What Happened?

Every writer does research. How else could Dotti Enderle write so convincingly in CROSSWIRE about the Texas drought of 1883? Or, Sarah DeFord Williams about the 1918 influenza epidemic in PALACE BEAUTIFUL? (And, how, exactly, did Conrad Wesselhoeft research vodka-filled frozen grapes for ADIOS, NIRVANA?!) Writers of fiction and historical fiction awe me in the ways they infuse their novels with information without flaunting it.

As a nonfiction writer, I have the luxury of baring my facts. I thought this week, I’d explain how I gather them—and when I’ve had to give up on verifying a few of them, at least for a while.

My EMU Debut, WE HAVE A JOB: THE 1963 BIRMINGHAM CHILDREN’S MARCH, began as a five-page, 1000-word article for COBBLESTONE Magazine on music in the civil rights period.

Cobblestone, April 2008

To write the article, I read half-a-dozen books and some articles, and I got to listen to music. It was while researching that article that I learned an essential fact about a series of events that inspired me to write my first-ever book.

As a New-York-Times-reading, Huntley-Brinkley-watching high school senior in 1963, I thought I knew about these events. What I recalled was that black people marched through downtown Birmingham to demand integration, and, in retaliation, the authorities, particularly the racist commissioner of public safety named Bull Connor, turned powerful hoses on the demonstrators, rolling them down the street, and let German shepherd K-9s rip off their clothes and bite into their stomachs and legs.

Statue of Monitor hose

That’s accurate, as far as it goes. The teeny, tiny fact I was unaware of until I wrote the article was that all the marchers—all 3,000 to 4,000 of them—were school children.

So, I decided to look into it.

First, I read most of a 900-page Pulitzer-Prize winning book, which is the middle of a three-volume set on civil rights by Taylor Branch. Then, I read a 600-page Pulitzer-Prize winner by Diane McWhorter, who was a sixth-grader in Birmingham in 1963. Then, another 300-page book on Birmingham by Glenn Eskew and much of a 700-pager by David Halberstam on children’s involvement in civil rights.

But for Birmingham

Then, transcripts of two-dozen interviews conducted by the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute with people who had marched. Then, I interviewed some marchers myself. Then, I went to Birmingham—three times. Then…

My eight-page bibliography contains entries for 54 books, 46 personal interviews, 30 transcripts, five families’ papers plus the Bull Connor papers, many dozens of newspaper and magazine articles, six films, multiple websites, three recordings, and a partridge in a pear tree. And, that doesn’t include the photo research, the file for which, including photos, exceeds 150 pages. The current draft of the book contains 606 footnotes, and I’m still chasing down citations.

It’s because of all the research this book has entailed that, when I give presentations to other writers of nonfiction for kids I say, “You don’t have to write what you know about. Write what you want to learn about.” My husband says I should get a PhD for this book. But, who needs a PhD after writing a kids’ book? It’s a comedown.

Doing research, I met my heroes—grown-ups who, as teenagers and even younger kids, defied laws, customs, dogs, hoses, and jail to save their families and their futures. One told me how reading about Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednigo in Sunday school “prepared us to meet a mighty enemy without fear.” Another said the first time (of many) that she heard Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., speak, she knew he was “God-sent.” A third confided that, after the marchers won a lawsuit against the city, waving an American flag “restored my faith.”

Along the way, I also learned not only that the youngest marcher was only nine years old but also that she carried a game, Operation, with her so she’d have something to play with during her week in jail. I now know that, when kids went to sit-in at the white waiting room of the segregated train station, they called the act “going clean-sided;” the name says it all. I know that, 48 years ago, the Birmingham jails could hold 1,205 prisoners. These details matter, and, early next year, my readers will know why.

After all this, how could I give up on verifying a few facts, at least for a while?

Our memories can be a combination of sketchy and confident. This is especially so when events were emotion-packed and occurred nearly half-a-century ago. One man remembers a moving conversation he had with Dr. King at a particular time and place; but the books I read put Dr. King elsewhere at that moment. A woman knows she marched with a small group of friends one day—the day that news reports numbered the marchers at nearly a thousand.

What does a writer do when the very people who made history sometimes make it hard to know what happened? My approach is to do a lot of research. And, then, a lot more. And, then, like other nonfiction writers who argue with the past, I use my judgment.

History is facts. History is also stories. I focus on where these merge, and I’m relieved I don’t have to submerge them. As I say, I’m awed by my EMLA siblings who do that so beautifully.


by | April 11, 2011 · 12:01 am

19 responses to “What Happened?

  1. Sarah

    I love research, too. Researching the flu epidemic of 1918 was one of my favorite–and the most disturbing–part of writing Palace Beautiful. This was a very interesting article. Thanks!



    • I wondered about that reading Palace Beautiful, Sarah. Did you look at specific records of death rates, etc. for Salt Lake City before you wrote it? The course of the illness in the girl’s family seemed very authentic in the way she recorded it in her diary; I wondered if you used eyewitness or first hand accounts in your research.


