Our readers are often curious about the process of writing and publishing books, and we’re happy to provide access to the experts. Today’s expert, award-winning writer Ann Bausum, writes history books for elementary, middle school, and high school students (and one for adults). Her most recent, The March against Fear, is a primer on Civil Rights and the emergence of the Black Power movement. She’s here to talk about researching the most complicated parts of our history.
History is messy. We tend to obscure that fact with tidy narratives and logical timelines, but events are rarely so straightforward.
When I speak in schools, I remind students that no one knew how history was going to turn out while it was happening. Folks were in the middle of it, just as we are today, with only vague inklings of what lie ahead.
It’s my job, as an author of nonfiction, to make sense of the messiness of history and to do it accurately and honestly. No alternate facts. No sugar-coating. No lies. My particular passion is to explore overlooked stories of social justice (and injustice), particularly ones that can serve as a lens for making sense of the modern world. Those twin objectives—breathing life into forgotten stories and making them relevant today—push me to work all the harder to get the facts right, even the messy ones.
Researching such history is a long, deep dive, one that I anticipate yet also dread because I know how painful it can be to unearth forgotten truths. There’s a reason we’ve pushed these stories out of mind. They hurt. They defy how we think of ourselves as a nation. They make us uncomfortable. They represent the underbelly of the American story, and it can be easier as a society to pretend they didn’t happen.
And yet these events did happen. We jailed women in 1917 who fought for the right to vote, persecuted German Americans on the home front during World War I, and incarcerated our own citizens because of irrational fears during World War II. Hiding from history doesn’t make it go away; it just tempts us to repeat the same poor judgments.
My approach during research is methodical, meticulous, and exhaustive. For starters, I read multiple scholarly accounts of the period, taking notes as I go. It’s as if I’m assembling a jigsaw puzzle, one where the picture is itself revealed as pieces of the past emerge. But books are just the beginning. I want to experience the places where history happened, too. The back roads of Mississippi. A Japanese-American internment camp. The streets of Memphis. Seneca Falls. By doing so, these places become real, and if they’re real to me, I’ll be better able to bring them alive for my readers. Touching the hands that made history is essential, as well, whether through archival work or interviews with people who lived it.
I catalog every find on note cards, trusting that the day will arrive when I know I am prepared to write. This is a tricky call. Research is addictive. There’s always another stone ahead for turning. Knowing when to stop requires both the instinct to recognize that I’ve got the story and the discipline to rein in the drive to keep learning.
By the time I begin to write, I’ve accumulated layers of nuance, a repetition of accepted facts, a variety of viewpoints, and an emerging narrative that can then begin to make sense of another mess. My determination to present history with warts intact can leave readers shocked. We may wince to learn that someone as revered as President Theodore Roosevelt, for example, undermined the work of investigative journalists by branding them as muckrakers. But he did.
It’s okay to expose uncomfortable history. In fact, I’d argue that it’s essential. To do so is to tell the truth. To do any less is to misrepresent our national story to the young people who most deserve—and need—to know what’s real and what’s fake. Only then will they be able to make sound judgments about what’s right and what’s wrong.