On Writing History

There are no contradictions for me when writing in different genres, be it poetry, children’s stories, novels, or scholarly history books. It all requires good thinking and writing. Actually, I’ve learned a lot about how to write a historical novel from my history books and my novel has used techniques I learned from writing picture books, i.e., keep the action going. And picture books? Well, like poetry, every word must count.

Professionally, I am a historian. I have loved every stage—going into the archives, where I always find something astonishing (once Ida B. Wells’s letter of advice to her daughters, another time an unknown play by an African-American activist in the early 1900s); reading the secondary literature and questioning, seeing how I might contribute something new; starting to write the chapters, all the while keeping the 400 or more sources in my head. And then there is the endless revising. I once calculated that each of my books averaged 8,000-10,000 hours from start to finish. And yes, I loved all of those hours.

For those of you unacquainted with historical writing, it is grueling. We follow each lead until we can’t find any more information. But we don’t end there. Much of our thinking is inductive so we look for threads of evidence. We triangulate our sources. That means we don’t rely on one source but multiple ones. After all, diaries and autobiographies must be read with caution and source materials generally have their own social contexts and nuances. It’s much like reading literature, looking for subtexts, different meanings, and piecing it all together into a reliable set of arguments with sufficient evidence.

Sometimes conclusions are evident. But other times, they are not. So we might conjecture and ask good questions. Here our language must reflect why we think a certain way. We must also address counterfactuals, that is, material that doesn’t agree with our arguments. Why do we think differently? In some cases, the other historians looked at different sources or had a different ideology. And our perspectives are indelibly guided by our experiences.

It gets complicated but it is exhilarating. It is especially gratifying to hear from readers who thank me or to ask further questions, or in a few cases, mention that someone I wrote about was their relative. And one thing that also makes me happy. Many history books have a long shelf live. If you go into a good university library, chances are good you will find history books from fifty, a hundred years ago, even longer. I like the idea that someone might be reading one of my books one hundred years from now.




The emotional investment of writing a novel

      Writing in any genre is an emotional investment. For one, you never know what’s going to happen in the manuscript. There is always the element of surprise, whether working on a scholarly history book, a poem, a children’s story, or a novel. Second, we spend so much time on our manuscripts that some of us experience emotional burnout. Luckily, I’ve never felt that. Taking a few days off helps and also gives me a chance to reflect on what I’ve written and where to go.  Third, when we are writing well…and let’s face it…just writing, it is an incredible high. I’m one of those strange writers who even loves editing. Last, there’s a lot of emotion around whether what we’re writing will get published. All those stages, from the contract to holding your new books, are so gratifying.

     But I’m not thinking here of those kinds of emotional investments. Rather, I’m thinking of the deep love and care you have for your characters when writing a novel. Although I am writing about three generations of an African-American family and an Irish-American one, the main characters are two teenage girls. When they or anyone in the family suffers, I feel as if I do, too. I fret about them, just like a doting mother. How will they handle the migration to Chicago? I want to comfort them when a grandparent dies. When both girls are sent to a state reformatory, I want them to be sent back home.

But it’s more than that. I have found that I do not stop thinking about my novel and its characters. It’s like living with young children, who require constant attention. When I dream, I sometimes wake up and realize I’ve been dreaming about episodes or writing them. When I drive, I am thinking of the next chapter or how I will rewrite the last. When I go for a walk, I make sure I have my phone with me so I can record any ideas. I make sure to take the same path so I don’t get lost, except in my own forest of words. I make myself take days off so I can do what I must in everyday life.

Some might find this exhilarating…and I do, too. But it’s also exhausting. I am looking forward to having a good first draft finished so I can set it down for a longer time period. Maybe I can then discover a new walking trail.

I would love to hear about other novelists’ experiences. Do you feel emotionally drained much of the time? How do you handle it?



Novel Writing–Adults and Young Adults

I love when the unexpected happens. You are told you can never do something…but you do it! If anyone might be inspired by my example, I would love to hear about it. So try something you have never done! Write in a genre you thought was impossible!

Three months ago, I started writing an historical novel. It’s been in my head for a long time…at least fifteen years. I was always told I couldn’t write fiction. After all, I was a poet. But then I started writing and publishing big books about women’s history and other kinds of activism. Some of those were 110,00 words or more. So I knew I could write a complicated book. But could I write a novel?

