then you need to tour a slaughterhouse. Or, at least read a lot about slaughterhouses, what happened inside then and what became of the people who worked there. In his essay in “The Writers Chronicle,” Colson Whitehead suggests writing what you don’t know, otherwise, you’ll and up writing the same book over and cover. So, you probably don’t need a slaughterhouse career to craft a novel about them. Frankly, that’s the last place I want to work.
Many things fall into the category of research that makes writers sick. Researching the KKK for my novel in progress fits into that category. And yet, since I never belonged to the KKK, I need to find out what happened in their meetings or my scenes and descriptions won’t be correct. I could say, “who will know?” Well, I would know. So here’s a selection of KKK books you’ll find on Amazon if you go looking. Fortunately, I found what I needed on free sites and didn’t have to buy any of these.
In addition to those, older books have been captured by Google or reside in various libraries and archives. If you look on state-operated photo archives (such as Florida Memory), you’ll find photographs of KKK fliers, pamphlets, parades, and posters. I grew up in an area with an active KKK presence, so I have a sixth sense when it comes to tracking down the filth.
Looking at this shit is about like being forced to eat a food you detest, like turnips, for example. Do you eat the entire crock of turnips in one sitting, do you eat one bite every week smothered in something that disguises the taste, or do you say to hell with the turnips—or the KKK–and give up on your book? I think that historically accurate novels that mention the KKK are important to our understanding of the Jim Crow years of our past and (sadly) to the deluge of white supremacy groups we’re seeing around the country today.
When I was in high school, I got physically ill reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Later, I felt the same way when I read Hiroshima. I wondered how the authors were able to suffer through the facts and put words on the page. Such questions are a consideration, I think, for anyone writing a novel with horrifying sweeps or history and the bad guys responsible for them.
Anger is good motivation, and suffice it to say, I feel plenty of anger about the KKK. I researched the KKK when I wrote the Florida Folk Magic Series. My work-in-progress novel follows up on that trilogy, so that means reading more about the KKK than I want to know. You might find yourself in a similarly uncomfortable research situation. if you decide to write a novel about the prison at Guantanimo, the rape culture, terrorist attacks, or even a tour of duty in the House of Representatives.
When it comes down to it, you have to learn about it before you can write about it.
I first met bestselling military history novelist Jeff Shaara when he was a teenager, though there’s no reason he would remember it. His father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Killer Angels (made into the movie Gettysburg) was my creative writing teacher at Florida State University. We met at Mike’s house once a week. His wife, Helen, prepared a smorgasbord for us to consume during the class break. Jeff spent the evening (or so it seemed) hovering around the dining room table.
Inasmuch as I am a pacifist, people find it odd that I often read military history novels. I do this because they teach me more history than I learned in high school and college history classes. Authors such as Shaara (both Mike and Jeff) and Philip Lee Williams whose outstanding Civil War novel A Distant Flame was the winner of the 2004 Michael Shaara Prize, do a tremenous amount of research and then wrap their findings into compelling stories, and readers benefit from it.
Williams told me that while creating A Distant Flame, he created an hourly timeline of the battle of Atlanta to keep his facts straight. I’m sure Jeff Shaara does the same thing because his works are flawless. And, suffice it to say, Jeff is prolific:
Publication Order of World War II Books
The Rising Tide (2006)
The Steel Wave (2008)
No Less Than Victory (2009)
The Final Storm (2011) Publication Order of Civil War Trilogy Books
A Blaze of Glory (2012)
A Chain of Thunder (2013)
The Smoke at Dawn (2014)
The Fateful Lightning (2015) Publication Order of Standalone Novels
Gods and Generals (1996)
The Last Full Measure (1998)
Gone For Soldiers (2000)
Rise to Rebellion (2001)
The Glorious Cause (2002)
To the Last Man (2004)
The Frozen Hours (2017)
His next novel is about Pearl Harbor. I will definitely be reading it after buying The Frozen Hours about the Korean War, a war that was ongoing when I was in grade school and often in the headlines then.
I appreciate these novels because I learn so much about our history from each one of them.
In our kitchen, we keep a colorful scenic calendar, sometimes featuring wildlife and sometimes featuring scenes from national parks and other inspiring landscapes. In my den, I always have a calendar of historic black and white photographs. It comes with my membership in the Montana Historical Society (MHS). These old photographs tell many stories and I never tire of looking at them throughout the year. As more and more archives are digitized, pictures such as those in the calendar are often available for research online. Here’s the cover of my MHS calendar for 2019:
Hmm, we seem to have a problem here. When I worked as a volunteer at a railway museum, our library included a lot of photographs of wrecked locomotives. One of our members had once worked on steam locomotives for the railroads. When I asked him what happened to the locomotives in the pictures, he said they hauled them into the shop, fixed them, and put them back on the line. Today, I suppose the insurance company would come out and mark the equipment as totaled.