  2. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    Cynthia—I also love your posts. They are entertaining and I always learn something, too. I did not know that ALL of the marchers were children. The girl bringing the Operation game is so poignant. I think that’s something that other children would really pause on and roll around in their heads. Planning for jail–the juxtaposition of being resigned yet determined and brave. Stunning, really.

    I’m in *awe* of your research! I’m so very happy that there are writers who do it–and do it as well as you do. I’ll be getting my copy of BIRMINGHAM the second it’s available. I have to admit, though, that it relieves me to know I’ll always be a fiction girl—I just make things up!


  3. Mike Jung

    Wonderful post, Cynthia! I’m in awe both of the original event’s participants and of your tireless work to bring their courage to life on the page.


    • Cynthia Levinson

      Thanks, Mike. It’s truly been an honor to work with them. At some point, I’m going to get up the nerve to ask them why they decided to trust me.


  4. This was really interesting. I’m an organization nut (meaning that I’m interested in it, not that I’m necessarily any GOOD at it) and I’d love to hear how you organized and kept track of the incredible amount of research you did. The book I’m working on is fiction but it’s involved a good amount of research, and one of the many headaches along the way was realizing a tidbit I read somewhere was actually pertinent to the story, but I hadn’t realized it would be when I first encountered it, and so I had to dig through my piles of articles and books and saved web links in an effort to find it again. (And then sometimes when I do find it I reread the piece and think “Huh. Not as helpful as I thought that was going to be.”) Whenever that happens I always feel like if I’d done a better job of organizing my research to begin with it would be easier to relocate things.


    • Cynthia Levinson

      Hi, Jenn. Thanks for checking in. I have vowed to be more organized next time because I do exactly what you do–lose track of sources, remain convinced that a great quote or statistic was on the odd-numbered page of a particular book when it turns out to be on a website, etc. I started by asking a friend who writes for the New Yorker, which is famous for its fact-checking, how he organizes his material. He said he uses old-fashioned notecards. I started doing that but they got to be so voluminous and cross-referenced, that I stopped. What I should have done–and will do if there’s another project of this size–is buy a software program, of which there are several, that help file and coordinate text, image, web, and other sources. Even that might not have helped me as much as it would next time because, as a newbie, I wasn’t aware of how much I needed to cite. I now wish I had footnotes for every couple of words within sentences!


  5. Wow, Cynthia, I knew you’d been through a lot of research–but hearing it tallied like this makes it even more impressive!


    • Cynthia Levinson

      The unnerving part is that Kathy said this amount of research is typical for middle-grade non-fiction! I have to wonder if I can ever do this again. Well, there is the topic you and I have been talking about…


  6. I love that you got to do some hands on, primary source research, looking at archives, family papers, and even doing interviews yourself. I do hope you will think about sending your actual interview transcripts to an archive somewhere, like in a museum or library in Birmingham, where others can use them in the future (that’s the historical/anthropological researcher side of me talking–I have worked in many museums and can tell you that those kinds of archival resources are such a treasure!)

    I think the research piece is one of the reasons I write historical fiction–I love doing the research. One thing I had to do for my novel was figure out what everyday household items cost in 1901, so I spent hours reading the ads for canned goods, shoes, buckets, mops, and dolls in old newspapers on microfilm at my local library. Fun, but serious eye strain before I finished!

    One thing I love about historical research is when things seem to match up miraculously. Sometimes I find that detail that makes everything fall perfectly into place, and I didn’t even know I was looking for it. Did you have any of those sorts of moments working on this book?


  7. I do a whole civil rights movement unit for my 6th graders. Come to my class and tell us all you know!


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  9. Bravo, Cynthia, for taking this on in such a big way. The world can not know enough about this period in our history for my liking. I remember the riots in the aftermath of Dr. King’s death, and the brutal violence that happened in the town next to mine. We were the cookies and milk crowd…and boy, how all that changed overnight. It was a seam in our history, which gave birth to opportunities that should have been there all along. How grateful I am and always have been for MLK! A dream is a powerful thing!
    I can’t wait to read your full text. Thanks for your hard work. Authenticity and the stories behind the stories are the meat and potatoes of a fabulous book!


    • Cynthia Levinson

      Thanks so much, Gael, for following our blog and for your support. I love your description of this period being a “seam in our history.” Have you written about this time, also? (And, can you tell me what town you lived in?)


      • Cynthia, I lived in South Plainfield, NJ, right next to Plainfield. I have not written about this, but boy have I thought about it an awful lot. After I read your piece, I googled a policeman, Officer Gleason, who lost his life in the midst of the mob violence that occurred during the riots back then. There’s a lot of fodder there, that’s for sure. His daughter has held onto all the court documents and every scrap of paper her mother kept on the case. Plainfield, for the most part, has never recovered from those times.


  10. Cynthia Levinson

    Gael, the anniversary of Ft. Sumter that’s been in the news recently reminds me of the long tentacles of our history. While the race riots may seem far in the past to young people, their reverberations continue to resonate. It’s moving that Officer Gleason’s family retains the records of his tragic death. Thank you for sharing this.


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