Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Writer As Archeologist

Guest post by Pat Miller

I was weeding outdated history books from our school library collection. A teacher saw what I was doing and asked, “History already happened. How can it become outdated?”

The events of the past can’t change, but what we learn about them does. New information is discovered. Biases are revealed. New angles and connections are found. In fact, I saw how history “changed” as I researched my own book.

When I began I knew only one thing, something I learned from a boat tour: the man who invented the hole in the doughnut was buried near Boston Harbor. As I researched, I was like an archaeologist who hypothesizes different animals as she digs up various bones until she discovers enough to see the true creature.

I discovered that the inventor was a sea captain named Hanson Gregory. I found an interview of the captain by The Washington Post on March 26, 1916. Based on this, my first manuscript had a child questioning the captain along similar lines, with his fellow mariners adding facts and humor to the story. It became historical fiction, and I imagined wacky illustrations by David Catrow.

More research made me think my first approach was cavalier. I learned that Captain Gregory altered the doughnut as a teen assistant to the Hardscrabble’s cook. Gregory married, but left his wife and children for months while commanding fast sailing ships. His cargo was dangerous; it caught fire when wet! Now I wanted to reveal Gregory’s life in a chronology that involved sidebars about the lime trade, tall ships, onboard cooking, and more. I got caught up in the period and the book became unwieldy.

Census records, death certificates, newspaper archives, maritime museums, and public libraries revealed emotions long forgotten. Gregory’s youngest sister had three sets of twins by the time she was 26. When the oldest were five, her husband died of yellow fever in Cuba and was buried there. I located four tiny tombstones next to hers—three engraved with the same date. Two of Gregory’s young children disappeared from the census and his grandchildren all died tragically. To cap it, Captain Gregory, the youngest Master Mariner to sail from Maine, was driven from the sea by the dominance of steam-power. I felt bound to bring this man back into history. But how to write about so much determination in the face of towering grief? What about the doughnut hole? That version was too bleak.

I eventually uncovered a strong connection between this 19th century sea captain and modern day Dunkin’ Donuts. What about a book that developed that relationship? And what about the connection with the doughnut girls of World War I? Several attempts to write that version of events fizzled out when the emotional depth was lost.

After six months and 22 rewrites, my 200 pages of research were whittled to 1,071 words about this sea captain I knew better than my extended family. That version did not sell. I rewrote another with just 716 words, centered on Gregory’s invention of the doughnut hole. I had to condense all the rest into five short author notes. This version sold.

One burden of writing nonfiction is choosing what goes in the work (and gets read), and what remains in one’s research. Captain Gregory outlived his entire nuclear family and much of his story died with him. I grieved as I let the life I had reconstructed slip back into the soup of history, for now. And so history seems to alter as new information is uncovered, and writers and historians choose what to reveal.


Pat Miller is a career educator and school librarian and author of 24 books. The Hole Story of the Doughnut was contracted by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. She writes from Richmond, TX, where she is also busy organizing an exciting conference for rookie nonfiction children’s writers, NF 4 NF: Nonfiction for New Folks. Pat is a certified Master Gardener and enjoys making author visits and performing as a storyteller. You can contact her at gpatmiller@patmillerbooks.com.







21 comments:

  1. Fantastic post Pat!
    I cannot wait to read more about the doughnut hole. And since I live in Boston, where can I visit his grave?
    Your unused research will surely pay off when inquisitive young readers pepper you with lots of questions!

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    1. Captain Hansen Gregory is buried in the cemetery that used to be attached to the Sailors Snug Harbor retirement home for mariners. That building is gone but there is a Snug Harbor Elementary, and the cemetery is behind their baseball field on Palmer Street in Quincy. Tell him hi for me!

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  2. Boy, can I identify with your paring down of the words for your story. A writer gets so excited that she wants to share everything....it's like eating a 10 course dinner. Way too much to digest. I, too, am learning.

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    1. Very apt analogy. And yet it's hard to pass up a single course!

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  4. Pat, congratulations on selling your book. Would it be possible to do a self-published version, a more complete and less neatly tied-up biography with all its context? Would that be considered conflict of interest, even though the target audience is different? I'm imagining a sort of series by frustrated non-fiction writers, titled something like Find Out More! or Want More? or That's Not All! Dunno, just thinking of a way to conserve the research and make it available. I think it's valuable!

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  5. I like the way you think! There is definitely a way to use all the extra information I gathered. One of them is this guest post. :-)

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  6. I feel your pain--as I've been working on a pb biography. It's hard to get rid of information that I've dug up over the months!

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    1. Especially when you think it's something that should be known about your person. I felt a sense of personal betrayal to a man who can no longer speak for himself.

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  7. Very good post. I write articles for children in a magazine and last year I wrote about donuts. In the process of researching, I found out a lot of fun and interesting facts.

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    1. And did you find yourself craving fried dough? :-)

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  8. I was thinking like Cathy - you can share so much more about the man during school visits :). I have done some extensive research for my fiction books as well and have felt "I must be leaving something important out" if my pb is 500 words and my research is 500 pages. Thanks for the encouragement - wrestling is part of the writing process.

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    1. And such a burden when you think that what gets in will "make history" and what's left in your files could be forgotten. Yet, what a fascinating piece of detective work writing NF is!

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  9. dough nuts and death, what an inspiring post and a sad one but positive too. I want to know all about that captain now. Thank you Pat Miller.

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    1. Doughnuts and Death--now why didn't I think of that title!

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  10. I always loved non-fiction as a child...but never thought about writing it as an adult...maybe that will have to change.:)

    What a great post, Pat...thank you so much for showing me that although I can research the heck out of a topic, the words may never actually appear in the manuscript, but will help me make the characters more alive.

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    1. If you decide you're ready to make the leap, consider my NF 4 NF Children's Writers Conference in October: http://www.patmillerbooks.com/nf-4-nf.html

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  11. How interesting. Talk about condensing. Thank you, Pat!

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    1. Thank you, Jill. Condensing -- yep, me and Reader's Digest. :-)

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