These old pictures are better than rare treasure for history enthusiasts; fans of (for example) trains, old cars, historic buildings; teachers who are working on lesson plans for K-12 classes that focus on state history, authors, and others. The national park services has an archive of old photographs.
You can find other photographs online at the Library of Congress and in the archives of many states under such names as Florida Memory and Georgia Encyclopedia. (Some of these sites include teacher lesson plans.) This access has improved from the old days when one had to travel to a museum on the far side of the country to see roughly classified boxes of papers and photographs in a storage area. Likewise, the historical societies in many states also support the digitization of old newspapers, many of which are appearing in databases sophisticated enough to allow for searches on words in the news stories and photograph cutlines.
It bothers me when I hear that many state school systems no longer teach state history lessons. I know it’s often hard to squeeze in local history when courses must include all of world history or all of U.S. history into an hour a day for one or two semesters. Historic old pictures, when available in a print format, give school systems the opportunity of placing a few of them in frames (with captions) in hallways and classrooms. They might just attract student attention. My wife once curated and mounted an exhibit of old photographs in a high school where we used to live. Opening day attracted a lot of attention, including a news story in several papers.
I’ve been happy to see many of these old pictures showing up on Facebook, sometimes from sources such as “Smithsonian Magazine” that remind people of lesser-known events and people. Many of them get a lot of LIKES and comments, including “Why wasn’t this information in my school history books?” (I often wonder why as well.)
If you know about your state’s history, I think you have a better shot at understanding why things there are as they are. You can also help combat misinformation in hastily researched news stories and online essays in which the writer clearly doesn’t know what happened in his or her state prior to last week. Growing up in Florida, I constantly saw (and still see) mistaken pronouncements about the reasons for the Seminole Wars or about the conflicts between Spain and France to control the region. You can probably cite similar examples from the state where you live.
Old photographs won’t fix the gaps in our educational systems, but they might attract some attention to the many things we don’t know about the places where we live.
Sometimes I think historical research for my novels set in Montana (“The Sun Singer” and “Sarabande”) and Florida (“Conjure Woman’s Cat,” “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” and “Lena”) took more hours than writing the novels. I didn’t mind because the old photographs and newspapers were very addictive.
I have for years felt misled by my junior high school and high school history teachers in Florida. The focus of our state history lessons was typically the five flags that flew over Florida: Spain, France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Confederacy. We heard about early explorers and about the early struggles between the Spanish and the French for control of the territory. But we weren’t told the whole story.
Two old books, The Exiles of Florida written in 1858 by Joshua R. Giddings and The Origin, Progress, and Conclusion of the Florida War written by John T. Sprague in 1848 (both of which are available in reprint form on Amazon) tell the rest of the story through the viewpoints of authors who were there. These books were either unknown to our junior high and high school history teachers or the subject matter wasn’t allowed in the course curricula.
Giddings, a lawyer who served in Congress during the three Seminole wars saw much of the documentation first hand and quotes liberally from it in his book. Sprague served in the army in Florida at the time of the Indian removals and offers a his first-hand accounts, many of which were mentioned by Giddings.
In school in Florida, we were taught, of course, that General Jackson–who would later become the architect of the Trail of Tears–brought troops into Spanish Florida to take care of “the Indian problem.” We were never told the real reason behind Jackson’s war against Creeks, Seminoles, and other tribes. It was slavery.
Soon after the revolutionary war, slave-holding colonies petitioned the Federal government for indemnification for slaves that were lost either by escape into Florida or capture by the British. This carried forward into complaints that slaves were continuing to escape into Florida after the revolution where they were sheltered by the Seminoles and assisted (and sometimes enslaved) by the Creeks. Later they would ask to be reimbursed for the slaves who would have been sired by owners and other slaves on the plantations had they not fled to Florida.
The three wars (1816-19, 1835-42, 1855-58) were carried out for the express purpose of re-capturing Negroes who had fled into Florida for sanctuary under Spanish laws. Immigrant Negroes from the Caribbean were also captured. The federal government’s solution was primarily to capture and return the slaves (or Negroes who were claimed often without proof to have been slaves) to their owners and to remove the Indians to Oklahoma. The public, for the most part, was unaware of slavery part of the campaign. In the process, the government hid the truth from the voters and lied to the Seminoles, the Creeks, and the Exiles (or Maroons, as they were often called). Many of those Negroes had never been enslaved and others had intermarried with the Seminole tribe, but the law of the land pre-supposed that every Negro was owned by somebody.
