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Wet Noodle Posse | Blog

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

National Parks—Research Treasure Troves for Writers

National Parks are a great resource for writers, particularly those writers interested in history, like me. My family and I have spent many a vacation touring a variety of national park battlefields—Vicksburg , Gettysburg (my daughter lasted one hour into the audio tour before meltdown occurred), Chalmette, Yorktown and King’s Mountain—and visiting sites registered with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Not only do most national parks offer short films that provide perspective on the historical significance of the park, some also have re-enactments, walking trails or maps with audio tapes or CDs, exhibits that include period clothing, armaments, and information on what the soldiers ate and what daily life entailed. One of the best national battlefield parks we visited was Yorktown. Visitors there can see how the soldiers cooked, how doctors treated their ailments, what tools they used, and how they fired cannons.

While you’re visiting a national park, don’t skirt around the gift shop. The gift shops carry maps that might prove useful, money samples, paperdolls (source for clothing) and a huge selection of non-fiction books, including published diaries of the people who lived nearby, cookbooks, and pamphlets that you might not find elsewhere. Some even carry books or pamphlets that share local legends and ghost stories—a personal favorite.

Diaries, in particular, are a great resource for how people of a certain time thought, what was important to them and what sort of language they used. Here’s a sample of journals I’ve picked up at national parks: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballad Based on Her Diary 1785-1812, Frances Anne Kemble Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-39, Richard N. Coté Mary’s World: Love, War, and Family Ties in 19th Century Charleston. Pamphlets I’ve purchased: Patricia B. Mitchell Civil War Plants and Herbs, Leonard V. Huber The Battle of New Orleans As It Was in 1814-1815, The Life of Jean Lafitte, the Famous Pirate of the Gulf of Mexico (The Nora Anglia Press), and Kay Moss A Backcountry Herbal of Plants Both Wild and Cultivated Likely to Be Found in Dooryards and Kitchen Gardens in Frontier Communities of the 18th Century.

Additional Suggestions:
While on vacation, look for small museums. They tend to have publications you might not find elsewhere like Nanette M. Bahlinger’s It Is a Wonderfully Lovely Place: Jekyll Island as Seen Through Kate Brown’s Fresh Eyes. The Letters of Kate Brown, February-March 1917 at the Jekyll Island Museum and Sister Xavier’s “Value of Herbs” at the Old Ursuline Convent in New Orleans.

Also, take the time to visit places with live history exhibits like Williamsburg or the Rural Heritage Museum in Somerset, PA, where you can get a more realistic feel of what life was like in the time period and how people made things from bricks to wigs, shoed horses, and what the people planted in their gardens. The advantage to live history is that the people who work there are steeped in the history. I spent forty-five minutes asking the tailor in Williamsburg questions that would have taken me days to research.

Share any additional tips you might have! I'd love to hear some of yours.

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At 12:44 PM, Blogger Tiffany Kenzie said...

I haven't visited many places like that... but last year I did spend a weekend at Colonial Williamsburg. I learned a lot about everything. From servants to bookmakers, to milliners, blacksmiths and so on. They did bawdy plays, reinactments of the cannons and fife bearers and the list seriously goes on and on. Everyone was in costume and knew about the role in history they were playing. I've never had more fun, and the learning experience was invaluable. And they had a lot of great publications you can't find outside the place.

I will definitely go to more places like that.

At 12:46 PM, Blogger Gillian Layne said...

LOL on the meltdown. Been there, done that. :)

I grew up on a farm outside of Fort Scott, Kansas. The actual Fort is a national historic site and has been beautifully restored. Reenactments and camps happen all the time; my youngest is actually going there tomorrow with about three hundred other children for a day full of 1800's activities (if it ever stops raining....).

Thanks for the reminder that we often have a treasure trove of information in our own backyard. :)

At 4:02 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

I loved Williamsburg, too. I'm ready to go back!

At 4:04 PM, Blogger Mo H said...

That's so neat that your youngest is going to the reenactment camp at Ft. Scott. Hope the rain doesn't spoil their field trip!

At 4:10 PM, Blogger Esri Rose said...

Museum gift shops are great. There are all these books with detailed info and glossy photos on crockery, or Christmas ornaments, or shoes. It's great.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Theresa Ragan said...

Great idea, Maureen. Makes me want to visit Williamsburg or Fort Scott. A reenactment camp sounds like a blast!

At 8:34 PM, Blogger doglady said...

I always prowl the museum giftshops for reference books and postcards. Postcards of interior shots of stately homes and castles are some of the best research and inspiration around. When I first started entering Lost in Love in contests I got HAMMERED because I wasn't giving the reader a good sense of place. As the opening chapter takes place on the hero's northern estate in Yorkshire I had to find out what sort of flora, fauna, etc would be found on the moors. The Yorkshire Moors National Trust has a fantastic website! Everything I needed to know was right there!

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Diane Gaston said...

Tiffany and Maureen, my in-laws live in Williamsburg and my father in law used to do tours in the "Felicity House," a house that the Felicity doll's story was based on.

Unfortunately, my kids and husband never enjoyed the history like I did so we mostly went to the Go Kart place or Busch Gardens, but last summer my friend Amanda McCabe ( )came to visit and we went to Williamsburg and saw the sights.

We "did" Williamsburg and Jamestown (both the historic site and the recreated village). We both spent lots of money on books and we soaked up historic detail. One of the best things was going on the ships and learning about them.

But I've also seen two of the James River Plantations - very interesting too.

And living near Washington DC, there's a treasure trove of history, but like most residents, we only go to the sites when out of town friends come.

One very interesting site near here is Claude Moore Colonial Farm, a working 18th century farm like a low income family might have had. Haven't been there in years but it's a great place.

We also have Civil War Battlefields near by. In fact, the church where Clara Barton nursed the wounded after the Battle of Bull Run is nearly in my neighborhood.

Now I want to visit EVERYTHING here! and in Williamsburg....

And I haven't even mentioned all the sites in the UK!!!


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