We sculpt nonfiction from a sandbox of facts. Much of the research stage of our work involves gathering facts to fill the sandbox before we shape our narrative.
But what happens when there's debris in the sand? In my new picture book biography, Beautiful Shades of Brown, the Art of Laura Wheeler Waring, a critical part of the narrative revolves around Waring hearing Marian Anderson sing. Waring sees how Anderson breaks down walls of segregation with her voice and dreams that a painting of Anderson will break down walls, too.
It was a challenge to collect all the facts I needed for my sandbox. My book, which came out Feb. 4, is the first that focuses solely on Waring. In the course of my fact-gathering, I read that Waring first saw Anderson sing in Paris in 1916. Wonderful! Then I cross-checked the date against timelines of both women’s lives and found that while both had been to Paris, neither had been there in 1916. What?
Scramble. Search. Dig. I knew from my research that Waring had been wowed by Anderson’s singing. But where had Waring seen Anderson sing if it wasn’t Paris?
Erin Beasley, Digital Image Rights and Reproduction Specialist at the National Portrait Gallery and Dr. Tuliza Fleming, Curator of American Art at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., put me in touch with Madeline Murphy Rabb, an artist and granddaughter of Laura’s brother, Arthur Edward Wheeler, for help.
Ms. Rabb was enormously helpful. She went back to the family with my question and searched her great-aunt’s writings. It turns out that Waring saw Anderson sing April 6, 1916 at the Union Baptist Church in Philadelphia -- a scene you’ll see in the book and in the timeline.
Whenever I can, I like to check facts with family members or trusted sources that have known my subjects. This has been the most dramatic example of how this diligence has saved me from error. But I have always found it helpful reaching out to primary sources to make sure I am on target and my sand is free of debris. I hope this approach helps you, too!
Jenny Marion Green
3/4/2020 08:44:02 am
Thank you for this! Your diligence is admirable. Tell me -- do you show experts or family members what you have written? I am writing about an 18th century American whose family has long since dissipated. I'm not sure I can trust the "facts" that the descendents now put forth.
3/4/2020 11:13:19 am
You're welcome and that is a fascinating question! I usually do share with family members. Once a family member questioned a fact in the story. I went back to a professor whose research I had relied upon and the professor was able to send me a photocopy of the fact in a letter written by my subject in unpublished letters in the Library of Congress! When I showed it to the family member, she said it was okay then. So yes, I share with family members, but I double-check with other sources, too. If there is proof, you can usually get everyone on the same page so to speak.
3/4/2020 04:43:27 pm
How wonderful to be able to connect with a family member to get the correct information! Fact checking is so important.
3/5/2020 02:49:26 pm
Wow! Such a challenge to find the truth! Kudos to you for spotting the error. Makes me wonder if a copy editor would have found this if you hadn't. And what would have happened to the story if it had gotten that far and then been found? That would have changed the illustrations, too.....scary to think about.
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