Endless Possibilities Blog Tour 2014: Linda Johnston on Historical Research

I have been somewhat delinquent in my duties on this blog tour. I went dark during a writers’ retreat (more on that coming on The Shared Desk, so watch your feed. I am probably going to extend my own blogposts another week, just to make sure everyone gets proper coverage, maybe even double-up on guests.

Hey, I got plenty of room here. My guests will just argue on who gets the bed and who gets the pull-out bed from the couch.

My first guest is Linda Johnston, a writer, artist, and naturalist.  In her writing, she brings together history, art, and nature, creating one voice, one passion for everyone to enjoy.  Last August, Linda published Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory, a narrated, illustrated collection of diaries and letters by settlers who wrote about the joyful side of life in their adopted communities during the years 1855 to 1861. Hope Amid Hardship is her first book.

Linda, the blog is yours…

linda_webI am addicted to historical research.  During the last year or so of work on the book, my husband would occasionally ask, “Isn’t the research phase about over?”  Even though my book was published in August, I continue to find little gems that I can use for book talks. I can’t help myself.

Research for my book began in 1986, although I didn’t know I was working toward a book then.  I just started reading pioneer diaries and letters and have never stopped.

The first diaries I read were on microfilm or occasionally, an original found in a local historical society, library, or the most incredible library, the Library of Congress. Available resources depended on where job transfers took my family and me.

During the last few years of research for the book, a great deal of material became digitized and available online.  I read many documents from the Kansas Historical Society on their website, including settlers’ diaries and letters.  This, of course, meant less travel and I could read them any time, even at two a.m. when I couldn’t sleep.

World Cat, an online library catalog, provided not only titles and availability of books, but also the nearest library and mileage. As I attempted to flesh out the pioneers in the book, I gleaned dates, background information, and even grave locations from Ancestry.com.  In addition, this electronic warehouse of data helped lead me to some descendents of people in my book.

These resources provide a convenient, efficient way to sort through information. But I have to say that for me, nothing compares to holding a little leather diary with worn covers that open to sepia-toned passages like this one from Joseph Miller as he described others who joined him in 1855 at the Boston depot for the trip to Kansas:

“There was the child of infantile years, the impetuous youth, the woman in the prime of life, and the hoary headed man, all of whom were seeking the same goal, a home in the far off west. . .

As someone who would love to travel through time, holding a personal diary or letter seems as close as I will get.  In addition to the practical information one can gain from such an item, surely the fragile binding still holds some essence of the writer’s character.

HAH Cover smlTo help give my book a better sense of place, I visited Kansas several times, seeking out historic markers where towns once stood, walking the prairie, and visiting several gravesites belonging to settlers in my book.  Finding historical societies in areas where the pioneers in my book lived helped me discover the particular character, both geographic and social, of each town or county.

Using many types of resources gives any book, especially one with historical aspects, added layers of interest, accuracy, and personality.  I refer to this as a book’s texture.

Lots of research requires organization.  In reading diaries, letters, and newspaper articles from early Kansas, I soon learned that I needed to establish some sense of order.  I had a manila folder for each settler that contained relevant information and photocopies.  Because my book was divided into seasons, I had a binder for each season that held copies of quotes, letters, or newspaper items that had an assigned source number and color code for the season.  The number corresponded to the entry in my resource spiral. This system worked well for me through the years of research and several long distance moves.

As I mentioned, I used a spiral notebook (yep, old school) for my list of sources. I started at the back of the notebook with number one and move forward.  Then as I make photocopies or add a source, I assign it a number, writing it on the photocopy as well, if I have one.  This system made doing the bibliography much easier.

libraryIn summary, over the twenty-five years I did research, I used several types of resources and methods.  I think this variety using old (diaries, newspapers) and some new (online catalogs, transcriptions) gave the project a good balance.  Good research helps a writer gain (and keep) the trust of the reader.  It also helps keep the author interested.

To learn more about my book Hope Amid Hardship: Pioneer Voices from Kansas Territory, please visit www.lindasjohnston.com or find me on facebook at Linda S. Johnston, Author.

Thank you for having me as a guest blogger, Tee.

6 thoughts on “Endless Possibilities Blog Tour 2014: Linda Johnston on Historical Research

  1. I remember going into a museum in London and seeing what looked like a wooden high chair and realizing it was like, centuries old. That’s what I love about delving into the past. I love how steampunk …and the unveiling of old diaries like your book, Linda…brings the past into the present.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed “Hope Amid Hardship”. It’s a genre that I almost never indulge in, but Linda’s work simply tugged at the heart. I couldn’t put it down. The beautiful artwork really supports the stories, and it’s clear from page one that she was very thorough in her research. Great read!

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