This post is by guest author Candace Fleming who won the 2015 NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction for Children.
I confess. I can’t write about an historic person unless they mystify and intrigue me. I have to be brimming with questions. I have to be eager for answers. I’m drawn to famous historical figures—Amelia Earhart, the Romanovs, Buffalo Bill Cody—people we think we already know. That’s because I love teasing something out of the historical record that no one has focused on before, shining a light on a side of a subject’s personality that has gone overlooked. It’s music to my ears when a reader says, “I thought I knew everything about that person, but your book gave me a brand-new perspective.” I’m not interested in heroes, but I’m very interested in people. I thrill to uncovering intimate details: Abraham Lincoln shuffling around the White House in house slippers because he suffered from sore feet; Nicholas Romanov chain-smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes made especially for him, each stamped with the golden, imperial insignia. It’s the small moments that make them human again. It’s all in the details.
Those details are found in research. I think of research as having two interwoven paths. The first is, of course, archival. What’s already been written and collected? I focus on direct sources—letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews. This is where intimate, defining details are found. For example, while researching The Family Romanov, I uncovered an affidavit from one of the family’s former chambermaids whose job it was to change the empress’s bed linen daily. Why? Because the empress had a “fondness for English biscuits . . . consumed between the sheets while reading her books.” Ah, crumbs in the bed! Now that’s great detail. In a separate memoir, the children’s nurse recalled how Alexandra’s shaggy terrier, Eira, laid on the imperial bed each night receiving “tastes of the empress’[s] favored English biscuits.” Isn’t that fabulous? Details from two different sources—uncovered months apart—when put together build a tiny, yet oh so intimate, glimpse of Alexandra. Suddenly, I can see her lying beside a snoring Nicholas, feeding bits of cookie to Eira, wiping her sticky fingers on satin sheets before turning the pages of her book.
The second path is real-world research. For me, it’s imperative to visit the places where my story happened. Landscapes speak. Houses hold memories and secrets. While researching my latest biography, Presenting Buffalo Bill, I followed Bill’s trail, stopping in his birth town of LeClaire, Iowa, before heading west to his boyhood home outside Leavenworth, Kansas. I had to do some detective work using primary source materials to find the unmarked site of the Cody homestead. Once I did, I understood the family’s attachment to the place—its streams and grassy hills and verdant meadows—despite the hostility of their neighbors. Turning my face west, I headed for Kansas and his Scout’s Rest Ranch. But it is in Cody, Wyoming, that Bill still lives and breathes. At his Irma Hotel, folks still belly up to that grandiose bar Bill insisted on installing. The Shoshone River still smells of sulfur. And the one road leading out of town is as hot, dusty, and barren as when Bill once galloped along it. No historical document could have provided such vivid moments. I had to see them, hear them, smell them, feel them on my skin for myself. And because I did, Bill Cody came alive for me.
Yes, it really is in the details.