Saturday, December 3, 2016

When Research Bogs Down 
Today I am wrestling with the problem of how much research is enough. I am writing a book about the history of museums that will survey 3000 years of collecting and display, and I’ve now spent almost six months researching the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). I feel like I’m in some sort of Renaissance wormhole; it is really interesting but how do I get out of it? When is enough information enough? (At this point, this is a very rhetorical question—I know I am long past the point of having plenty of information on this guy. He should take up something like 2-3 pages in my book at most, and yet I have over 40 pages of notes, and I’m finding that as I pick up new sources they are repeating things about him that I already know.)
It is hard to shake a process that has worked on projects that are much more tightly focused than this one. When I wrote about American trade on the Northwest Coast at the turn of the nineteenth century, it was necessary to read all the primary sources that I could identify as well as all of the secondary literature. Capt. Sam Hill’s biography required that I read every single thing ever written by him or about him, in addition to the contextual works of historians working on related topics. I have developed certain habits that have worked well for me in those books: I read the source materials, mark the passages that I think I might quote directly or that have essential knowledge for background, then set them up on my bookstand and enter them into my computer. * (I am attaching a picture of my bookstand and computer on my table today, where I have dolled up my workspace with flowers and candles to entice me to stay in one place and work earnestly.)
After thirty years of following this practice, I now need to shake it up a bit. This week I must put Rudolf back into the ground where he belongs and move on. (I still have to deal with other royals too, because they were important collectors, but King Charles I of England has got to be dealt with much more expeditiously, and what about the Russians?) One of the important things to do now is back away from the details and see the book as a whole, and this section as one part of it. It is also crucial to acknowledge that everything I have learned won’t be in this book; my job as the author is to decide what you as the reader will find most interesting, and what will best bring my best grandiose notions forward.
If, when I have finished writing it and you have finished reading it, you find that you want to know more about Rudolf, I will recommend additional reading.

*I need to make a note here that this process frequently gives me real concerns about the potential of accidentally plagiarizing another writer. It is important that I use different fonts or colored fonts to keep their words separate from mine in my text files.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Shipboard Source Materials: Logbooks and Journals

I described in my last entry how I used shipboard logbooks and journals in writing the biography of Captain Samuel Hill, Devil on the Deep Blue Sea.  It is essential in looking at the maritime career of an individual to look at every document that describes his or her life.  Today, however, I’m pondering what sort of shipboard sources I might use to add realistic detail to my current fictional project, a novel tentatively called The Descent into Piracy of a Lady of Quality.

Over the last thirty years I have probably looked at around 500 manuscript logbooks or journals in support of various projects, from understanding trade in ports on the Pacific coast and in Polynesian Islands, to looking at weather patterns to understand climate change. 

There are several reasons why a mariner keeps a chronological account of a voyage. It can serve as a legal record in case of incident or accident, document a claim of new territory, provide data that can be incorporated into nautical charts and tables of winds and currents, and record information to guide subsequent voyages in exploration, commerce, war, and the harvesting of marine resources.  A shipboard diary can also be a place where physical and emotional hardships, and exultations of rapture are scribbled secretly, intended to be shared with no one else.

The terms “logbook” and “journal” are often used interchangeably, but a ship’s logbook is technically a legal document, recording daily details of weather, wind direction, position, soundings, and course traveled, and surrendered to the vessel’s owner at the conclusion of the voyage.  A journal is a personal account, kept by any member of a ship’s company for his or her own private motives.  Both kinds of documents can include descriptions of ports-of-call and of people encountered on a voyage, incidents of trade, and accounts of disciplinary actions and other aspects of shipboard life, as well as the standard nautical entries.  A journal might also include private thoughts and observations, poems, song texts, and scientific data.  (My husband, Stuart Frank, wrote a doctoral dissertation on the songs sung aboard American whaling vessels by examining song texts written by sailors into their journals. There is a book that resulted from that work: Jolly Sailors Bold: Ballads & Songs of the American Sailor.)

I don’t recommend that anyone starting to research a novel with scenes set on shipboard go to a manuscript collection and begin poring through logs.  They are often hard to read, mostly tedious, and can be difficult to understand without a pretty solid context.  Fortunately, many of the most useful and literate examples have been published, some of which are the actual shipboard chronicle; others are narratives put together later using the shipboard sources.