I had also been working on a memoir for a long time, off and on. It has taken an interesting turn. At 58,000 words to date, it has become a hybrid memoir, with fictive elements. I think that working on the memoir turned me toward writing a novel, as well as encouragement from my family. So again….don’t be afraid to write something new or draw something new or learn anything new!

The novel takes place in Chicago, a city I know well and love in so many ways. The years are 1906 to 1911. The two main characters are an African-American and an Irish-American teenager. They meet at a state reformatory for delinquent girls. That’s right, they go through the Cook County Juvenile Court, the detention center, and eventually land at a state facility. What crimes did they commit? Nothing serious. If you know anything about the early juvenile courts, you know that girls could be picked up for flirting with boys, jumping in a car with a stranger and taking off to a dance hall, things that many teenagers do today. Often times, the girls were the victims of incest, rape, violence. But female virginity mattered more to the judges, probation officers, reform-minded women, and superintendents of reform institutions.

I won’t reveal the plot or the ending but guarantee it’s full of action and emotion. At 81,000 words, I am now trying to figure out if it’s for young adults or adults. The line is blurred because 55–70% of readers for young adult novels are adults. I find that most curious but who am I to question what people read. I’m glad they read! So here’s what I know about young adult novels: they can be shorter than adult novels–but not always; the characters are usually teenagers but there are many coming-of-age novels that young adults wouldn’t be interested in; and in young adult novels sex scenes shouldn’t be graphic but there can be acts of sex, including rape and incest.

My novel seems to fall on either side. I would be interested in what other novelists have experienced when their novels lean towards different age groups. For now, I am just writing the most beautiful, compelling novel I can.


Connections between poetry and writing for children

I’ve had a very productive three to four years writing and polishing my children’s stories. But I am missing writing poetry for…..adults! So I have started writing a hybrid form of poetry for adults and children alike. I am also writing poems around my children’s stories.

Let me explain. There is a child’s mind in most of us, although admittedly that has been harder for me to reach with the political despair. Still, many of us have a sense of wonder, especially in nature and for me in language. It’s pretty easy to be awestruck by the forests and ocean in the Pacific Northwest. But I also marvel at how breath-taking a turn of phrase or image can be, whether in a children’s book, a poem, and even in a scholarly work.

Children’s writer Jane Yolen once recommended that picture book writers write a story as a poem before  a story. I’m doing something else. I’m writing poems that might  turn into a children’s book or a poem for adults or both.  These are poems that are a bit quirky, where the perspective is askew….for after all, don’t young children see the world this way, rather than orderly and logical? As adults, we can frame life in the same way.  What I am essentially saying is that everything is phenomena….whether we are adults or children. Everything is a puzzle, an assortment of what ifs and perhaps, a puzzle that may not get solved but gives us an interesting path to follow.



On a new kind of folktale and picture book

I have been thinking a lot about folktales lately. My true dream was to be an anthropologist who studied folklore, including ethnomusicology. Folk literature did become one of my graduate areas and I had the opportunity to study international folktales with Anne Pellowski, author of “The World of Storytelling.” I also wrote and continue to write my own folktales, as well as adaptations of older ones.

Most folklore, like fairy tales, are based on the dichotomy of good and evil and/or other metaphors, i.e., hot/cold, man/woman, city/rural area. A conflict between the two attracts readers and listeners, as well as the resolution of good over evil (usually).  Needless to say, we may need more folktales than ever today!

At the same time, I have become increasingly uneasy about the ease with which we welcome the divide and forget the gradations. I appreciate the Anansi African folktales, for the character of Anansi is neither good nor bad, he is simply a trickster. This got me thinking about a kind of picture book I have not yet seen. Perhaps other readers have?

I am thinking of picture books that portray white children’s understanding of racism.  Let me explain, for this is an idea I am still exploring.  We know that white children often hear directly or indirectly comments, and see gestures or facial expressions from adults that express both subtle and more explicit kinds of racism. What about a picture book in which a white child character grapples with understanding these forms of racism? We know all too well the well-intentioned white person who doesn’t even realize that what he/she is saying or doing is racist. And so how would a child know, unless he or she see the reactions of children or adults of color?

We have plenty of picture book biographies with descriptions of epiphany moments when people of color realized they were treated differently. But most white children do not have these experiences. Nor do they have to think about why they do not. What I am suggesting, then, are more books where a white child learns about the complicated issues of racial identities and racism.

