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!
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