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GeorgeAnn Kislia Siwicke


Main Ideas

Reading and writing about exciting events such as murders, trials, strikes, fires, and protests in their own communities challenges high school students. Involving students in research that leads to the writing of stories their community might not wish to remember helps them develop a sense of the complexity of the culture that they take for granted.

Connection with the Curriculum
This material could be used to meet historical research requirements in Illinois or American history, American studies, or language arts.

Teaching Level
Grades 8-12

Materials for Each Student
Copies of the narrative portion of the article, copies of the handouts

For the interview: Notebook, pen, video/audio recorder, camera

Objectives for Each Student
Do research in preparation for writing historical creative non-fiction.

Conduct research by asking clear and tactful questions in an interview.

Listen, evaluate, and interpret information while thinking spontaneously.

Do follow-up research to verify facts from the interview.

Write a creative non-fiction history.


Collage of ictures


Opening the Lesson
Begin the lesson by having students read the narrative portion of the article and report on one or another of the books mentioned there. This introduces students to how the complex history of small-town America has been illuminated by historians and cultural commentators through creative non-fiction. First, ask them to discuss why characters from these regions of Illinois have resorted to violence. Next, ask them what they know about their own local history and to find parallels, if any, between their community and those of Williamson County and Colchester. What was their town like during Prohibition? Were there management-labor disputes? How did people in the community fare during the Depression? What occupied citizens during other decades? Did the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and 1970s affect this community? In other words, establish a community profile. Connect social and cultural events to the current fortunes of the town.

Developing the Lesson
Decide on a final writing product in which students will develop a story about a person or a cultural development in the town. The written work might take the form of a biographical sketch or personal profile, a social history, an issues piece, a public event narrative, a political narrative, or a personal sense of place narrative. You might want students to chronicle the stories of their community for the last century or for the last decade, seek out topics accordingly.

Assign students to read "Researching and Writing: Creative Non-fiction." Then give them a common topic and have them learn of where research may be done on that topic in their local community. A group of students might visit the local historical society. Others might talk with the archivist at a nearby university or public library. A local genealogical society could be useful. Another group might consult county or city records or look for material in the local newspaper files. To prepare the students for interviewing, you might contact someone with background in the topic to come to your class.

The Importance of Learning to Interview: One crucial source of information that students need can be gotten only through interviewing, a skill that must be understood before students embark on the process by themselves. One very effective way of teaching this is to model interviewing skills. Invite a guest to class, someone who has information that relates to a common topic and would engage your students' interest. Inform the class of the topic of the interview, and give them background information needed to ask informed questions. Have groups brainstorm questions for the interview, and seek one or two students to conduct it. Have these students discuss with the interviewee the process of the interview before they begin to interview. The process includes getting permission to tape by explaining the uses the tape will have, commenting on the length of time the interview should take, and, perhaps, a brief survey of the type of questions to be asked.

After the class interview, evaluate the process. Ask students what they wanted to know from the interviewee that they did not find out. Discuss characteristics of the person, as well: clothes, mannerisms, and speech patterns. These might be useful in writing the story if the interviewee has a role in the event. If the interviewee is available for the assessment, let that person comment on the process. If you plan to do this, it might be well to get a person who is skilled in the art of interviewing.

Be sure your students have access to audio or video recording equipment for interviewing and that they know how to use it so that it is not a distraction. Instruct each student to provide a tape to store in a school archive so that you can develop resources for the future. If you have need for it, have them write a transcript of the interview and store it with the tape.

Concluding the Lesson
After all research is completed, take a day in class to have each student or investigative group tell their story. Telling their stories before actually writing them helps students organize their ideas, decide where to start, and put things in logical order. They often start with their own impressions or expectations first, then discuss the story itself. This is part of the process, and may be part of the writing, as well. Have them follow the guidelines for writing creative non-fiction.

Extending the Lesson
Create an oral history archive at the school using the tapes from student interviews. (Be certain that interviewees have given permission for public use of a tape, however.) Compile essays into a bound book. Students could use illustrations and make a table of contents; an index would be a valuable addition and a useful exercise. Your school would be the publishing company. If the research and writing works well, you could make it an annual project, producing volumes of community history.


Assessing the Lesson
The written narrative is the product of this assignment. Does the finished product relate to the local community? Does the writer remain faithful to the truth? Is the story itself presented in an organized and orderly fashion? Is the author's voice evident in the narrative? Are the characters in the story well developed? Is a "Works Consulted" page included? Does it follow the form assigned?

Give students an opportunity to share their finished product with classmates, who will be the best commentators on whether the writer has made the story seem important and interesting enough to tell. The most significant conclusion to this exercise is what the writer and the audience discover about themselves and their human propensities as they look into their own cultural history.

Voices Discovering and Sharing
Their Community:
Researching and Writing
Creative Non-Fiction

What Is Creative Non-fiction?
"Non-fiction" implies a contract with the truth. "Creativity" comes in finding an interesting way to arrange and narrate the story. An important characteristic of creative non-fiction is the voice and point of view in which the writer chooses to tell the story. Bloody Williamson, The Bootlegger, and A Knight of Another Sort are book-length examples of creative non-fiction.

Learning the Stories

Finding Out What You Want to Know
Starting out: As you begin to plan your own creative non-fiction project, ask yourself, "What do I really want to find out, and who can help me?" Only after you have asked these questions can you begin to do research on the subject. Sources depend upon what you need to know. Because creative non-fiction always involves people and their impressions, interviews, letters, diaries, autobiographies, public records, and archives are likely sources for this project.

