originally published as “The Stories of History” in the February 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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