Interview Transcripts

Diane Gardner: Writing History

October 2008

 

Mary Rosenblum:   Diane L Georres-Gardner is the author of "Necktie Parties -- Legal Executions in Oregon 1851-1905" published by Caxton Press in 2005. Her  new book  "Murder, Morality and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon History"  will come out  this winter.  You can find her book at  Amazon.com.    I met Diane at the Willamette Writers Conference, purchased a copy of her book, and was impressed with her writing.  So, Diane, welcome!  It's so nice to have you here!  Why don't you tell us a bit about yourself?  How did you get started writing anyway?  And were you always interested in historical nonfiction or did you begin somewhere else first?

Diane Gardner:  Thank you Mary,
I'm delighted to be here. I just returned from giving Chautauqua presentations in Madra, Sumpter, Haines and Union, Oregon. Besides writing about Oregon's history I work for the Oregon Coucil for Humanities giving talks all over Oregon. My presentation is called "Frontier Justice". I seem to have become Oregon's expert on Nineteenth Century justice. I really enjoy traveling with my husband, meeting people and helping readers understand our past a little bit better. My next talk will be in Tillamook, OR on Nov. 8. Come see me if you can.

Mary Rosenblum:    Oh, cool, Diane!  Tell us about the Chautauqua lectures. Is this something you pursued for PR purposes for your book?

Diane Gardner:  I gave over 40 interviews, talks and appearences the first year Necktie Parties was out. That included two TV interviews and three radio interviews. With my experience from teaching I got pretty good at it. My cousin is a retired history professor and he was involved in the Chautaqua program. He recommended I apply. It's a fabulous way to keep introducing my book to audiences and I get paid to do it. I usually sell a few books at each stop. I make sure everyone has my business card before they leave (it has an engraved invitaion to a hanging on the back), that the local library has a copy of my book, and I visit any bookstores in the area to sign copies for them. The Oregon Chautauqua program is sponsored by the Oregon Council for Humanities. They get support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Oregon Cultural Trust. There are about 30 speakers available at any one time. Programs are available to any non-profit organization that's open to the public. I mostly give talks at libraries, museums, community centers and places like that. Since Sept. 2007 I've given about 15 talks. It's increased people's awareness of my work 100%. 

Mary Rosenblum:    Diane, historical nonfiction and even historical fiction seems like a daunting task to many novice writers.  Where do you even start, once you've decided what time period or event you want to focus on?  Does the internet help or is it all in dusty library archives?

Diane Gardner:  For me historical research is a joy and a pleasure. I feel like Christopher Columbus discovering a new land when I begin researching a new book or a new project. It's hard work, true, but writing is hard work too.

When I started writing the internet didn't have what I needed on line so I learned to do all my research in archives, museums, university libraries and on microfilm. Today many old newspapers are set up as searchable archives - such as the old Colorado newspapers. Unfortunately, for the kind of research that I do, the internet still isn't detailed enough. However, I can see that some day it may be.

For a beginner, I'd suggest that once you pick your time period, say 1880-1900, you go to a newspaper archive and spend a day reading old newspapers from that era. Get the feel of what topics were being discussed in the editorials, what prices were for commodities, what products were being advertised, and what was happening locally and internationally. From there focus in on what your specific interest and research may be possible on the internet.

I read voraciously about my subject also. While I'm writing about the prison system in Oregon, I also read about prison systems all over the US, England and Europe. I try to understand how the average person thought about the criminal justice system and the history of any changes made.

Then when I write my story I write so my reader can feel like that person and have the same complex understanding as a person living in that period. Some readers say that is my gift. If so, it's one I have tried very hard to work toward.

Muleskinner:  What if I am going from another direction, starting with a topic and then looking for a time period? Something like commercial fishing or mining, then finding the most interesting time. Or is that a silly idea.

Diane Gardner:  Topic to Time Period

Well, it would depend on who my audience is going to be. Am I writing for 20 year olds or 60 year olds? Do I want to focus on the history of the subject or a person involved in the subject.