Because my new novel is set at the end of the eighteenth century, I have the great advantage of being able to use the narratives of James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean, which have detailed accounts of how the ships work, how islands are approached, relationships with local people in dozens of ports, and observations of how people live, what the landscape looks like, and what birds and animals are encountered there.  One must, of course, always read accounts that are 250 years old with a critical eye toward the implicit racial and cultural biases of the time, but such good sources are not to be rejected on that count.  We learn a lot about the time we are exploring by understanding how relationships worked. 

The dramatic potential of a sea voyage has been explored since ancient times, with Odysseus and Sinbad being only two among many fictional captains whose exploits have been celebrated in folk literature from the shores of several continents. It provides the author with a perfect opportunity to test her hero (or increasingly her heroine) not only against the known dangers of enemies and the elements, but against the unknown world beyond, where fantastic and exotic adventures wait.

If you want to know more about shipboard sources, I have written two encyclopedia articles on this topic, and took some of this description from them: “Autobiographies, Journals and Diaries,” in the Encyclopedia of Maritime History (Oxford University Press, 2007), and “Logs and Journals” in the Encyclopedia of American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes (Greenwood Press, 2000).

Image caption:  These are two pages from the logbook of Captain Joseph Ingraham, aboard the ship Hope of Boston, 1790-92.  This manuscript is in the collection of the Library of Congress and you can view the whole thing online at  This is a particularly nice example!  Don't expect that every log is this lovely to read or holds such delights.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Following Sources

In 1803, the American ship Boston was captured at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and all the crew but two were murdered.  One of the survivors, John Jewitt, wrote about his experiences as a captive for two years of the Nuu-cha-Nulth chief Maquinna.  At the very end of the book, Jewitt wrote a terse description of his rescue by another American ship, the Lydia, under the command of Captain Samuel Hill.
While working on a history of American ships engaged in a trade for sea otter pelts on the Northwest Coast, I came across Jewitt’s 1815 Narrative of Adventures and Suffering, and also found two journals written by men serving on the Lydia.  The story they told was of what sailors referred to as a “hell ship.” The men were always poised and ready to mutiny; the original first officer had already been dismissed and put off the ship for challenging the authority of the captain.  Three different men served as chief mate in the course of the voyage, each more brutal than his predecessor.  A young Hawaiian woman lived in the captain’s cabin as his sexual hostage, and the captain himself behaved like a madman. This was the situation into which the Boston survivors escaped.
I thought I would write a book that compared the two captivities of John Jewitt, first among the Indians, and then aboard the Lydia.  But the more I looked into the character of Capt. Samuel Hill, the more he demanded that the book be about him. Hill was Forrest Gump-like in his peripheral appearance at important historical events at the turn of the nineteenth century.  He was the first American to live in Japan, he was at the Columbia River at the same time as Lewis & Clark, he was captured as a Privateer during the War of 1812, rescued captives of Indians and pirates, was in Chile during the Chilean Revolution, and in Hawaii when the great King Kamehameha died.  Throughout all this he was a beastly rapist and murderer, a tyrannical and abusive captain—and a literate and persuasive writer. 
It was the extraordinary wealth of source materials that led to my writing a biography of Hill, and it is my advice to anyone writing non-fiction history that they let the available sources steer the direction of their project.  In addition to the two manuscript journals of the Lydia voyage, I found three associated with Hill’s next Northwest Coast voyage on the Otter, papers related to the ship Franklin’s voyage to Japan in 1799, and two logbooks in Hill’s own hand of voyages he commanded on the Ophelia and Packet from Boston to Chile and China, as well as logbooks or journals from several ships he met along the way.
Hill was described by the Chinook Indians to Lewis and Clark, and he appears both in the explorers’ journals and on one of their charts—where they named a bay after him. There are also court records from two lawsuits, when an angry Hill sued the owners of ships he commanded.  He wrote epic letters and even an unpublished (and misleading) “autobiography” where he tried to square his monstrous past with a new born-again Christianity.  He was before his time in trying to manipulate his own image by writing articles for Boston newspapers. 
I used many standard sources for biographers, including genealogies, city directories, a cemetery plot, and church records. I also looked at art and objects, and found a rich record of life in the Dutch settlement in Japan during Hill’s time, portraits of the ship Franklin, and even objects that Hill must have had his hands on.  (See more about hats collected by Lewis & Clark at
There are details about all the sources in the book, and you can read much of it on this webpage at  New copies of the book are available at Sea Ocean Book Berth in Seattle and at Frank’s Fisherman in San Francisco.

