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How To Write and Research a Local History Book

Let award-winning writer Jennifer Boresz Engelking help you uncover local mysteries and put the puzzle pieces together when writing and researching a local history book.

Writing a book about local history is a bit like putting together a puzzle. One piece may be a story that is passed down from generation to generation. Another may be a photo someone posted on a historical site’s social media page, or a crumbling document found in the untouched archives of a small community’s historical society.

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Sometimes pieces are missing in a story, and they may never be found. But other times, the pieces come together to form a whole picture that no one has seen before, or at least since the time of the long-ago event. That is the moment that thrills and motivates me when researching lost and forgotten local history. It’s what I hope and strive for each time I write a local history book.

There isn’t a science behind researching and writing local history books, but I have learned a few things along the way while working on my first two published books, Hidden History of Lake County, Ohio and Lost Lake County, Ohio (and now Lost Lake Erie) for The History Press.

Writing a book for the first time can be daunting, but particularly when writing local history because it has often already been written about repeatedly.

So, how do you go about finding unknown stories and photos to make sure your book is fresh and interesting? I suggest starting by reading local history books related to the topic you want to write about. Try to avoid the stories that have been written about most often. Find the stories that seem to still be missing some pieces (that you can then be the one to research and track down) or that most people have never heard about.

One of the challenges in writing about local history is that one reader may be a true expert on a region’s history and have already heard many of the stories before, while another reader may be new to the area or not have the same historical knowledge. When I write my local history stories, I try to include unknown facts and side-stories that appeal to all readers.

For example, many people in Lake County, Ohio (where my first two books are focused) know that President James Garfield lived in the city of Mentor. I debated not including his story because it has been written about so many times, but after visiting his former home, that is now a museum and historical site, I learned that they recently acquired an interesting visitor log from a descendant. It showed that during World War II, the Garfield family housed English refugees at their home for several years, to keep them safe from the bombings and dangers of war in Europe. It was a new angle to Garfield’s story that had never been heard before.

How To Write and Research a Local History Book

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Some of the best places to research these stories is local historical societies. Most large cities and counties have a historical society which is a great resource, but sometimes the information and photographs from these sources are referenced repeatedly in books. I have discovered many smaller cities have their own historical societies or archives in their city halls or libraries. This is where I often find undiscovered gems, including fragile hand-written documents and faded photographs that had never been published before, or perhaps even looked at since the time of their printing. The information I find in these historical societies often helps me fill the gaps in stories, allowing the puzzle pieces to fit together.

I recommend, following social media pages that focus on people, places, and history in the area that you are researching. You can often find story ideas or details and photos that add color to a story you are working on. I sometimes see a photo or personal story that I would really like to use in my book, and I contact the person directly to see if they are interested in being included.

It's also important to talk to locals and find out what people, places, and stories have interested or puzzled them.

One of the reasons I wrote my first book was because, as a kid, I was always fascinated that more than a century ago, a shipwreck and amusement park both existed within a mile of my childhood home. It sparked my imagination for years and I couldn’t wait to research both and learn more, and I ended up including those stories in my first and second books. Trust your instinct, if a story fascinates you, it is sure to interest someone else too. When I discover a new story and can’t wait to run and tell my family about it, I consider that a good sign to include it!

My books are filled with local stories that sometimes intersect, and other times stand alone. I’ve learned to not limit each story to a certain word count. Some stories are shorter and some are longer because of the amount of detail I found or the complexity of the piece.

How To Write and Research a Local History Book

One of the biggest things I have discovered in my research is that just because a fact has been written over and over again doesn’t make it true. Oftentimes stories are written, based on the same old article that included a false detail, so it’s best to try to go as far back as you can in old newspaper articles to find the details from when an event happened. Unfortunately, old newspaper articles (from the 1800s and early 1900s) weren’t always accurate either, so I try to find multiple articles written on different days and in different newspapers to cross-check and narrow down a fact. Even then, there’s always a chance that a detail may still not be accurate.

Only those who were there at that date and time may ever know the truth. If I include a story detail that I cannot confirm, then I make sure to say that: “it was said to be,” “it may have been,” “as the story goes,” “as legend has it,” etc.

I love trying to track down people who have a tie to an historical event or person. They often have stories to share that have been passed down, or even old photos and artifacts. It helps me focus on the people and everyday life within the story so that it reads less like a history book full of dates and statistics and more like a story a family may share around the dinner table.

One of the most important roles in researching and writing local history is preserving the stories. Because when it comes down to it, the stories are what give us a glimpse into a different time, that show us where we came from and where we hope to go.

Important documents and photos are at risk of turning to dust in the filing cabinets of historical societies and water-damaged boxes in people’s basements. If the stories aren’t written down and printed to share with others they will be lost and pieces of who we are, forgotten. It’s a privilege to be given access to some of this history, to be trusted with piecing the stories together to make them whole again, and an honor to share them through my books.

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