Once you define some of those issues you'll start answering your own questions. I know that sounds too easy but I don't know how to do it any other way.
"Necktie Parties" was written for men in the 50-70 age group interested in history. That's primarily who reads it. Fortunately their wives, mothers and sisters buy it for them."Murder, Morality and Madness" was written for women in the 30-60 age group interested in women's issues and history. Hopefully, when it comes out that will be the primary audience.

Mary Rosenblum:    Interesting, Diane.  So thinking of your audience is as important in Nonfiction as it is in fiction?  In fiction you certainly know who your readers are!

Diane Gardner:  I believe knowing your audience is even more important in nonfiction than fiction. At least it is if you want people to read it. Much of historical nonfiction is written for academics. I believe you can write historical nonfiction that is interesting for both the general reader and for the professional historian.

I insisted that "Necktie Parties" have an index that listed every name mentioned in the book because I knew many of my readers would be genealogists looking for family members. I put the names of jury members, witnesses and family in the book for the same reason even though it was boring to the general reader. I used a variety of short story techniques to write the chapters to keep them interesting. Each story has the same basic information - a murder, trial and hanging so it's important to create variety. Many of my readers don't read novels because it's too long for their concentration. Short chapters are easier to pick up and put down. All kinds of considerations come to mind when you consider who your audience is.

Mary Rosenblum:    That's interesting, Diane. I hadn't thought of genealogists, looking for family members!  So, I'm curious. Do you have any sense of who your readers are, in general?  Have you had feedback from readers or booksellers about who is buying the book? 

Diane Gardner:  Because I do so many talks and sell books at each one I know what age group my readers are and generally what they want in a book. When I wrote the book I thought more writers would buy the book for background material. That hasn't happened. I have lots of feedback from readers by email or letter and they show up at my talks. I haven't had as much feedback from booksellers as I'd like. I think it's very difficult to sell books at book signings. I do much better if I can give a little presentation first. I do book signings - it just doesn't feel as productive to me. It's more like a service to the independent stores to help and support them.

How do other writers feel about signings at bookstores?
Do you attend them yourself? Are you there to get an autograph or just to buy a book?

 Muleskinner:  I'm new at this, but you have struck a timely chord. I am in the course and learning how to write freelance for magazines with the intention of writing novels one day. At this point I am picking magazines to send an article to and I was at first writing the story then looking for a magazine. Now I see that picking the magazine helps narrow the scope of how to write the article. But magazines are established and you can read them and get a feel for the audience. How do you find a market for a book? Particularly one with this type of focus. And having a mercenary heart, what groups buy the most books?

Diane Gardner:  It's well known that women buy more books than men and women between the ages of 40-70 buy the most. So aim for that market if you want. Your market depends on the niche you fall into - mystery, romance, suspense, classic lit, etc. Write what you like to read. Talk to your friends. Go on line and visit bookstores.
Hopefully this has helped a little.

Mary Rosenblum:    So, Diane, how do you organize all that STUFF?  I've been researching the meso-American cultures for an alternate-history novel and I'm literally drowning in notes!  Any tips for how to find stuff when you're on chapter ten?

Diane Gardner:  Stuff!!! I wish I knew! HuhI too have file cabinets full of paper. What has worked for me on one book doesn't always work for me on another. I am a paper person. I print everything. I make copies of everything. In teaching we used to call that a visual learner. I know many writers that organize everything electronically but that just puts too much in my head to organize all at once.
In general I've organized by character and topic. I have a very broadly organized  system with file folders that I use for general things: Oregon penitentiary, insane asylum, Portland police, women's work, etc. Then I have another file system for my current project organized by character. Inside each person's folder I add copies from the main folders of whatever I may focus on with that character.
For example: In my new book due to come out this winter, "Murder, Morality and Madness: Women Criminal in Early Oregon History" one chapter is about a prostitute, Carrie Bradley, who is convicted of 2nd degree murder. Besides all the information about Carrie that would normally go in her folder I also include copies of the laws that would apply to her profession and  notes on prostitution in Portland.
That way I'm always going from the general to the specific and back out again.  I can immediately identify where my information comes from. I use endnotes extensively in my books so I have to be very careful when I quote someone else's work.

