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.
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.
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.
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.