On Thursday, Feb. 4, the Knoxville Writer’s Guild hosted an online event, “PAST PRESENT: Tips for Good Writing About History,” which featured author and director of marketing & public relations at Blount Mansion, Michael Jordan.
Michael Jordan has three published books: “Hidden History of Civil War Savannah,” “Savannah Square by Square” and “Davenport House Museum: Where Savannah’s Preservation Began,” all of which have to do with the History of Savanah Georgia.
Before Jordan wrote books, he worked as a news anchor, war correspondent, worked on documentaries, and wrote free-lance articles for magazines.
During the event Jordan shared his journey of becoming a writer of history and shared some tips on writing about local history with those in attendance.
Something Jordan admitted to struggling with early on in his writing was being able to describe the places he was writing about. During this time Jordan moved away from Savanah, the subject of his book.
“What I found… was that being away from my subject forced me to think about it and understand it in a way that was essential to write about it well, 'cause I had to transition from film to book.” Jordan said.
Jordan notes that it was the distance that helped him better visualize the images he describes in his first book, “Savannah Square by Square.”
Jordan then spoke of his second book, “Hidden History of Civil War Savannah,” and what made this book easier for him to write.
“You see I'm a journalist, I’m a TV guy, I'm used to short bursts of stories. So, the beauty of this book is it's a collection of essays really. They're roughly chronological, they’re thematic, but each one stands alone, so I could think of them as transience. I could write one story and put it aside and write another and put it aside and then another. So, it was easier for me to write a compelling book” Jordan said.
When prompted to share his advice on the best practices for compiling and storing the research that needs to be done to write a book about local history, Jordan quickly shared his appreciation for the automatic saving capabilities of Google Sheets.
“The first thing I would say is, use Google Sheets because it automatically saves on the cloud and you can't accidentally delete it. But print out what you do on Google Sheets every now and then because you might accidentally change something with a keystroke in the cloud forever.” Jordan said.
He also spoke of the importance of being able to locate the information you already have.
“The most important thing is to make a way to retrace your tracks. You need to create a field that says what folder, what item number, all that kind of stuff because you're going to need it when you cite it, and I really think people should do end notes too. I know a lot of people hate them, but I want other historians to be able to find what I found on their own.” Jordan said.
During the event Jordan shared his most important advice to any writer of history, and his biggest pet peeve, and it is to avoid the “would.”
“The one thing that most history writers do that just drives me crazy is the word ‘would.’ Everyone in museums does it. They say, ‘William Blunt was born in North Carolina… he would go on to sign the US constitution. He would die in 1800.’ Like he just did it, why can't we just say he did it, let's not say he would do it. It's just like the cancer that infects history writing.” Jordan said.
Jordan shared what he claimed to be the biggest mistake he made in his writing career, which was signing a right of first refusal on his next work with his publisher.
“This was career suicide. I could have written other books about Savannah and the Civil War that would have sold, and now I can’t. I can offer that to them, and I'm not really clear on what happens next… but be careful what you sign and don't sign the first thing that anybody gives you if you're lucky enough to get a contract.” Jordan said.
Knoxville Writer’s Guild’s programming chair, Bob Beasley, had his own story about publishing local history to share. This story was about two older sisters living in New Bern, NC in the 1980s.
“They had made rather, a lucrative little life …publishing local history books. And the way they would do it is, they would … go get local merchants or companies to underwrite the book and the books would have ads in them, you know in the front or back, and then they would sell them, mostly through the tourist trade, but around town and that was before we knew what self-publishing was, so they have done that for years and years there.” Beasley said.
Jordan summarized his main advice to local history writers with three points.
“Don't forget about the importance of images; make sure you know how to get them and get the rights to them. If you get a publisher don't sign the first thing they give you. Read it carefully and fight for your rights. And never give up on research. The best time I've ever spent is digging in the stacks in places like McClung or Georgia Historical Society.” Jordan said.