 Muleskinner:  OK, so it sounds like I need a new file cabinet for this sort of thing. But when you research, are you looking for something or do you just rummage until the story starts to come together. I guess I'm looking for some sort of structure to work with, otherwise I will research forever. How do you define the scope to focus the search?

Diane Gardner:  I've put a boundary around my work - Oregon, justice system, 1800's.

I think you have to put some boundaries around your research. I talked to a young writer the other day. She won an hour of my time at a raffle held at the Willamette Writers Conference. She had a time period and good ideas about characterization. But she hadn't answered the basic questions of what her story was about and where she wanted to go with it. She was stuck in the research rut. We spent an hour discussing the problem and hopefully she was able to work it out.
Defining the scope is the beginning not the end. I don't feel like I really answered your question, however this is the best suggestion I can think of right now.

Mary Rosenblum:    Oh ,Diane, I think you have answered Muleskinner.  That seems to be such a trap...that 'research forever' waiting to strike the 'mother lode' of a good idea. So when you sat down to write your Necktie Parties, did you set out from the get-go to write about executions in Oregon?  Or did you research first, looking for an idea, and then decide on this topic?

Diane Gardner:  I knew from the beginning that I wanted to write about the executions. However, I didn't know how many there were, where they occurred in Oregon, or who was executed. At first I was worried there wouldn't be enough. Then I was worried there would be too many. I ended up putting 50 of the 63 in the book. I had read a newspaper article in an old 1851 Oregon Statesman about the hanging of Adam Wimple. I was intrigued and wanted to know more. I discovered that nothing had ever been written about Oregon's public hangings. I knew at that moment this was what I wanted to write about. It took me five years of research and writing.
I wanted the chapters to be interesting "stories", because ultimately I'm a story teller. My husband says I'm a repressed actress. I didn't want the book to be a dry recitation of facts and figures. So if I say it was raining that day, you can be sure I have newspaper articles to prove it was raining. Sometimes I could find the most amazing details about the event and other times it was pretty sparse.
When I give my Chautauqua talks I even act out a couple of the stories. The talks are primarily to get people thinking about capital punishment and help them understand the context of the hangings in the 1800's. Also to tell them about the history of the events. My talk is called Justice in Frontier Oregon, 1851-1905. Two newspaper just published stories about my talks, the LaGrande Observer on Oct. 9 and the Baker City Herald on Oct. 8. I know for sure the latter is available on line.
For my second book I had gathered some great stories about women I couldn't use in Necktie Parties and they became the nucleus for Murder, Morality and Madness.
I'm beginning work on my third. It's an outgrowth of the many questions people ask me at the end of my talks. I'm just beginning to research it. However, it will still be similar in subject and organization to my first two. I find it fascinating and will stick with what I seem to be good at. I need to write about things I feel passionate about. Fortunately I don't have to make a living at this and have the freedom to pursue what I want.

Mary Rosenblum:    So essentially you're in love with your topic.  Is that what Im hearing?  Is that, do you think, a prerequisite for writing good historical fiction?  That you LOVE that period, event, person, whatever?

Diane Gardner:  Well for me it is. I can't imagine writing books about railroads or sheep. I believe the passion you feel for your topic comes across in your writing. The discerning reader is going to pick up on the writer's feelings pretty quickly. Besides, why spend so much of your life researching and writing about something you don't care about.

Muleskinner:   Setting the scope first makes sense in order to keep from having to move into the warehouse next door to the library where you can keep the pallets of files from the endless quest. I'll have to work on that. I obviously don't have my scope narrowed down enough and my research is still a bit nebulous. But I enjoy reading and real history is fascinating. What I have found though is the subjects that are the most documented are the ones that are the most written about. How do you find the overlooked nuggets and subjects that are fascinating and not well covered?

Mary Rosenblum:    Good question, Muleskinner!  Diane, what are some good resources, once we've exhausted google and the local library?

Diane Gardner:  I discovered my subject because I was curious. I discovered the hangings because I was browsing through microfilm of old papers. It was also the right time for me and I had developed the skills necessary to do the research. Since then I found nearly a dozen subjects related to the justice system that have never been written about.