In the next blog I will describe in greater detail what researchers can find in shipboard logbooks and journals, and how to get access to them.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Fiction and Non-Fiction

Because I write both non-fiction history and history-based fiction, I am frequently asked to talk about the difference. There is a real distinction for me between scholarly nonfiction and novel writing in that the former requires that I stick close to my source materials in the conclusions I draw.

I started writing my first novel, The Wandering Heart, when I was working on a doctoral dissertation at Brown University, in part to allow me to explore the historian’s fantasy of having evidence come easily to hand rather than being the result of a methodical and often tedious process. I start the research for every project with some idea about where it is heading, but I am always prepared to let the documents I find change the direction or focus of the work. It can be frustrating when long hours of research do not result in evidence that will support your ideas, so I made it easy for my heroine, Lizzie Manning, to find things by creating the kind of evidence I would love to find myself. All the journal entries, letters, objects, poems and paintings in the book are fictional but I was inspired by historical examples.  The central house in the book was also constructed entirely in my head and on the page, but I used about a dozen sources on historic English homes to create it.

Writing a novel allowed me to stray from the sources, so that I could add new material to existing texts and even invent whole new documents, objects, and works of art, but I still wanted the book to be grounded in the process of historical research, and to introduce readers to how that process works. In order to give Lizzie some veracity as a historian, I gave her my own specialties: maritime history, museums, and Northwest Coast Indian cultural anthropology, but the situations I write about never happened, and the book is not autobiographical.

I must admit that it is fun to take an actual site and write a new history for it, and I have done that several times. In The Wandering Heart, for instance, there is a scene set in Salisbury Cathedral, where I found the tomb of a knight who died on a crusade in 1256 in Mansoura, Egypt.  The circumstances of his death provided good details for one of my character’s ancestors, and I made the Salisbury corpse his comrade. I also took advantage of a small adjacent tomb as a burial place for the mummified heart of my own crusader character (and then exhumed it with the assistance of a totally made-up crew of cathedral workers).

If this topic is of interest, I discuss it in some greater length in the “Reader’s Guide” section of The Wandering Heart. 

In the next post, I intend to write about how the whole subject matter of the non-fiction Devil on the Deep Blue Sea: The Notorious Career of Captain Samuel Hill of Boston, changed when I found unexpected documentation of the beastly mariner.  The book was not intended to be about him, but somehow he took over the project! 

Image:  Read more about the painting on the cover of The Wandering Heart, Frederick William Burton's 1864 Meeting on the Turret Stairs, at the "Cover Art" link on this webpage.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Changing Course

I am a writer.

This is the first time that I have called myself that in preference to “teacher.”  It acknowledges a change in my life as I take a leap and leave my job of 24 years at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Massachusetts to devote myself to writing full time.  (I will still teach a class each term in the Harvard Museum Studies program, but more about that in another entry.)

Two projects will be the focus of this blog for the next year or so: a non-fiction history of museums, and a novel about an aristocratic Englishwoman who is reduced to piracy at the turn of the nineteenth century.  These are obviously very different subjects and approaches, but they have requirements in common, primarily a need for good research.  My plan is to talk about sources, how to find good ones, how to read them effectively, and how to incorporate them into both fiction and non-fiction.

For years I have told students that I have a tattoo that says “Writing is a Process,” and I will admit now that while it isn’t actually physically inked on my body, it has been tapped into my brain by thousands of little pinpricks of information that get embedded there in the course of reading, traveling, looking at works of art, listening to music, and writing, writing, writing.  Neither research nor writing are easy for me, but they are enormously satisfying, and I hope that in pondering and recording the process, others traveling along the same road will find something worthwhile.

Image:  The Robert C. Seamans at Hao atoll in French Polynesia.  In my time at SEA, I sailed on this vessel on the American west coast from Alaska to California, around Polynesia and New Zealand, and from Tahiti to Hawaii.