Open Letter to Anyone Writing a Research Book Just for Me

This post is dedicated to my sister Jenny, the history teacher, who is stunned to find me reading history after all these years and who, I fear, grits her teeth and bites back words every time I reject or whine about a book. Love you, Jen!

Dear History Writer:

I’m back on the research trail, along with honing in on my WIP’s story. Over the weekend, I read a great book about technology and housework and what all those newfangled inventions did and didn’t do for women’s (and men’s) work in the home. (I can now tell you that there were, at one time, gas-powered refrigerators as well as electric ones, but do not ask me to explain the workings of either, or why one took off while the other didn’t!)

And then this morning, I picked up another book, that shall remain nameless, because–even though it’s on a topic I am interested in and that has a lot to do with my WIP, I couldn’t get through it. I tried–reading a few pages at the start of each chapter, skipping through looking for a heading that might be relevant, reading a few paragraphs more here and there…but nope. There might be information in this book that I need, but I can’t keep my brain attached to the words long enough to find out.

Why did I enjoy (and learn from) one book and couldn’t force myself to keep reading the other? Well, the obvious answer would be that the first author is a better writer, but I think there’s more to it than that. So, for anybody out there who’s considering writing history for readers like me–who aren’t their strongest with a nonfiction read, who need to be entertained while they’re being educated, who will leave behind a dry research book for something fictional at the drop of a hat…here’s what I’d like you to be thinking about as you write.

  • Do, please, tell me stories. I can only take so many facts without a breather, without being pulled into something that has plot, tension, character dynamics, and forward movement. No, don’t feel like you have to write a novel for me–I have plenty of those lying around. But bring that information into something with the elements of a novel, if only for half a page. Kay? Thanks.
  • Give me people. Yes, I know there are readers and researchers out there who love diving into pages and pages of government edicts, tables with housing and employment data, maps of population migration, lists of the various ores used in building railroads. And I need some of that, too. But please sprinkle them lightly through your words, as examples, not the entire text of a chapter. And then let me know what it really felt like to live with those statistics, what someone said about them in a letter or diary. Feed my imagination, not just the calculator that is, yes, stored somewhere in the dark recesses of my brain.
  • Weave some humor into your narrative. Make me smile, even laugh. Some of those quotes you’re sharing are ludicrous–I know it and, come on, you know it, too. How could he/she say that with a straight face? And how can you deliver it without at least a tiny well-phrased smirk. Or go the other way. Make me mad, get me pissed off at the nerve of a group, a person, a leader. And let your own anger leak out–just a little trickle, so I know we’re on the same side. So I know you didn’t just type that passage into your manuscript coldly and objectively, not when it’s outrageous enough to break through anyone’s objectivity. Seriously.
  • Draw connections. Yes, I know it’s simplest for you to organize your book by decades, or by geographic regions, or by ethnic groups. And,  yes, that organization makes it easy for me to find the information I most need. BUT…just because your chapters are separated by page breaks, does not mean these people, these areas, these timelines are distinct and isolated from each other. They’re not. One year builds to another; one person’s actions ripple through the lives of others; the events in one state cross the borders into another–even if it takes a while. Share this with me. Show me that you see the threads weaving through it all, and make me aware of the ones I don’ t know yet.
  • If you need an example of the things I’m talking about, I can refer you to a couple of books that were beginning steps of my conversion into reading (good!) history. Pick up Amy Butler Greenfield’s A Perfect Red: Empire, Espionage, and the Quest for the Color of Desire and Laurence Bergreen’s  Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifiying Circumnavigation of the Globe. (Note: Don’t eat a big meal before reading the sections about scurvy in Bergreen’s book. And, yes, making me sick to my stomach gets you a gold star, right up there with the whole humor and anger thing.)

That’s all. For today, anyway. Thank you for listening and for, possibly, considering my wish-list as you start writing Chapter 1. I don’t know how far my request will get you in academic circles, or in the lives of those people who live for facts (Hey, some of my best friends are people who live for facts!!), but your efforts will not go unappreciated here, in my world.

Which must count for something.

Yours in research,

Becky Levine

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