One of my favorite recourses is the state archives. They have nearly unlimited resources concerning legal and state government documents. County and local museums have great resources. Historical societies, genealogical groups and family history centers are everywhere.
When I started researching "Necktie Parties" it was hard for me to just call places so I wrote letters telling the organization what I was doing and what information I was seeking from them. It opened up doors I never knew existed. I still have people getting in touch with me to add info to my collection even though the book's been out for three years. Everyone likes to be part of an exciting project and volunteers and county workers want to help you. The secret is to be specific about what you want. Saying you want all the information about railroads in the state isn't going to be very helpful for you or for them.
I don't believe any other state has a book like "Necktie Parties" so you could do one for your state. Dig into the development and history of state institutions - prisons, insane asylums, hospitals, churches, police departments. How about how fingerprinting was first used in your state? Do a biography on an important person whose story has never been told. There are so many women's stories that have been overlooked.

 Muleskinner:   I'm from Texas, and well a necktie party book would be a long one, at least a trilogy.  Cheesy. Actually there are a lot of them but as you discovered not as many as you would think. I've read about judges and how they cranked out the cases but not much on the individuals on the other end of the rope.
     OK, now you've done it, you have my curiosity up and I'll have to go see what I can find. Know where I can get a deal on some file cabinets?

Mary Rosenblum:    Diane, do you belong to a writer's group or a critique group?  How do you get feedback on what you're doing?  Do you find experts to review your facts at all?  Or do you mostly concentrate on the writing?

http://longridgewritersgroup.net/Themes/leviathan_11final/images/icons/modify_inline.gif Diane Gardner:  I'm very lucky to belong to a wonderful critique group in Roseburg, OR. Two of the writers in my group are published in the historical fiction category. One writes essays for a local newsper and others are professional in their abilities. It's an invitation only group and we meet weekly for 2 1/2 hours. They are fantastic.
I didn't join them until I was almost finished with "Necktie Parties". They helped me with the main introduction and one or two stories. I think my next book due out this winter "Murder, Morality and Madness: Women Criminals in Early Oregon History" is much better written because of their input.
We help each other spot language anomalies, ie. using the word basement instead of cellar in the early 1800's.
We each have special skills in grammar, character development or plot. I'm strong in some things and weak in others so I really listen when we meet. It's amazing how many of us will spot the same problem at the same time.
We read aloud one chapter or story. Each member relates their critique and the reader "tries" to just listen and not defend. Each reader takes about 20+ minutes. Not everyone has something to read every week.

Sorry Mary,
I forgot to answer your question about experts. I did send a preliminary copy of "Nectie Parties" to Dr. William Long after we became acquainted. He was a lawyer and teacher at Willamette University. I asked him if he would read it and specifically critique my legal explanations because I don't have any legal experience. He was very helpful and even wrote the back cover summary/endorsement for the book.
Of course you always give such an expert or source a copy of your book when it is published.
Cheesy
Other than that no experts really existed for my topic.

Mary Rosenblum:    So this brings us to a new question...how often do you give out copies of your books to folk that helped you, and what is your criterion for giving someone a signed copy?  What about a written acknowledgement?  I notice that you have an extensive reference list, but not an acknowledgement page.  Was that the publisher's choice or yours?    Did you give a copy to the research librarian that helped you?  Someone who spent lots of time, for sure!  Since authors usually  have to pay for their copies, too, that can be a question if you're on a tight budget. 

Diane Gardner:  Most places require a copy of the book in exchange for use of their pictures (in addition to money). I give copies of my book to people and organizations that have gone out of their way to help me, given me free housing, etc. I keep track of how many and write it off as an advertising expense on my taxes. My publisher is wonderful about providing books necessary for contests, awards, and conferences. I don't give books to family ( I have a BIG family) or acquaintances unless it's a special occasion. Each book costs me $9.50 so it adds up fast. I write everything off on my taxes though. Sometimes I give a book to a library in the small towns I give talks in because I know they have very little money. Usually though they have ordered a copy of the book before I get there.

An acknowledgement page would have been several pages long. Instead I decided to include people and organizations in the Reference section of each chapter.  I considered a special page but it felt redundant. Caxton is wonderful. They pretty much let me do what I want.

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