Monday, February 4, 2008

Reading Between the Lines, Part 1

A large part of what I do while researching historical documents or images is read between the lines, or draw logical inferences. Making historical information feel immediate and alive to readers means feeling my way into the material. This photograph from the Library of Congress website collection of Civil War photographs provides a good illustration. (Some details may be hard to see on your screen, so just bear with me. ) At first glance this photograph seems rather mute. Most kids seldom look at black and white images, and this picture might say nothing to a contemporary student. But with a little practice we can infer a great deal about the circumstances of this photograph, and paint a more colorful picture.
We can infer, to begin with, that the time of year is not winter -- we see leaves on the trees. Okay. Can we pin it down further? Yes, I think so. You notice how dusty the road looks -- the wheel tracks are deep but dry. I don't think it has rained for several weeks. This suggests late summer, right? And the shadows are crisp and sharp, so it's a bright sunny day, and probably hot. All at once I can bring all of my experience of "hot bright late summer day" to this photograph, and I can hear the cicadas buzzing in the trees, and see the swallows swooping for mosquitoes over the creek, and smell the damp stones in the arches of the bridge. I don't need direct, documentary evidence of the cicadas or the mosquitoes or the swallows; indirect evidence abounds. In doing historical research the writer (of fiction as well as nonfiction) can safely extrapolate a great deal from available evidence.


Alison Ashley Formento said...

Wonderful post. As a daughter of a Civil War buff, i grew up learning much about this period of history. I like how you take us into the photo and set the scene. Just curious, though. Does the archival information name where this photo was taken? Or who took the photograph?

Suzanne Lieurance said...


As a nonfiction writer myself, I love using old photographs to bring a period of history alive for readers.

Interesting way you take us into this photo and set the scene.

Suzanne Lieurance

Cheryl Reif said...

Thanks for starting a nf blog! I'm excited to read more. You're certainly off to an interesting start--I enjoyed going through your thought process as you interpreted the photograph. ~Cheryl

Gloria McQueen Stockstill said...

I am rather new to NF and I find
it fascinating how you dissected the picture. It will be helful when I do my research. Thanks!

Gloria McQueen Stockstill

Terry Doherty said...

Kudos on a great resource. I have always loved history, and am always looking for ways to get kids interested in learning. Intriguing non-Fiction seems to be under-represented (or certainly not as widely publicized).

Jennifer Armstrong said...

I'm sorry not to have given catalog info for the picture -- I took it from my own files. To the best of my recollection (I didn't use this one in my book, "Photo by Brady: a Picture of the Civil War") this is an uncredited photo of Antietam Creek. Many of the photos from the period lack full attribution. Photographers often roamed the countryside taking views of sites that were in the news months earlier. This could have been taken any summer day after the Battle of Antietam (September 1862).

Alison Ashley Formento said...

Thanks for the additional info, Jennifer. I didn't need catalogue info in your original post, since that wasn't the heart of what you were expressing. But you made me want to learn more, so I had to ask.

lvharris said...

Thanks for starting a much-needed nonfiction blog. Jennifer, you said kids seldom look at black and white photos. I wonder what you and other writers think about choosing colored images versus black and white photos to go with the text?

Lois V. Harris

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