Pittsburgh Writers Project

On Saturday Sept. 12th, 2009 I had the privilege of speaking at the Green Tree Public Library in Pittsburgh, PA (my hometown) to the Pgh. Writers Project. My 2-hour lecture presented an overview of how I researched materials for my book on Fredericksburg's historical churches and ten tips for conducting effective research and applying it to any genre. The transcripts of my lecture are below:

Pittsburgh Writers Project website

Before I begin, I want to thank Pilar and your group for the gracious invitation to speak here today. In my work I get to lecture at universities and museums fairly often, and I cover a variety of history-related topics, but it's a real treat when I get to stand to a room full of my peers and talk specifically about our craft. Before I was a historian, I was first and foremost, a writer.

Today is also a homecoming of sorts for me. I was born and raised just down the street from here on Parkedge Road. My parents still live there. Even today I distinctly remember my mother taking me to the original Green Tree Library, which was located in the old Borough Building over where Boston Market is located and also to the second facility which was on the same lot. I checked out Bruce Catton's "This Hallowed Ground" so many times the librarian eventually told me I couldn't renew it.

This building we are in now used to be part of Manilla School and I went to 4th thru 6th grade here, the last class to do so. My 6th grade history teacher Mr. Good first ignited my interest in American history and I actually made my first trip to Gettysburg that year. It was an event that would change the course of my life both personally and professionally.

For our discussion today I am going to present two parts. The first will breakdown how I do what I do. These are my steps for historical research and writing. The second will hopefully provide some tips that you can apply in your own work, no matter what genre you write. I'll also be happy to answer any questions you have at the end.

Of course as a historian, research is the backbone and the foundation of everything I do. And I happened to pick two specialties over the course of my career that absolutely demands accuracy. My first big break came with Baseball-Almanac where I went on to write close to 400 pieces over the course of 6 years. In many cases these were very large projects where I would spend months researching and recapping every World Series or every All-Star Game from the beginning up to that point. In all I penned 5 of their major archive sections that are still used online to this day.

The work was challenging, and tedious, and for a baseball fanatic like me, awesome. That said, no matter how hard we tried there were always readers out there who had forgotten more about baseball than we would ever know. We called these people the "trekees" (after the Star Trek enthusiasts) and many had either attended these games, or memorized the box scores, because they would find the most minuscule errors and blast us for them. In baseball history, stats and source material must always be validated. Luckily as an almanac we were always able to update our stuff.

What this taught me is that our readers in many cases can be our best editors and we must take the time to listen to them. It can be a humbling experience, but it ultimately makes our work better.

The same goes for my work on the Civil War. People's ancestors who fought in the conflict sometimes have knowledge that surpasses that of the National Park Service or heritage organizations because they lived it firsthand and passed those stories down through the years in their diaries and letters home.

As a historian I consider myself in a way a custodian of the legacies of those who came before us. It's a tremendous privilege and responsibility, so I always make accurate research a top priority. In addition, our findings may become reference for a future study and bad reference breeds bad history.

So let's talk specifically about my process. I'd like to briefly take you through the procedure I used for one of my recent books. This one is about Fredericksburg's historic churches. I'll begin by reading you the cover copy:

"Houses of the Holy" recalls stories of rebellion, racism and reconstruction as experienced by Secessionists, Unionists

and the African American population in Fredericksburg's landmark churches during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. Using a wide variety of materials compiled from the local National Park archives, author Michael Aubrecht presents multiple perspectives from local believers and nonbelievers who witnessed the country's "Great Divide." Learn about the importance of faith in Fredericksburg through the recollections of local clergy such as Reverend Tucker Lacy; excerpts from slave narratives as recorded by Joseph F. Walker; impressions of military commanders such as Robert E. Lee and "Stonewall" Jackson; and stories of the conflict over African American churches.

When The History Press first approached me to publish a regional title I had no intention of ever writing one. That said, after one of their Commissioning Editors 'pitched' me, I spent a little time talking to my friends up at the National Park Service and we collectively decided that a study of our area's landmark churches during the Civil War and Reconstruction period was a perfect subject matter. Why? Because it had never been done before. My commitment therefore had to be true as I was the first to tackle a collective history on this subject.

