Doing your homework

I received an excellent question from a blog reader the other day:

I’d be interested in how you went about doing your research for any background, setting for your work. I’ve had some essays published on family stories and in addition to talking to family members (sometimes the stories are different POV), I made sure that any historical or political and culture matters were also correct. What do you do?

First, good for you for being brave enough to write up your versions of your family stories. Too many of us think of family history as set in stone, doubtless due to the frequent repetition of family lore around the holiday dinner table. Sometimes, it feels as though Uncle Ernie has told the story of how he got his first job as a longshoreman so many times that everyone in North America must have heard it by now, right?

Actually, family stories are far more ephemeral than even the most fleeting joke bouncing its way via e-mail from workstation to workstation. At least the jokes are written down. Uncle Ernie may well have told that same story every day for the last thirty years, but the very fact that he has told it so often probably means that no one in the family has ever taken the time to write it. Thus, when Uncle Ernie is no longer able to tell it, the story may well pass out of family lore.

If you are hesitating about writing about your family, consider this: some day, it may be the only record left. Those telling little details of yesteryear may survive in your work alone.

Even academics now recognize that there is distinct historical value in personal and familial historical accounts. It has gone out of fashion to thank Marxists for anything, but in the 1960s, a group of Marxist social historians revolutionized the way scholars studied history: instead of concentrating upon monarchs, presidents, and huge social and economic movements, they started paying attention to how the ordinary person lived. Before, the day-to-day details were left to newspapers and novels to record, but now, your Uncle Ernie’s timeworn story might be just the piece of oral history evidence that allows a social historian to piece together the early days of the longshore union.

My questioner is already doing the most important thing: listening to her family members. Even if you have heard any given family anecdote five hundred times before, it is worth asking to hear it again – and, taking a page from the new social historian’s rulebook, asking pertinent questions.
It is also worth asking other members of the family and family friends to give their renditions of the story; you may be surprised at how different Aunt Rose’s view of events actually was.

To give those of you new to interviewing fair warning: Uncle Ernie may be thrilled at first that you are so interested in his life story, but he may well appreciate it less when you interrupt the flow of his story to ask follow-up questions. He may think you are doubting his word, especially when he learns you have also asked Aunt Rose for her version.

Here again, use the social historian’s methods, and treat your interview subject with care, for an angry Uncle Ernie may not only refuse to talk to you again, but also take some steps to dissuade Aunt Rose. Once the rumor is afoot in your family that you are going around shaking closets to dislodge well-concealed ghosts, you may find it rather hard to get the people you want to interview to talk to you, out of fear of offending the complaining relative. Tread with care.

The simplest way to sidestep issues of belief is to allow Uncle Ernie to tell the story uninterrupted once, making appreciative noises and taking copious notes on questions you would like to ask. Then tell him, “I love this story, but I’m going to be writing it for people who have never met you. I want to make sure that I capture your wonderful wit/incisive analysis/technique for loading boxes onto a ship accurately. Do you mind if I ask a bunch of very nit-picky questions?”

Few interviewees will respond with hostility to being told they are fascinating, but if Uncle Ernie says no, let it drop. Pay him the courtesy of asking if you can talk to him again later, even if you think he has told you every detail of his life in excruciating detail. Remember, by providing you with background information for your writing, he is doing you a favor. Respond accordingly, and make it clear that you are enjoying listening to him.

It would also be polite to ask him to recommend any other family members or old cronies who might be able to tell you more stories about the period or the event. Volunteer to take him to visit an old coworker he hasn’t seen since 1962, or for a walk along his old waterfront stomping grounds, so he can tell you stories as familiar environments prompt his memory. The more you can make your interviewee your partner in the research process, rather than merely a passive subject for your pen, the less likely you are to provoke a negative reaction to your snoopiness.

Try grouping together different combinations of speakers – and make sure you give each interviewee an opportunity to speak when no one else is listening but you. Aunt Rose may well have kept her opinions about certain aspects of the event you are researching to herself for the last fifty years; she probably will not just blurt out her reserved views in front of others.

