Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Never Let Good Research Languish
I have been a professional storyteller for nearly a quarter of a century. My most popular programs are historical, and each one was funded in part through a grant or a commission. In order to develop a reputation for historical accuracy and an authentic persona, I do all I can to thoroughly research the time periods, just as I do for my writing, poring over original documents and books, interviewing others who have expertise on the subject, visiting some sites where the events happened, studying the clothing and other everyday details of the period, sewing the attire from authentic fabrics, and purchasing any necessary accoutrements.
I say all of that, not to impress the reader with my dedication and research skills, but to emphasize that much goes into developing a new historical program. What a shame it would be to allow all of that effort to languish, once the performance script is written. By the time the show premieres, I have gained a certain expertise on my subject and have acquired a small library, to boot.
The logical extension for this writer is to write a middle-grade fiction book that uses the body of research already gathered. (Of course, questions arise that send me off on new trails, so the research never really ends until the manuscript is finished.) For example, my first storytelling persona was "Jack's Mama," still a favorite among clients. As JM, I portray a pioneer mountain woman and tell stories from the oral tradition of the southern Appalachians. Through a Lilly Teacher Creativity Fellowship, I was able to spend a month wandering through the mountains, gathering stories, studying the dialect, and talking with the people about their lives. I used that knowledge and experience in the writing of Up the Rutted Road, my first book manuscript, currently undergoing a revision.
Four years ago, Storytelling Arts of Indiana awarded me the Frank Basile Emerging Stories Fellowship to develop Abigail Gray: Living under the Drinking Gourd, a program about the Underground Railroad. My second novel manuscript, The Second Cellar, this one for upper middle graders, is a historical fantasy that involves the Underground Railroad. I have written just over 100 pages on it. Here I go, recycling research again!
Recognizing that every perfect gift comes from the Lord, I thank Him for these opportunities. He allowed me to receive an Individual Artist's Project fellowship from the Indiana Arts Commission/National Endowment for the Arts to begin this second manuscript. They liked the idea, as did an editor who critiqued the proposal at a writers' conference.
Even as I revise one manuscript and write a second, I am thinking about how I can recycle the research I did for a storytelling performance about the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War and another about the Great Depression because one should never, ever let good research languish.