We also used the same approach with my upcoming book on Confederate Encampments of Spotsylvania County. That book is titled "Campfires at the Crossroads" and is also a completely original study. Both of these books required intense research and I'm pretty proud of the finished products.

For what I write about, the best source of both primary and some secondary reference is of course the National Park's archives as they are an invaluable resource for reference, photography, and illustration files. I am very blessed to live in a place as historic as Fredericksburg where a large collection like that is located. Even better, the NPS has spent a great deal of time modernizing their library and here is where it really pays to be a historian in the 21st century.

I say this as their entire 1000-page catalog has been converted into a massive, searchable database. Each item in their bound volumes has a series of keyword designators and a short abstract telling you what the item includes. By typing in a keyword, such as "churches" it provides the researcher with a PDF (Adobe Acrobat doc.) with all of the volumes on file and associated info featuring the word "churches."

Now what this enabled me to do in mere minutes is identify 44 volumes that held potentially usable reference material and sources. It would take months to do that by hand. Each item with the word "churches" in it was listed by vol. number, section number, page and chapter number, and a brief description outlined the major topics.

I then told the NPS guys which ones I needed and they pulled them for me to browse. I spent days up at their offices, copying and photocopying page - after page - after page of documents and memoirs, recollections, and other unpublished sources. The pile that I walked away with was staggering.

However, identifying what is available and drilling that information down is only step one. This points you to the reference. But how do you manage it - especially when you end up with everything from old newspaper clippings and diary pages - to official reports and meeting minutes?

The answer is you make your own card-catalog. Organization is a top-priority. For "Houses of the Holy" each church had its own folder with a contents and index.

As I gathered more and more materials, they all went into the folders. By the time I was done I had a stack of folders bursting at the seams with reference.

This kept everything categorized and organized for me as I wrote each church's section separately. It also helped when it came time to credit people and I referred to these sources for the bibliography.

What is extra nice is that I now have an extensive collection of pre-sorted materials that I can refer to again and again for future projects. So through this one book, I now have sources for a dozen more pieces. I would like to add that I simultaneously collected the data on Spotsylvania's churches and I am already prepared to draft a companion volume when the time comes. So it helped me to think ahead, beyond the immediate project.

In addition to visiting the archives, I also made a point to personally contact and meet with representatives from each of the churches. All of them were very gracious and I had the opportunity to sit down with some of these congregation members who also provided me with copies of information. I did this to get the perspectives and insights from living, breathing, people.

The stories they shared with me and the personal items they allowed me to copy went beyond the scope of the archived materials. It made the piece more balanced and in some cases they either validated or contradicted what I had already written. This is where cross-checking data became crucial and the use of multiple sources became absolutely necessary.

I was also able to find some decent sources online, although I approached them carefully. The Internet of course has opened up a whole new world to historians (and writers), but it must always be examined with a critical eye. I'll discuss that in more detail later.

So once again research is THE most important aspect of my process. The writing itself is a wasted effort if I don't have a firm foundation of facts. It's the cornerstone of my work and "Houses of the Holy" is the fruit of that labor.

With a clear focus and the assistance of others, I was able to discover a great story and in turn share it with my readers. The focus of this book was rooted in a much broader perspective and I intentionally entered this unique piece knowing that:

1. I knew very little ahead of time about the subject.
2. I had to compose something that would be both original and inclusive.
3. I had to get feedback and fact checks from the experts.

And all of that depended on the quality of my research.

I'd like to confess that I didn't succeed in meeting those goals initially. This book went through 2 major rewrites after completing the manuscript due to the critical feedback that I got from my friends at the National Park Service.

In some places they felt I had been too soft on the controversial issues of race relations and secession, so I went back and spent 2 months tweaking the book. I deleted entire sections and also added new ones. It created more work, but it also made the book so much better. It came off the press a more well-rounded and in turn well-respected piece.

It forced me to grow as a historian, as a researcher, and ultimately as a writer. Today this book is nearing its second printing and people have really responded to it well. The History Press was so pleased they signed me to do that camp book as part of their "American Chronicles Series."

None of that would have been possible if I had neglected my research.

So that's just a glimpse into how I do what I do. Let's look at what we can do. What are some tips for research in writing?