Writing Nonfiction: Dig a little. Peck a little. Dig, dig, dig….

It seems every time I type a few sentences for the book I’m writing about the Coker community, I come across something that makes me want to dig deeper. Most of the time, the research is like doggedly following a trail of bread crumbs through dense underbrush for hours only to look up and realize a flock of crows just swept down and gobbled up the path ahead.

Sometimes though, as in two days ago, I am rewarded. When I wrote Last Farm Standing on Buttermilk Hill, I was not comfortable in the identity of the man Joseph Coker shot by water hole. Seeking someone named John Jones in a community full of Joneses can be tricky. But at last, I found him, and it was not the one I had assumed.

My point is, that discovery now serves to justify my endless, stubborn wanderings after trivia to round out the story. Cutting off research is the hardest thing about writing nonfiction.

The following update from the Coker Cemetery Association Newsletter, illustrates the stumbling-lost-in-the-woods style of research distracting me daily:

In the 1860 Census, Ella and J.K.P. Campbell were listed between the Robert Smith family and Joseph Coker. A 35-year-old stock raiser from Tennessee with a 21-year-old wife from Vermont made an interesting pairing, particularly on the eve of the Civil War.

James Knox Polk Campbell with daughter Mattie from the family files of Chuck and Honor
James Knox Polk Campbell with daughter Mattie from the family files of Chuck and Honor

With no intermarrying ties in the community, the couple slipped out of my mind until I was working on the Civil War chapter for the book you have commissioned about the Coker Settlement. Unlike many men in the community who enlisted as privates, James Knox Polk Campbell immediately was appointed assistant commissary for the Sixth Regiment of Texas Infantry at Camp Holmes, Arkansas.

So many families stayed for so long on the land around the Coker Settlement, the families moving away always mystify me. Why would anyone abandon a home in this rattlesnake-infested, drought-prone land where one had to constantly watch out for marauding Indians poised to snatch up your children while you were hoeing or bent over laundry?

Digging to find out more about Campbell, I stumbled across an online post dating from the 1990s. Charles _____ had letters, letters referencing Campbell’s “ranching venture” outside of San Antonio and his Civil War imprisonment. All I had to do was find Charles _____.

I prefer looking for dead people; surely they are happy to know someone cares enough to want to know their stories after they have left the earth. Nosing around the internet for the living makes you feel you are prying, spying, trying to identify someone by prowling on LinkedIn, Facebook, Google, white page look-ups.

And then making that phone call, to perhaps the totally wrong stranger, and not sound crazy? I lucked out and got an answering machine. And lucked out even more. I hit the right person in the right state the first time and got a return call.

And from someone sympathetic to such a call emerging from nowhere about some post made more than a decade earlier. Chuck, himself, had stumbled across the letters on the internet years earlier.

Billee W. Hoombeek brought them to the surface. Chuck retained her email from years ago and forwarded it to me. She was an archaeologist working on the Green Mountain National Forest project in Vermont between 1979 and 1988. As part of her project, she concentrated on “interpreting the deserted farmsteads that dotted the woods.” Hmm, a kindred spirit perhaps?

One of her resources in the Brandon, Vermont, library was a collection of materials assembled by a “Mr. Chamberlin” for a novel he had intended to write comparing life in two small towns – Brandon, Vermont, and Brandon, Virginia. Here, Hoombeek encountered the letters from Campbell to his father-in-law, Colonel Frank Farrington, of Vermont. Finding them fascinating, she went out of her way to share them through a Campbell descendant organization and online.

When Chuck found her, she responded: “I would be in seventh heaven if an ancestor of mine had left such a rich treasure. He does indeed have feet of clay, but she (Chuck’s wife Honor, who is the actual descendant) will know him very well when she finishes.”

And Chuck and Honor are again sharing with us….

A blog post by the Special Collections of the UTSA Libraries reminded me how I long to get back to the comfort and flow of writing historic fiction – based on thorough research but woven together by my imagination instead of hundreds of footnotes.

The facial hair photo on the UTSA blog happened to be of some real people featured in a chapter of An Ostrich Plume Hat, the completion of which is now interrupted by the writing of two other books. At any rate the photo is of the Goeth brothers – my favorite two going by the confusing initials, C.A. and A.C.

Edward Wilhelm Goeth, a rancher; Conrad A. Goeth, a lawyer; Adolph Carl Goeth, a merchant; Max A. Goeth, a rancher; and Richard A. Goeth, a doctor
Edward Wilhelm Goeth, a rancher; Conrad A. Goeth, a lawyer; Adolph Carl Goeth, a merchant; Max A. Goeth, a rancher; and Richard A. Goeth, a doctor, from the UTSA Libraries Special Collections

Read about the Goeths’ involvement with Texas politics – part fact, part invention – here.

When immersed in fiction, I can close my eyes in the tub and hear my characters talking to one another. While writing nonfiction, bath time means my mind is submerged in thoughts of those innumerable trails of crumbs beckoning me to follow in wildly divergent directions.

Several chapters somehow have managed to emerge from my keyboard, so perhaps an end is in sight.

For now, I know I need to just keep awkwardly dog-paddling, trying not to drown in the details. This book is not supposed to be like digging my own grave.

5 thoughts on “Writing Nonfiction: Dig a little. Peck a little. Dig, dig, dig….”

  1. Loved your story. My biggest lesson in being the family storyteller, putting meat on the bones, was to learn that perhaps some of those trails were meant for the next generation of storytellers to follow..


  2. Lovely blog and very topical. I retired from teaching elementary school in the Phoenix area in May of 2012 and writing was all about nonfiction! I taught third grade and that was the last time they would be able to write their wonderful imaginative narratives. Thanks so much for the like on my blog. I hope you will return again soon and often! Namaste. . . .I will enjoy your blog as well!


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