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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

The Early Days: How I Began to Write US History

I was a writer by trade, so writing on U.S. history didn’t seem daunting. Newspaper reporters tackle all kinds of subjects. I’d done a bit of medical writing, I was a business writer for three years, I wrote often about schools, I’d reviewed some plays and concerts, become an editorial writer, and done a lot of whatever-will-sell freelancing. As for history? A story I wrote about Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom” (a little known but enormously important document) ran in the Wall St. Journal. Virginius Dabney, one of my heroes and a grand old man In Virginia history circles, had actually complimented me on the article. So had Dumas Malone, a Jefferson biographer and University of Virginia historian. The idea was to do as good a job as possible and go to experts to have my work checked. I didn’t realize it, but compared to those who actually write the books used in most schools, I was enormously well qualified.

I already had a desk squeezed into a sunny bedroom corner; I was ready to begin. My intent was to write a one-volume U.S. history and take a year (at most) to do it. (Later I would chuckle over my ignorance of what I was undertaking.)

How to start? I headed for the Virginia Beach library where cardholders can check out 15 books. (During the time it took me to write A History of US, I would almost always have 15 library books stacked them on the floor next to the desk.)

And so I began reading: some overview American histories, some old college texts, and all the books I could find about the first people who walked and paddled over the Bering Strait area and on into the Americas. I discovered the wonders of used bookstores where out-of-print books often hold treasures of little known Americana. I tabbed library books and underlined in the books that I bought. When I could I visited the places I was describing.

Today I’m often asked about my writing method: Do I keep notes on index cards? Do I finish most of my research before I begin writing?

Lots of writers do just that. I don’t. Maybe I’d be better off if I did. But I’m a re-writer. I start with an overview and some details-look for an unfolding story-and begin writing. Each time I read a new book or article I tweak, sometimes that leads to a major revision.

In my first newspaper jobs I had used a glue pot and scissors, as most reporters did then, moving paragraphs around by literally cutting and pasting. But thanks to a math-minded son, I was an early user of computers. I had a basic Apple and a dot matrix printer and found that the computer made rewriting enormously easy.

The Internet? When it arrived (years later, while I was writing “The Story of Science”), it would change my way of work. But that was in the future. When I began, the source of much of my information was a big bookcase filled with encyclopedias, dictionaries, and research resources. A thesaurus may have been the most used of those books.

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