Spain could not defend its colony from repeated incursions by U.S. federal troops, militias from adjoining states, or ad hock bands of slave trackers, so it ceded Florida by treaty in 1819 in exchange for the United States paying some $5 million worth of Spanish debt. At this time, most of the panhandle was already controlled by U.S. forces.
The Federal government fought the Seminole wars on behalf of the slave holders in Florida, Alabama, Georgia, and the Carolinas while keeping very quiet about the war as much as possible, and about the controversial practice of paying for slave reimbursements from the treasury of a country composed of norther residents who would not approve. The loss of life, the expense, and the tearing a part of slave and slave/Indian families was based goals that a large number of the U.S. residents didn’t subscribe to. It was a slavery war before the Civil War.
Harriet Tubman is quoted as saying, “I was the conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say–I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”
If you subscribe or have access to “National Parks Magazine,” you might enjoy “Remember Aunt Harriett” by Rona Kobell about the recently completed Harriet Tubman visitor center in a new historical park in Maryland. It’s part of a coordinating group of sites near Chesapeake Bay, including the Harriet Tubman Memorial Garden and the Harriett Tubman Museum in Cambridge, The Bucktown Village Store, Bestpitch Ferry Bridge, and Brodess Farm.
The visitor center, which is managed by Maryland and the National Park Service offers a handy guide here.
As Kobell wrote: “She taught them courage and endurance. Now Harriet Tubman’s descendants can walk the paths she walked and pay their respects at a park honoring the great liberator.”
Stonewall Jackson died of pneumonia May 10, 1863, at Guinea Station, Virginia, VA. eight days after being wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville. He probably would have survived the wounds–ironically from “friendly fire”–had the pneumonia not stricken him as he lay in a bed in this house which Lesa and I visited near Fredericksburg several days ago. The house was an outbuilding on the former Chandler Plantation and is preserved today at the Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania National Military Park.
His bed is there now, and it is not a quiet one.
We didn’t have time to visit the Chancellorsville battlefield, but did tour the battlefields at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania. There was a light drizzle most of the day. A fitting day, I supposed, to visit hallowed ground where so many were killed in 1862 and 1864. Lesa was a history major with an emphasis on the Civil War. We have both read fiction and nonfiction about the war as well as viewing documentaries such as the very memorable one produced by Ken Burns.
As we walked the site of a nasty engagement at Spotsylvania called The Bloody Angle, we acknowledged that in spite of what we knew before we went there, standing there and reading the signs brought home a host of emotions about the death, fear, horror, resignation, bravery, determination and hope that were felt by the men who died and survived on that patch of ground a century and a half ago.
I don’t see how a writer of either fiction or nonfiction can write about an even without visit these historic sites. To varying degrees, we can sense the dead, hear their voices where they died. Like everyone, writers mourn the dead, the lives stopped in midstream often in moments of terror and pain. But we also mourn the living. The dead are here no more, resting in peace, we hope, but the living carry their memories of the dead and continue to suffer greatly for years and lifetimes. Better to die in the war, I’ve always thought, than to be the child or the spouse of the soldier who died in the war.
Stonewall Jackson’s wife Mary Anna visited him on his death bed in this house and subsequently lived until 1915. She suffered, I think, longer than he did. If I were to write a Civil War novel that included Stonewall Jackson, I would be listening for Mary Anna’s voice, too.
Which brings me to the already-public response of Jacqueline Kennedy to those of us who sent her our condolences when the President was assassinated in Dallas. I seldom write public figures. But there was something different about the moments after Dallas that led me to write. Her face–shown so often in those days–was the face of a new generation’s loss of innocence.
Even though I knew she would never see my letter, I nonetheless wanted to add my voice to the chorus offering her our support. Her office sent a response and I was grateful for it even though it was formal and official.
My wife found her response and the mailing envelope and scanned them in in the midst of our huge down-size-all-the-files project. Seeing the note that surprised me as a young college student when it came in the mail reminded me this week just how stunned the nation was in 1963.
“The seventh USS Ranger (CV/CVA-61) is one of four Forrestal-class supercarriers built for the US Navy in the 1950s. Although all four ships of the class were completed with angled decks,Ranger had the distinction of being the first US carrier built from the very beginning as an angled deck ship.” – Wikipedia (See continuing updates at the end of this post.)