Dustjacket for Bloody Williamson
Dustjacket for Bloody Williamson
Courtesy: Alfred A. Knopf

Libraries: Libraries are rich sources of information for the sort of factual information you need in creative non-fiction. Often a telephone call to a library will reveal whether the library contains material that will be of help. But visiting the library yourself is the best way, because one source leads to another, and there is adventure in your own discovery. Reference librarians, who are educated in the tools and methods of research, love to be of help. They can aid you in finding electronic databases that contain newspaper, magazine, and other reference materials. Most libraries also have reference volumes such as Facts on File, Social Issues Resources Series, and The World Almanac and Book of Facts. Some specialize in genealogical information.

Other archival institutions: For local subjects, historical societies and museums offer opportunities to view artifacts from the past. One of the most revealing sources might be in the city or county records offices, where legal histories are maintained and open to the public.

Computers: The internet is a universal way to get background information. It is important, however, that you evaluate the credibility of what you find there, since it may not be authoritative. The more you can find out that has been written about your topic, the better.

Personal exploration: Another avenue is to ask around. This may not sound scholarly, but asking people who might know offers opportunities to access less public sources of information, particularly about subjects on which little has been written. Ask parents, friends, teachers, and neighbors if they know anyone who might be helpful in your search for information. It is also extremely important to go to the physical location where your story is set. The place itself will reveal much. Let it speak to you.

Some Suggestions for Interviewing

An important way to conduct personal exploration is to interview. Interviewees may, as in A Knight of Another Sort, become characters in the story. Interviewees can provide descriptive characteristics, such as demeanor, lifestyle, mannerisms, outlook, and habits. Listen for unique speech patterns and distinctive expressions as the interviewer responds. These details will add interest to your story.

It is up to you to evaluate the credibility of interviewees before you use their recollections. Remember that people who have experienced something in their youth may remember it quite differently when they are octogenarians.

Setting up the interview: When you contact the interviewee, be clear about the topic of your interview and what you plan to do with the information. Set up an appointment at a time and place convenient to the interviewee, ask permission to record the interview on tape or video, and inquire about photographs or artifacts that might help your research. (Be certain that the equipment you use is in good working order and that you know how to use it. The equipment should not become a distraction.) If a meeting is impossible, a telephone or internet interview may be an alternative.

Questions: Both open-ended and closed questions are needed. The questions that


Man with an Ax

draw out substantial answers from the interviewee require more than a yes-or-no answer. Open-ended questions elicit opinions and stories about the interviewee's experiences. Questions like these often spark lengthy answers: "Why do you think that happened?" or "How did you react?" Closed questions require specific information: "In what year did that happen?" or "How many people were involved?"

Be prepared to depart from the questions you have prepared when the interviewee leads you to new information that you did not know to ask. Listening is the key to good interviewing. Ask good follow-up questions when you hear something with a potentially interesting story behind it, like a simple rejoinder: "What happened then?" or "How did that make you feel?" It is easy to lose focus, however, so you must be prepared to lead your interviewee back to the specific subject, when necessary.

Conducting the Interview: You should have a good idea of what you need to know from the interviewee. The more you find out about your interviewee and your topic, the more detailed, specific, and relevant to your story your questions can be.

Begin the interview with questions that elicit background of the interviewee. If you ask people to tell you about their education, work, family or history they will feel more comfortable and you will have a record of their background on tape. Maintain eye contact and speak loudly enough to be picked up clearly on tape. Refer to your question list from time to time. Check off a question on your list if the interviewee volunteers an answer before you ask about it.

Listen actively and ask follow-up questions. You may discover something only this source knows.

Your story may be enhanced by photographs. If so, ask permission to photograph your interviewees.

Telling Your Story

In Creative Nonfiction, Philip Gerard says that "all narratives move through time and space." Time reflects the history of your story, and space is the geography. Creative non-fiction is a narrative. You arrange the events and choose the words for the story of what you researched, what you experienced. So you have important decisions to make. A narrative includes a central theme or action, an order of events, a narrator and characters, descriptive details, and finally, the distinctive voice of the writer. Think about your subject and decide on the way you will deal with where your story takes place, what happens, and who is affected:

  1. Most stories are arranged chronologically as is Gary DeNeal's A Knight of Another Sort. But in Bloody Williamson, Paul Angle begins with the Herrin Massacre before talking about the events of fifty years prior that led up to and beyond it; and in The Bootlegger, John Hallwas begins with community's attendance at the funeral of his central character. Cause and effect are emphasized this way.

  2. Understand the conflict. All stories have some conflict, one person against another or against society or against nature. Does the plot include an internal struggle that a person experiences? The conflict and resolution help to move your plot along.

  3. Decide how you will begin your story. You may use first person or choose to tell the story objectively. A quotation from a figure central to your story is another way to begin.

  4. Use descriptive words and action words to portray real people, places, and adventures. Review notes you have made from interviews and documents (such as how people dressed or what music they heard details that can be gotten from newspaper and magazine advertisements) for historical accuracy. These are what make your characters and the setting vivid.

  5. Reflect on how you reacted to what you discovered in your research. Are you concerned by what you have learned? When you found something unexpected, were you excited? These emotions will have an effect on how you tell your story. You might include them if you are telling the story in the first person or you might have to evoke them if you are writing objectively in the third person.

  6. Think about why this story is important. In creative non-fiction you need to show this importance, rather than simply to tell the reader that it is important.

Understand the Conflict

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