by Lou Liberty | Aug 2, 2012
My maternal grandmother was a natural storyteller. From the time I was born she filled my ears with stories.
"Everything, everyone has its own story," she would say to me, and then she would tell her tale.
She told me stories about my family, about her experiences as a child, about my mother as a child, about the various people and animals in their lives, about the plants in her garden, about events in history she knew about or had lived through. Truly, for her, everything did have a story. From her I learned the most important thing about storytelling -- how to make a whole of many parts.
As researchers, we are often called upon to present our findings in writing or orally. It would do us well to subscribe to my grandmother's rule and remember that we are telling the story that is our various pieces of information. Our human brains think by metaphor and story making. When we present our dusty research facts in the context of story, our efforts gain depth and meaning and will be easily remembered. By telling the story our research presents, we make a whole of many parts.
We often rightly feel that this is easier said than done, especially when writing. Yet there are some basic principles that can guide us to successfully presenting our discoveries, especially in a large work.
First of all, it is important to remember that good storytelling is good reporting. We can rely on answering the reporter's basic questions: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. In this way, we lay a solid foundation for the story our research reveals.
The "Who" becomes our characters, the "What and When" our plot line, the "Why" our motivation" and the "How", our action. These are the basic ingredients of a memorable story whether it is fiction or nonfiction.
We can add texture, color and therefore, interest to our tales with the addition of Social Context and Voice. Voice is the manner of speaking for a character. In a nonfiction work that we as researchers and archivists would be telling, Voice becomes quotation.
These ingredients apply to the short or long work. For a large work, the process becomes complicated but the parts are the same.
In a large work, we are asked to tell the story of stories. There will be several individuals who constitute the "Who" of the work, therefore major and minor characters. Complications can arise in the "What and When" aspect of the story. Also, if you as a researcher are faced with primary documents and interviews, you find yourself surrounded by voices, each one giving context and color you don't want to miss. I was faced with this tremendous challenge in writing Constant Possum: The History of Sandia Prep School.
In this particular work, both the "Who", "What" and the "When" were a double complication. The Sandia School had existed in a particular framework with one founder from 1932-1942. It disappeared for 24 years. Another leading founder and several additional founders brought it back to life in 1966 and it continues today.
In 1998, I had the opportunity to interview over 80 of the graduates and students of the original school whose last class was 1942. Of course, I also had the opportunity to interview numerous graduates, faculty members, board members, and students of the present school. You can see, I was dealing with an avalanche of information in just the "Who" and the "When" categories and a myriad of voices.
In addition, I had access to primary and secondary documents related to both schools, plus a number of items associated with both schools. It was a mountain of information.
One thing that came clear immediately was that the researching for this project and the presentation of that research was not an instant activity. I planned on two years. The first year and three-fourths of the second year were dedicated to gathering the research and analyzing it. Having clearly defined and categorized what I found, I could then organize it in a "What and When" plot line. The actual writing was a four-month process in which I connected my information with the Why and How aspects of the story.
With a large work it is very important to not be in a hurry.
An additional thing to remember is that no story happens in a vacuum. There is always a larger context to the particular story you are telling. This we often define as the Social History context. I was aware from the beginning that Constant Possum was more than the story of a small independent school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was also part of the larger story of the state itself and of the greater story of the nation and the world. One of the first things I did was create a Social History timeline. This helped me elaborate a context for my research and add depth for the storytelling I would be doing.
In sharing our research information, it is important to remember that we human beings are interested in other human beings. We want to know what people are thinking and doing and how they are going about their lives. This is where the addition of "Voice" or quotations can come to your rescue in telling the story you want to tell. Because I was fortunate to have so many quotations from my interviews regarding Constant Possum, I seized the opportunity to make the many interview subjects the central driving force of the school history. Their words would make the majority of the telling; my words would framework and support them.
Focusing on the many storytellers I found in my research, I employed the literary device of the epigraph as a basic structuring tool for my book. I began each chapter with at least one quotation from one of my "Who's". I often used two or three different Voices if the quotations were short. I selected and arranged the epigraphic material so that it followed the "What" and "When" plotline of the book. I searched for quotations that gave a rich foreshadowing to the topic of the book and subsequently the topic of each chapter. From there, the rest of the story and its tellers fell into place.
A very important aspect of putting together any presentation of research or in telling any story, whether in writing or orally, is the Rule Of Three:
In addition to good reporting and The Rule of Three, we are fortunate today in having numerous electronic resources that provide basic help in organizing and presenting a story. (I have no affiliate relationship with any of the software tools listed and cannot vouch for their efficacy.)
These software programs allow you to add images and make charts in addition to your prose presentation of information. The following seven are the ones that appeared to be most useful to me. Some are dedicated to archival work. Others are broad writing programs that can be applied to archival work. All of them help you work efficiently. They are:
Armed with your Who, What, When, Where, Why and How plus your Rule of Three, you have the foundation for a good telling of the research story you want to write. Employing electronic tools can often make your work more efficient and expand its richness. You're ready to tell the story you want to tell whether it is a short or long work. If it is a long work, the use of the epigraph will be a good tool for bringing together stories into one big story. Remember, everything, everyone, has its story waiting to be told.
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