In matters of war, I am a pacifist.
That said, I believe our troops merit our support whether or not the war they’re fighting in is popular or not.
I also think history and historical artifacts, objects and memorabilia are important, for they help communicate the stories of other eras. It’s been a pleasure working with museums as a grant writer and as a collections manager and seeing first hand how excited people can get when shown historic equipment, documents and photographs.
I served aboard the USS Ranger (CVA-61) during the Vietnam War. The war was probably the country’s most unpopular war. When I appeared in public wearing my uniform, I was intentionally bumped into on the street, spat on, and called a baby killer. Yet our history and memories of that time must be preserved.
So, in matters of history, especially those that focus on museums and other educational experiences, I am an activist. In Charleston, I have seen the displays on the USS Yorktown and I have seen the reactions of tourists and school groups as they toured the flight deck, the hangar deck, the mess decks, bridge and ready rooms of the old ship.
When the USS Ranger Foundation was formed in Oregon with the hope of following the examples of those who saved the USS Yorktown in Charleston and the USS Midway in San Diego as museums, I was happy to join up even though I don’t have the financial means to donate money nor the proximity to the ship and selected museum site to volunteer.
First, the educational opportunities here are immense. It’s one thing to read about military history. It’s quite another to walk through a fort, battlefield or restored ship. Aircraft carriers have evolved since the Vietnam War—I can hardly even recognize the modern navy uniform. As I write this, there have been tests of flying drones off of carriers rather than expensive manned aircraft. As a museum, Ranger could have been a piece of history on the Columbia River at the donated site in Fairview for many years to come.
Second, museums and other cultural tourism sites bring dollars and jobs into communities. Many studies have been done showing that a tourist destination such as the USS Ranger can bring in a higher percentage of every tourist dollar than other attractions.
Apparently this is not to be
I salute the long hours and dedicated efforts of the volunteers and directors of the USS Ranger Foundation. But I think I missed a memo.
The application process for the acquisition of a decommissioned navy ship is difficult, expensive and lengthy. Unfortunately, the Foundation’s application was rejected by the Navy last October. (See Foundation to Fight NAVSEA Decision to Scrap Ranger) At that time, the Foundation was looking for ways to have that decision reversed.
Over the Christmas holidays, the Foundation said that constraints were keeping them from having more time to develop their application. Here’s where I missed the memo, I think.
I never heard what those constraints were, what (if anything) was missing or incomplete in the Foundation’s original application, or whether or not the support of influential people in and out of government could influence the Navy to provide more time, reconsider, or otherwise work with the Foundation to save the ship rather than scrapping the ship.
Now, the Foundation is looking for another ship. That’s probably a reasonable backup approach. Nonetheless, I think we need to know:
Why the application was rejected.
What, if anything, could be done to make the application acceptable.
Who, if anyone, could be enlisted to garner political and public attention to urge the Navy to delay the scrapping schedule and,
Who, if anyone, could raise additional funds and increased public support within the State of Oregon to save the ship and bring it to the Portland area.
We don’t know any of these things. Perhaps, in knowing them, we would see that placing a historic aircraft carrier in a Columbia River museum site had too many insurmountable obstacles in it to ever succeed even if the navy waited five more years or ten more years.
I have worked with museums and I have seen the impossible done before. Those in the know said “It will never happen.” But it did happen, with money left over and with the partnering help of those who had been thought, by those afraid to ask, to be the least likely to assist a museum.
So it is, that I do not like seeing this project fade away without a ramped up, viral PR campaign and without the help of high-level thought leaders and influencers who might be able to make a USS Ranger museum a reality. A successful aircraft carrier museum helps everyone, including the Navy. A scrapped ship frees up space at a pier and brings in a few dollars, but otherwise helps no one.
Worse yet, our history is lost in the bureaucratic shuffle. Rather than fading away, I would have preferred seeing this project end, if it had to end, with nothing less than a noisy, failure-is-not-an-option, Hail Mary, damn-the-torpedoes effort.
As always, I wish the Foundation fair winds and following seas.
Malcolm R. Campbell, Journalist
USS Ranger Public Affairs Office and Naval Station Great Lakes 1968 – 1970
Update – January 9, 2014
Those of you who live in the Bremmerton area may have a better means of finding out whether the ship has been scrapped already than I do. However, I have checked with the Navy about the rationale for disposing of the ship (in addition to the costs of maintaining mothballed ships).
