In 2008 I set out to research some extra background on the the men and women from County Mayo who were involved in the War of Independence. This interest arose when I attended a book launch in Mayo County Library by Captain Dónal Buckley for The Battle for Tourmakeady. I had never heard of the battle, nor indeed any of the events which occurred in County Mayo during this period. Intrigued, I began to uncover a fascinating story which eventually became The Flame and the Candle, War in Mayo 1919-1924 published by The Collins Press. I learned a lot about what is involved in putting together a local history book and here are some observations on the process of research and writing.
Your interest in a topic might arise from a passion for a particular subject inspired by a story you heard or a book you read. Whatever the spark for your research and writing it should be vibrant enough to sustain you for a long period. Your project should be a journey of enjoyment, not one long slog!
One of the first tasks you set yourself is to determine the initial sources you will consult. Define your period and try to avoid spreading your focus too wide or too narrow. Newspapers are a good starting point as they reveal key personalities as well as the sequence of events. You should also consider whether the work you are undertaking has already been addressed by someone else. Your initial sources should provide interesting details while also leading you in many different directions. It is important to determine whether there are enough primary sources available to provide sufficient material to support the writing of a publication.
If you have a personal history of writing letters, diaries or articles you will have developed a way of writing with which you are comfortable. Realising your strengths and weaknesses are important steps in your writing skills. Very often the subject matter you have chosen will determine your written approach. If you are writing about people you have to be descriptive. This assists the reader by setting a scene while building up pictures of people, places and events. Descriptive writing needs to be balanced with detailed information which helps the flow of the story. This can be supported by statistical information presented in table format, woven into the text or appendices.
In the initial stages the writer should not worry too much about the length of a publication, the number of chapters or even the name of the book. All of these will appear as the research gathers pace in depth and breadth. Eventually you will arrive at a point where key events or themes emerge which are central to the story. These events will provide the main chapters. The name of the book and chapters many be influenced from your primary sources or your understanding and insight into the work in progress. As you read and research make a note of interesting events and characters you come across. Some will provide a starting point for further investigation. Many will turn out to be a dead end but occasionally you will unearth a gem which is something completely new and this is well worth waiting for!
If you are writing about history it is essential to tell the story from different sides regardless of your own preferences. If your work is to stand up to scrutiny it should be balanced and fair. It is important to challenge preconceived ideas through detailed research. This helps the writer avoid sweeping generalisations. The names you give to opposing sides in a conflict should be the names/titles they gave themselves rather than those given by their opponents. By all means refer to slang or particular labels but qualify them by acknowledging the source. Writing in such a manner assists the reader in understanding the period under study from the particular standpoints of various protagonists while avoiding accepting propaganda as legitimate history.
Writing history takes time. It is always advisable to reflect on what you have uncovered. This helps with subsequent steps in direction such as further research and fine tuning of the story being told. Some writers like a structured process of reflection where they sit down and format their thoughts as in a report. Others might prefer a long walk while thrashing out the ideas and findings in their head. Discussing issues/topics with a good friend who is familiar with your research is always worthwhile as it enables you tease out your theories and structures.
Time also permits your research and findings to lead your story. Try not to fall into the temptation of being selective in the use of sources to support a certain thesis. Remember, even the devil can quote scripture! Few events turn out as we predict and your history will always be more interesting as a result. Being led by your sources will open up many surprises and give you lots to discuss.
From the outset of your research it is crucial to file your resources in an organised and structured way. This applies equally to hard copy and computerised resources. Your hard copy files can be organised by date, topic or by archive. Computer files should likewise be well organised, easy to locate and regularly backed up on a CD or memory stick to avoid losing valuable material. Record as much information as possible and always write down the reference number in as much detail as possible. This helps in finding material a second time if required. Input your footnotes and/or endnotes as you write your history. It will save an awful lot of time trying to remember where your sources came from when you have completed the work.
Keep a series of good quality notebooks for recording information in archives, discussions, addresses, leads, phone numbers and email addresses. Keep all your notes no matter how insignificant you think they might be. A hastily scribbled observation can often be the hidden key to undiscovered letters or photographs. Transfer your contact details to one spread sheet and add to it as your work continues.
Good photographs always enrich a history as they give the reader a flavour of the time in which your work is set. Be aware of the importance of collecting photographs from the outset of your work. Almost all archives carry photograph collections. Remember that families of those involved in your history may also have photographs. Most will be delighted to share them with you. It is best to have written permission from those who donate photographs for inclusion in your work. Try to include as many unpublished photographs as possible. The best way to save the photographic images is to scan them at high quality resolution but a photograph taken with a good quality digital camera can be just as good.
History is about people. Perhaps that is why we find it so fascinating. A historian writes about people whose descendents are alive today. Some parts of your story may be difficult to write about for any number of reasons. Sometimes we may wish to avoid an issue or ignore it – history should not be airbrushed! Yet the historian should develop some skill in writing about the memories of those who have gone before us. A well researched and reflected-upon work will go a long way towards acceptance among those who read the result of your many hours of hard work.