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Building a Bibliography: Notes from Highlights' Carolyn Yoder

The Rich Writer: Building a Bibliography: Notes from Highlights' Carolyn Yoder

The Rich Writer

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road

Monday, August 6, 2007

Building a Bibliography: Notes from Highlights' Carolyn Yoder

The summer before last, I participated in one of the best writing workshops I've ever attended: the Highlights Foundation Writers Workshop at Chautauqua. The workshop has been on my mind lately. I'm in the process of rewriting a nonfiction picture book manuscript, and what I learned at Chautauqua was invaluable to the process of envisioning, researching and writing the manuscript. If I hadn't had the chance to discuss the idea with Carolyn Yoder (Highlights for Children's senior history editor as well as editor for the history imprint of Boyds Mills Press) I would not have attempted the project at all. Science, I can research without hesitation--but I didn't know how to go about researching history.

At Chautauqua, Carolyn taught a session on writing historical fiction, where she presented a wealth of information about how to build a bibliography for historical fiction or nonfiction. Here are some of the points I found helpful:

  1. Think beyond history books -- seek out primary sources such as letters, journals, and newspapers.

  2. Read journals of other people who lived in the area, not just the subject of your book/article.

  3. Travel to the site of your story for first-hand experience of the landscape and weather.

  4. Consult and interview experts on your topic. (She strongly recommends working with an expert on the time period.)

  5. Visit the area's local historical society. Or, if you can't visit, contact them. Some will copy relevant papers and magazines that aren't available elsewhere.

  6. Visit the area's state museum to see historical artifacts--these can breathe life into your project by adding details about day-to-day life. Check out clothes, tools, food, furnishings, money from the period.

  7. Many small museums will let you come in and look through their items. In most, the items aren't catalogued, but you can find treasures with a little searching. What did a plow look like? Windows? What were people of the time reading? What music did they listen to?

  8. Read almanacs, cookbooks, and catalogues from the period.

  9. Visit the area's graveyard.

  10. Investigate historical maps.

  11. Scrapbooks: in the 18th and 19th centuries, people kept scrapbooks chronicling their lives and the lives of other in the region. These can be an excellent source for recipes, art objects, and day-to-day details.
Historical information isn't neatly gathered and catalogued in my local university library. Maybe that's because it deals with people, and people aren't as easy to catalog as scientific information. It's more of a treasure hunt to track down all the right bits of information to flesh out a book, historical novel, or magazine article--but when the pieces all come together, I shiver with the magic of it. I feel as if I have a window into the past.

:) Cheryl

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