Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Let History Inspire You

Karen Kulinski
The word “story” is a major part of the word “history,” and historical events can be a great inspiration for your writing.  
I’m not necessarily talking about finding inspiration in major historical events, though many writers have, such as an author friend of mine, Margo Dill.  She discovered that during the Civil War siege of Vicksburg, which lasted more than six weeks, people were driven out of their homes and found refuge in caves in the nearby hills.  Her fascination with this topic led her to write Finding My Place, a middle-grade novel about a young girl who experiences cave life during that terrible battle.  
Some historical inspiration comes from events of a smaller scale.  While doing research for the railroad museum for which I’m curator, I came upon a 1916 incident involving the killing of an elephant in a railyard.  The story fascinated me, but it was so unbelievably sad that I felt I couldn’t write about it for children, so I put the story away.  Then, five years later, out of the blue I got a “what if?” moment based on that incident, which led to my writing Rescuing Ivy, a middle grade novel coming out next year with High Hill Press.  
Even simple, everyday conversation can lead to historical inspiration for writers. One afternoon, I was talking to a man about T-shirts for our museum at the Griffith Historical Park and, towards the end of our conversation, he looked over at our caboose.  
“You know,” he said, “when I was a kid, train crews that rode in those cabooses used to throw chalk to us as they passed by.”  I had never heard of that, but railroaders did use big heavy pieces of chalk to mark railcars for repairs.  And the men doing something nice for kids along the rail line was not that unusual.
During my research, I had come upon several such incidents about railroaders’ kind interaction with children.  But one story immediately came to mind — about a train crew on a western run who would throw the Sunday comic pages to a young boy. He lived in a lonely cabin along the rail line and always waved at them when the train passed.  This incident was used as an example of the often close relationship that existed between the men on the trains the people along the rail lines.
Suddenly, I had an idea for a story!  A poor farm boy who loves to draw receives chalk and the Sunday comics from a passing train conductor and wants to thank him.  With no money to buy gifts, he finds a unique way to repay the man’s kindness in my chapter book, The Cabooseman’s Garden.
Big or small, worldwide events or simple family happenings, the his-stories (and her-stories) of history are out there waiting to inspire you.  

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