I have a confession to make.
I love research. I was a history minor at the University of Nebraska and talk about getting a masters in history. Yeah, I know. In all my spare time, I’ll start working on it. My husband looks cross-eyed at me, too, when I mention it. He thinks a law degree should be sufficient. 🙂
Here are a few things I’ve learned as I research small portions of homeland history.
1) Look for local historical museums. The Lincoln County Historical Museum had a small exhibit on the Canteen. Last December, the curator opened it for me, and it was great to be able to see pictures and read first-person accounts I hadn’t found anywhere else. These local museums can be incredible repositories of information on these smaller stories in history. Brokow or Ambrose might give them a footnote, but a local curator will invest time and energy into preserving the history.
2) Keep your eyes open for books published by state museums and historical societies. I have found a phenomenal book written by the curator of the Ft. Robinson museum. In it he has three chapters devoted to the time period I’m writing about. Those chapters are chock full of details and information it would be hard to compile individually. I’ve also been able to ask him for additional information that wasn’t in the book without wasting his time.
3) Don’t forget to visit the places you write about if possible. Yes, I lived in North Platte for six years and get back at least twice a year now, but last year I did not turn in the complete manuscript of Canteen Dreams until I had spent time over Christmas walking around downtown and the key sites. I will do the same thing with the Fort Robinson and Camp Atlanta books if they are purchased. Photos can tell us a lot, but at some point you have to go see the site, smell the scents, notice the weather, etc. Those are the details that can make a place come alive. If you can’t go, then check your library for videos of the location. Then you can at least see and hear the location.
4) Don’t forget the local libraries. Local libraries often have microfiche of the hometown newspaper/s. From spending a couple hours at the North Platte library, I found names of stores that were downtown in 1941; the price of groceries, clothes, gas, automobiles; found articles about the creation and early operation of the Canteen, rationing, etc.; and other background information. I also was able to locate the name of a school that my heroine worked at.
5) Look for organizations that are preserving the history of various organizations. My historicals will all take place during World War Two. As a result, I’ve contacted the National Archives, the Library of Congress, and various military museums for more information on details. I never got a good answer on when families who lost a son in the Pearl Harbor attack would have been notified. For that I had to combine information from the services with a search in the local newspapers.
6) Librarians and curators like to answer questions from people who are interested in a part of their history. Not everyone gets back to me, but most do. So I’ve learned it doesn’t hurt to ask.
7) Finally, something new I’m trying is contacting the history departments at local universities and colleges to see if any of the professors or graduate students are working in the area I’m interested in. I’ll let you know how that works out.
Bottomline, getting the history right can be work. But in my mind it’s worth it. Why? Because I know whoever reads my books will receive the historical framework as accurately as I can write it — without bogging them down in the details. At the same time, I get the joy of chasing down the details that make the story come alive in my mind. And hopefully in yours, when you read the book.