From the Navy’s perspective, the USS Ranger Foundation’s progress throughout the entire application process was slow and it finally appeared that little or no progress was being made on some fairly large obstacles:
En route to the ship’s proposed mooring site, the BNSF bridge at river mile 80.9 had not been solved. Basically, the ship couldn’t clear the bridge without a major effort on the railroad’s part.
The foundation’s cost estimates for the project were incomplete. They gave an overall figure to the Navy about projected costs, but only documented a fraction of those costs.
The USS Ranger was placed on a donation hold in 2004. Even though the foundation had expressed an interest in the ship in 2003, the application wasn’t filed until 2009. With the ship available for an eight-year period and with major obstacles not being resolved, it seemed unlikely that the foundation would ever present a complete and viable application. Unfortunately, the Navy’s assessment about this is probably correct.
February 12, 2015: USS Ranger departure pushed back – “Mothballed Bremerton aircraft carrier USS Ranger won’t be leaving Feb. 15 for a Texas scrap yard. That was the first tentative date announced by the Navy, but rigging and towing preparations are lagging, said Ray Porter, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard inactive fleet site director.”
I look forward to my yearly calendars from the Montana Historical Society that come as part of my membership. They are filled with western scenes from the society’s photographic collection. Calendars are 8.5 x 11 inches and feature black and white photography.
The front of the 2012 calendar features a historic photo of Mt. Wilbur and Swiftcurrent Lake from Glacier National Park. If you love western history, you can join the MHS by calling 406-444-2918 or heading out to their website at www.montanahistoricalsociety.0rg. Memberships are $55 per year and include a subscription to the quarterly Montana The Magazine of Western History. Or, you can buy the calendar alone for $8.50, order from the museum store.
Maybe the 2012 calendar will inspire me to get started on my next novel set in Glacier National Park. Maybe it will inspire you to think of wild places in the Rocky Mountains.
New Museum Exhibits: Two exhibits open tonight (December 1, 2011) from 6-8 p.m. at the Montana Historical Society’s museum at 225 North Roberts in Helena, The Art of Story Telling: Plains Indian Perspectives and Mapping Montana: Two Centuries of Cartography. Wish I could be there.
The drawing pictured here is an example of “ledger art,” a transitional approach to recording stories and events by plains Indian nations between 1860 and 1900 as artists switched from the traditional paints and hides to ledger paper with crayon, colored pencils and water colors. The new exhibit will include the Walter Bone Shirt ledger book, on loan to the society.
According to the Plains Indian Ledger art Project, “Changes in the content of pictographic art, the rapid adjustment of Plains artists to the relatively small size of a sheet of ledger paper, and the wealth of detail possible with new coloring materials, marks Plains ledger drawings as a new form of Native American art.” For more information about ledger art, click here.
I recently received a letter from the Montana Historical Society reminding me that my membership renewal date was coming up in June. I’ve been a member for over twenty years, and though I’ve never once set foot inside the Society’s museum and library at 225 N. Roberts Street in Helena, I was happy to renew.
In his renewal letter, Mike Cooney, the MHS interim director, noted that the society “provides free public access to over 50,000 books, 455,000 historical monographs, 8,000 maps, 2000 oral history reviews and more. Our education and outreach program has grown, reaching over 5,000 students from over 53 communities and thousands of adults throughout Montana.”
In addition to Montana the Magazine of Western History, MHS also helps members who live outside the state. Using my member’s research question benefit, I had historical questions tracked down and answered for my novels The Sun Singerand Garden of Heaven: an Odysseyand for my article “Bears, Where They Fought,” about Glacier National Park’s Swiftcurrent Valley that appears in Vanilla Heart Publishing’s Nature’s Gifts Anthology.
The Society’s professional, yet accessible approach, to Montana History was recently validated by its re-accreditation by the American Association of Museums (AAM). Re-accreditation is an intensive, two-year process that occurs every 15 years. According to the MHS newsletter Society Star, “There are an estimated 17,500 museums in the nation and only 777 are currently accredited by the AAM.” As a former museum manager and a museum grant writer, I know just how difficult and exacting the AAM standards are.
While AAM standards are designed to fit a wide variety of museums and collections, all museums must successfuly answer two core questions:
How well does the museum achieve its stated mission and goals?
How well does the museum’s performance meet standards and best practices, as they are generally understood in the field, appropriate to its circumstances?
The success of the MHS and its research, collections policy, artifacts conservatorship, programs, publications, historic properties and its National Register sign program are a dynamic testament to just how well the Society continues to answer those core questions.
As for me, I’ve saved every issue of the magazine since my membership began: for Montana, they are gospel.