If incipient racism begins as early as three years of age, there may well be a need for such books. What plots would these picture books have? How would conflicts be resolved? What might children and parents learn together? I do not yet know what this picture book would look like…..but an outline of one is being drawn in my imagination.



Competing Narratives

I have been working on a picture book biography for children 7-9. I had written about Florence Price, an African-American classical composer, in one of my history books. She is relatively unknown but her music is beautiful. As I read about her life in Jim Crow Arkansas, I came across several lynching incidents and the “Arkansas race riots,” one of the most virulent in American history.

So I asked a writing group how I should treat lynching in a children’s book. Florence’s experience was extremely personal because the KKK threatened to lynch one of her daughters who was the same age as a white girl purportedly murdered by an African-American man. (We know the history of so many false accusations and, even today, the number of African-American men who have been imprisoned for crimes they never committed.)

The writing group’s opinions were mixed. Some said that children should learn about this important but ugly part of our history.  After all, there is now a museum devoted to this endeavor.  But others thought the history was too grueling.  This got me wondering about…..how protected most white kids are, as well as the historical knowledge African-American children learn.

In Price’s time, African-American parents warned their children about breaching the “racial etiquette” of the South. Children understood the consequences of not stepping aside or of not being deferential, as they witnessed violence, beatings, disappearances, and murders of community and even family members. Children understood that their actions could be misconstrued, as Emmett Till’s was. Further, they understood that the courts and all-white juries would not represent their side of justice.

So what about today? African-American parents teach their children about their rich cultural history. But they must still warn them about dangers of police, racists, and violence. I remember teaching kindergartners in north Memphis in a poor African-American neighborhood. I was teaching them phonics and how to sound out words. I loved those kids — so enthusiastic about learning, so excited to show their grandparents their artwork. When I asked for “g” words, one boy cried out, “guns. gangs.” One word for “b” was “bullets.” White kindergartners would probably have chosen other words.

When I taught 3rd and 6th graders in another poor African-American Memphis school, the students told me the narratives they learned.  About drugs sold on street corners, how they were approached to join gangs and sell drugs, how one or both of their parents were in prison, how gun shots were a common occurrence. And how school learning was meaningless, in light of all they had to face after school.

Yet the students told another narrative — one of pride and deep understanding. They knew about Martin Luther King and about the sanitation workers’ strike. They knew about the marches for justice and equal rights. And I am thinking…..white children don’t learn either of these narratives.

So back to the biography I am working on. So far I have described the fear and the violence. I have used the words “kill” and “murder.”  I may use “lynching” in the back matter. For those of you reading this post, what are your thoughts?

Anne Meis Knupfer, historian and writer


What do history books, poetry, and children’s stories have in common? They all require a great deal of commitment, devotion, and imagination. (In history, it’s referred to as “historical imagination.”) They all require research — yes, even children’s stories and poems — although history books are the most labor intensive.  I once calculated that I have spent at least 5,000 to 8,000 hours researching, writing, editing, and proofing a history book. All require editing, editing, and more editing. I have joked that writing is not just a labor of love but a love of labor!

I write all of these kinds of books. I am both a scholar and creative writer, and refuse to be boxed into one category.  Sometimes they inform one another.  For example, I am now writing historical picture books of women I have researched for my history books. Some of my poems are historical in subject matter, too.

Step inside my website. I hope you enjoy the excerpts from some of my poems and children’s stories, and also find my history books of interest.

First blog post

My first blogpost is about biography in picture books. Almost all biographies are about a single person who overcame difficulties and achieved his or her dreams. The message we send to children is that individuals, with persistence and determination, can soar.  But this isn’t always true. There are obstacles in our society that are so structural and deep, such as racism and sexism, that putting the onus on the individual seems unfair and perhaps unrealistic.

I suggest an alternative biography. Why not write about communities or organizations where people work together and cooperate to create change? This is, in fact, historically true, if we think about disenfranchised communities. My historical work on African-American communities in Chicago has pointed to women working together through clubs, political organizations, and community institutions to effect change.

Such an approach might encourage children to think more broadly about politics, social change, and working together and perhaps across differences. Such an approach might feature several persons, not just one, who were catalysts. Children would also learn how organizational change occurs, how people come together to demand change!