If your interviewees will allow it, consider tape-recording these conversations. This may seem a tad professional for an informal family chat, but believe me, you will be happier if you do not rely upon your memory or your notes alone. First, you may not remember accurately: the shock of ever-quiet Aunt Rose’s revelation that she was a steamy chanteuse in a speakeasy may well throw your listening skills for a loop. Second, the most important detail revealed in any given conversation may not be immediately apparent. With a recording, you can always go back through the conversation again. Third, and most important for the sake of intra-family tranquility, you will have an easy, non-judgmental way to defend yourself if Aunt Rose later denies ever having told you about her days as a gangster’s moll.

Before you launch on your interviews, it is a good idea to read up on the period your writing will cover, both for background and so you can ask intelligent questions. Please don’t assume that you already know, even if the period was relatively recent. Pop culture has a way of distorting the life of the times.

You know how annoying it is when a movie about a period you know well fills the screen with nothing but clichés? As someone who was a teenager in the 1980s, it drives me nuts when crowd scenes set then (particularly when those scenes are set in high schools) will show Izod-shirted preppies chatting with guys with safety pins through their noses and mohawks: those two groups would have studiously avoided each other. Similarly, most films about the 1950s feature the same ten songs and every woman decked out in poodle skirts or Chanel couture; all to often, films purporting to depict Vietnam protests depict Abbie Hoffman arm-in-arm with Timothy Leary and flanked by Black Panthers, feminists, and if it’s an Oliver Stone film, a few pointlessly topless young women to signify bacchanalia. It is not how people who were there remember it.

It is equally annoying to someone being interviewed about his experiences when the interviewer’s notions of what life was like is primarily based upon the big movements and fads. Not everyone who lived in the 1920s had a raccoon coat, Charlestoned, or got drunk with Scott Fitzgerald; do be sensitive about implying that you interview subject should have. Traditionally, most fashions and the bulk of the fads have been beyond the financial reach of most people: I, for one, could not have afforded a pet rock when those were the rage.

Try to keep in mind that life during any period of history was complex, hard to reduce to universally-shared experiences. Be open to stories that buck the prevailing views. Grace Metalious’ PEYTON PLACE (1956) and William S. Burroughs’ NAKED LUNCH (1959) were written within a few years of each other, but no one could argue that they showed the same aspects of the 1950s.

My point is, your sense of any period will be better if you do not rely upon a single source to learn about it. Generally speaking, I would advise reading four or five history books and/or well-researched novels written during the period you are writing about (not just books SET in that period) for background. My long-ago academic training was as a political scientist, though, so my instinct is to research to the hilt. If you want to be really thorough, read books from the period with opposite political slants – what each side considered appalling should provide you with a wealth of socio-political detail. Ask Aunt Rose and Uncle Ernie what their favorite books were back then, and read them.

Of course, you should always check facts, particularly dates, which often become confused in the memory. A good history textbook or encyclopedia will help you here. I know many people swear that the Internet is the best and fastest way to gain information, but I would advise against relying upon it exclusively. There are very few controls, and even fewer truth monitors, governing who can post what. You do not know if the person who posted that very informative timeline on Abraham Lincoln (born 1242, died 1968?) was a genuinely credible history buff or someone with an oddly historically-based sense of humor. Double-check the facts, and keep records on where you obtained pertinent information.

If you are looking to check an obscure fact or are having trouble confirming a date, call your public library and ask the reference librarian for research guidance. The Seattle Public Library boasts a terrific Quick Information Line, where the nice operator will either look up odd facts for you or refer you to someone who can. I love this service – when I was writing a novel about a scholar who specialized in Eastern European studies, the Quick Information people found me (for free) an expert who happily talked to me for half an hour about common linguistic mistakes made by people in the early stages of learning Latvian, Lithuanian, and Estonian. It would have taken me months to find comparable information on my own – but there was my beloved city, stepping up to provide me with exactly what I needed.

This may seem like an awful lot of work for the sake of a few family anecdotes, but doing solid background research will help elevate your writing from the all-too-common temporal truisms and into the realm of the real. To a writer, there can be a more important praise from someone who lived through the incident she’s written than, “Oh, my, that feels so true!”

Thanks for the great question – and keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini