Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction

Conversations at the Newberry Library recently featured “Stranger than Fiction: Tasha Alexander and Susanna Calkins on the Art of Historical Fiction.” The two authors reflected on how their backgrounds as academically-trained historians prepared them for the world of fiction-writing. Alexander and Calkins addressed concerns relevant to writing historical fiction, like heeding the historical mindset of their characters, capturing the tone and rhythm of their characters’ dialogue, and knowing how to use their research effectively to tell captivating, enriching stories.

Maggie McClain, Kelly Schmidt, and Hannah Zuber attended the event. Below are their reactions to the conversation. A full recording of the conversation can be found here.

Writing historical fiction. It seems like an exhilarating, daunting, fulfilling process. I personally have never undertaken writing a book, but I’ve always enjoyed reading historical fiction. Really great writers transport you to a different time and place through their mastery of the written word. Composing a great story requires in-depth research and clear, concise writing. Historians are trained to do exactly that, so it is no wonder that some go into the profession of historical fiction writing.

Continue reading “Stranger Than History: The Art of Historical Fiction”


Why the heck did I choose_____________as my research topic?

Should historians try to change the world? Can we make a difference with our research? Do we want our work to be relevant in our society? How do historians pick their research topics?  Why didn’t I choose I different profession?

These are questions that haunted me as I was struggling through my undergrad years in Spain. When I decided to apply to enter into a PhD program I thought that I had to do something. I came to believe while studying Public History at Loyola University Chicago that historians (without qualifying adjectives) must find a research topic that they are passionate about but that, at the same time, serves a higher purpose than a merely academic one, e.g. collecting dust in a forgotten shelf.

SNL actor Chevy Chase developed the catchphrase “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” even weeks after his passing, mocking the coverage that his illness received in the US media.

In 1975, Francisco Franco Bahamonde, dictator of Spain and victor of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), died after a long and painful illness. His death prompted a period of reforms within the regime that crystallized in the dissolution of its fascist institutions, and the call  for democratic elections for the first time in forty-one years. In 1978, Spaniards ratified a new constitution, and their political representatives, from both sides of the ideological spectrum, agreed to build the new democracy not on the ashes of the forty-year old war but on the consensus that dismantled the dictatorship.

However, things didn’t run as smoothly as planned.

Continue reading “Why the heck did I choose_____________as my research topic?”

Death at a Memorial: National Memorial Arboretum

About the three weeks ago I returned from my third trip to England and it seems like every time I visit the United Kingdom it changes my views about America. This last trip around central England, the Midlands, led me to the National Memorial Arboretum. The National Memorial Arboretum lies outside of Lichfield and was officially opened in May 2011 as a “living memorial” to all British service men and women, with individual memorials to particular brigades, infantry and the like. The contributions of allies are also honored, for example Jewish and Polish servicemen. Uniquely the memorial also honors victims of infant mortality and children affected by war and conflict in its “Garden of Innocents” (notably Anne Frank is specifically memorialized by a tree that is never allowed to bud, symbolic of Frank’s life).

Upon entering the arboretum, amongst all the individual memorials and gardens, I immediately noticed a large memorial on a man-made hill at the center. This memorial was dedicated to all British service men and women killed in war since 1945. The Armed Forces Memorial seemed to naturally pull all the visitors to it. Admittedly, I cannot say that I have ever been particularly drawn to war memorials but this time was different and that is why I had to share my experience. Typically, the war memorials that I have seen in America portray grief in the sullen face of a bereaved solider or show a heroic captain in his glory. Something always seemed false to me about popular remembrance of past wars.

When I made it to the hill where the Armed Forces Memorial was located there were two major bronze works, created by Ian Rank-Broadley, their were curved walls inscribed with names of the fallen.I was shocked by what I saw. In fact there were a number of things that surprised me about the sculptures. I have heard Europeans say that Americans are a bit prudish and maybe they are right because I almost immediately noticed that the depicted fallen soldiers were nude. In American society nudity typically denotes two things: sexuality or vulnerability. Certainly, there was vulnerability in these memorials unlike the strength one typically sees in soldiers’ memorials. Memorials such as this now remind me of the flexibility of remembrance. I began to realize that I had never seen soldiers depicted in death at a war memorial (I am not claiming that this is the only depiction). It was a curious thing to see death displayed at a memorial; one sculpture depicts mourning family members in various states of despair as well. It was evocative of the very real experience of war which many times involves tragic loss. The memorial also makes a point to include women three times in the sculptures, twice as mourning family members (a wife and a mother) and once as a solider attending a male fallen solider, a move that seemed to me to be a more inclusive representation of women’s roles during conflict.


Finally I turned my attention to the walls inscribed with veterans’ names. Of course, names on memorial statues or memorial walls is nothing new (my uncle’s name appears on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and here in Illinois). What was missing was more thought-provoking to me than simply what was there. As visitors look across the engraved names then you realize that there are panels still empty and waiting vacant for more fallen soldiers names, ever increasingly being filled with causalities of conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.


My visit to the National Memorial Arboretum touched me because it dares to speak on some of the realities of war while still honoring the fallen. As historians, who may be consulted in memorials such as these, what is the balance between honoring the dead and depicting reality (in its multiple forms)? The memorial also led me to think about the sensitive topic of memorials as propaganda, is that ever appropriate and if so, to what degree?

Plans for Summer 2013, Part Two


What do public history grad students do with their summers? Learn about the exciting internships and projects that students are undertaking across the country and beyond.  Be sure to check back over the summer and  fall for students’ reflections on their work.  To read what our first batch of students are doing with their summers, click here. And, to see about what our students did last summer, click here and here.

Joshua Arens, First Year Public History Masters Student: This summer I will be in the great state of Wisconsin eating cheese and brats (duh), hanging out by Lake Michigan, and going to Summerfest and Brewers games! Oh, I have an internship too. I’ll be spending my summer working at the Milwaukee Public Museum in the anthropology department cataloguing and researching Bronze Age artifacts from the Hopi Tribe. Check out my blog to read all about my happenings this summer!

Kristin Emery, Second Year Public History Masters Studient: Well, I just graduated from Loyola and let me tell ya, it feels totally awesome. In addition to insisting that my friends and family call me “Master” and signing all of my correspondence “Kristin Emery, M.A.,” I recently started a new position as the Programs Assistant at the Newberry Library’s Hermon D. Smith Center for the History of Cartography. In my role there, one of my primary charges will be researching and selecting images, then obtaining permissions to use them in “Make Big Plans:  Daniel Burnham’s Vision of an American Metropolis,” an NEH-funded online resource that explores Danial Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago and its influence on urban planning in the subsequent century. I will also be promoting and coordinating several public programs including, “Pictures from and Expedition: Aesthetics of Cartographic Exploration in the Americas,” a Newberry Symposium on June 20 and 21, and the Eighteenth Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography which will focus on the War of 1812 and its effects on American Cartography. There may also be a mail merge or two in there…Oh yeah and if anyone has any suggestions for post-grad hobbies, tweet them to me @PublicKristory.

Laura Johns, Second Year Public History Masters Student: Like Kristin, I recently graduated and agree that, “it feels totally awesome!”  I am looking forward to catching up on sleep, reading for pleasure, walking on the beach, and watching all the films I missed while in graduate school (based on recommendations by Lakefront Historian posts, of course).  How, you may ask, will I find time for these activities?  I am invoking the “eight-hour day.”  That’s right!  No more sixteen to eighteen-hour graduate student workdays.  My wonderfully abbreviated workdays will include contract exhibit design and curation for Rush University Medical Center, submission of applications for the ever-elusive permanent public history job, and continued work on personal projects related to history, memory, and the Civil War.

Cambray Sampson, First Year Public History Masters Student: I will be spending my summer on the shores of Lake Huron interning at Tawas Point Lighthouse.  This lighthouse, first lit in 1877, is located at Tawas Point State Park in East Tawas, Michigan and is part of the Michigan Historical Museum System.  While there, I will be giving tours, working with guest lighthouse keepers, working in the museum store, and assembling educational and programming materials.  When I’m not working, I look forward to living at my grandparent’s cabin, reading, and spending time with my family and friends in my home state of Michigan.  If you’re interested in what I’m doing, please feel free to check out my blog.

Joshua Wachuta, First Year Public History PhD Student: This week I will be starting my eighth season with the Wisconsin Historical Society at its longest running historic site, Villa Louis in Prairie du Chien. Located on an island in the Mississippi River, Villa Louis encompasses a War of 1812 battleground, a nineteenth-century fur warehouse, and the country estate of the H.L. Dousman Family, meticulously restored with its original 1890s furnishings. When I’m not leading house tours after our hands-on Victorian breakfasts or exploring the fur trade with fourth-graders on field trips, I expect to keep busy looking after object collections and sorting through the institutional archives that have accumulated since Villa Louis opened as a museum in 1936. I also hope to continue my study of American Indian, French, British, and U.S. cultural interaction in the Mississippi Valley and help keep the Villa’s public interpretation fresh with new research and perspectives.

Project Projects: Test Fit, Not Your Average Art Exhibit

The Kurokawa Gallery at the Art Institute of Chicago is a unique and unusual setting for an exhibition.  As both exhibition space and as a transitional area between the Art Institute’s Modern Wing and the Impressionism Galleries this gallery is a busy thorough-fare populated more by patrons on their way to the popular Caffé Moderno than by those willing to stop and study an exhibit.  Many exhibitions would find themselves at a disadvantage placed in such a highly trafficked space, but Project Projects: Test Fit, an exhibition designed by the New York-based graphic design firm Project Projects on display until April 28th, is not like most exhibitions.  Using reproductions of objects from the Art Institute’s permanent collection, this exhibition seeks to comment both on the traditional curatorial process and on how museum exhibitions are designed.  Rather than suffering from the fact that the majority of visitors will simply glance at a few of the pieces and neglect to read the text in the labels, Project Projects: Test Fit embraces this inevitability and uses it to its advantage.  The average visitor will enjoy experiencing Project Projects: Test Fit for its visually striking images while the engaged visitor will appreciate the exhibit for its witty, thought-provoking, and at times poetic label text.

The visitor does not approach the Kurokawa Gallery from the side in a way that would provide an obvious beginning space for the exhibitions housed there; instead, the visitor first sees the middle of the exhibition space.  Rather than place the introductory text panel in this middle area directly in front of the opening onto the gallery space the designers chose to immediately confront their visitors with some of the most visually engaging pieces in the exhibition.  The view of these images provokes interest and discussion on the part of the visitors whether or not they read the accompanying labels.  With the intentional selection of images and design of labels throughout Project Projects: Test Fit, the visitor, whether she engages with the image alone or the image and the label in combination, will invariably be prompted to consider larger issues than simply the aesthetics of the images shown.

The view upon entering the Project Projects: Test Fit exhibition
The view upon entering the Project Projects: Test Fit exhibition

While Project Projects: Test Fit has the ability to encourage all visitors to engage in a deeper way with the material on display, the real engagement occurs for those visitors who take the time to read the labels throughout the exhibition.  Continue reading “Project Projects: Test Fit, Not Your Average Art Exhibit”

Review: The Wright Brothers National Memorial

WB Portrait
Two brothers, one mustache, one soaring moment in history.

Over Thanksgiving break, I visited North Carolina’s Outer Banks, home of sprawling vacation homes, wild horses, and the site of the humankind’s first flight on December 17, 1903. On that day, Orville and Wilbur Wright (respectively) piloted a self-powered aircraft, achieving four separate flights of increasing distance and duration. A monument to the brothers was erected in 1932 on the top of Kill Devil Hill, overlooking the field where they conducted their flight experiments. The National Park Service took over the site’s administration in 1933 and built a visitors center in 1960.

I accompanied my father, an ex-Air Force Pilot and aviation history enthusiast, to the Wright Brothers National Memorial on November 21, 2012 and was impressed by how NPS uses several different types of material culture to interpret the first flight and commemorate the men who achieved it.

Continue reading “Review: The Wright Brothers National Memorial”

A Time to Remember

It is Christmas time again, and the Magi along Sheridan Road slowly make their way to the manger outside the Mundelein Center for the Fine and Performing Arts. This nativity scene is seen by, or at least passed by, hundreds of commuters to and from Chicago every day. I would like to draw your attention away from Chicago, and even the Land of Lincoln, to another popular, though perhaps more out-of-the-way, nativity scene.


Algona, Iowa, about 50 miles west of Mason City, is home to a unique nativity scene whose origins are sad, but enlightening. I first heard about the Algona Nativity Scene when I worked at the Camp Algona POW Museum over the summer of 2011. Camp Algona was one of some 500 base and branch camps that housed approximately 400,000 Prisoners of War in the US between 1942 and 1946. Unlike most World War II POW camps, Camp Algona is not forgotten, despite having no physical structures remaining. The memory of the prisoners and the camp is carried on by the museum, but those memories were maintained long before the museum opened its doors in 2004. The men held captive just outside town are remembered because of a gift left to Algona in 1946 by six POWs.

Continue reading “A Time to Remember”

Two public history program grads walk into a museum…

As every public historian knows, our training has ruined museums for us.  Even when we’re just visiting a museum for fun, we find ourselves considering how the exhibits are arranged, examining how artifacts are mounted, analyzing the font size and layout of labels, and critically evaluating the interpretation.  The critic that we spend so much time cultivating in graduate school sometimes blinds us to the real power of museums.  But every once in a while, we encounter something special that captures our imagination and helps us to see museums with fresh eyes.

While in Washington D.C. this summer, a fellow Loyola public history graduate and I ventured out to the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.  We were prepared for a fun day of looking at cool airplanes and analyzing the museum’s interpretation.  Having been to numerous aviation museums across the country, my inner critic was eager to see how the Smithsonian’s effort compared.

As we walked around talking about airplanes and critiquing label copy, I suddenly stopped.  Didn’t I just see something familiar?  We ran back to the World War II section, and there it was: a bomber jacket with my grandpa’s squadron patch on it.

I’d seen patch a thousand times, framed with my grandpa’s medals on the wall at my grandparents’ house in Washington State.  But what was it doing here?  The only label for the artifact indicated that it was donated by Russell Paulnock.  Clearly I would have to find out more.

I did some research when I got home and made some interesting discoveries.  My grandpa, Anthony Lauby, and Russell Paulnock both served in the 18th Bomb Squadron of the 34th Bomb Group in the 8thAir Force during World War II.  Grandpa enlisted in the Army Air Force in August, 1941 and became an aircraft mechanic, rising to the rank of Master Sergeant.  Paulnock enlisted in the Army Air Force in November, 1941 and became a bomber pilot, attaining at least the rank of Second Lieutenant.

Master Sgt. Lauby in Blythe, California, c. 1943

Both men trained with the 34thbomb group in Blythe, California before going overseas to Mendlesham, England in 1944.  While in England, Paulnock piloted the B-24 “Belle of the Brawl,” and my grandpa was a crew chief overseeing the maintenance and repair of B-17s and B-24s.  I can’t ask grandpa if he knew Russell Paulnock, because, like an increasing number of World War II veterans, he is no longer around to ask.  But maybe he worked on “Belle of the Brawl,” and maybe he even saw Paulnock in the same jacket that I stumbled upon almost 70 years later and a world away.

Overall, my friend and I enjoyed our time at the National Air and Space Museum.  The chance encounter with Paulnock’s bomber jacket enabled us to step outside our analytical headspace and see the artifacts in the museum with a sense of wonder, reminding us of the power of museums to connect visitors to the past.