“You can’t know enough history if you want to be a writer of anything that involves history,” journalist and author Gary Paul Gates told Shelter Island students Friday at a forum at the school that boasted four historical writers — all Islanders.
Three of the four — Mr. Gates, Linda Goetz Holmes and Janet Roach — all worked for CBS at various times in their careers while the fourth, Patricia Shillingburg, has researched and penned numerous books and reports with her husband Edward on Shelter Island’s history.
Kathy Gooding of the Shelter Island Historical Society moderated the panel and worked with teachers Brian Doelger, Peter Miedema, and Devon Treharne to bring the program together.
Mr. Gates, who wrote “The Palace Guard,” with Dan Rather, among other books, credited the newsman with providing much of the information in the book dealing with the Nixon White House. Because much of his writing and research involved talking with normally closed-mouth journalists, it was often a challenge. He acknowledged at times using the reporter’s ploy of implying that he knew more than he actually did in order to draw people out.
Ms. Holmes, who has written extensively about World War II prisoners in the Pacific, said her research actually started on Shelter Island when she learned that a resident was the step-daughter of a returning POW. More than 60,000 Americans and Australians died building the famous bridge over the River Kwai during the war, Ms. Holmes said. T
”I maxed out my credit cards,” she said, financing a trip to Melbourne, Australia to meet survivors and hear their stories. Many had never talked about their experiences before, but were moved to speak with Ms. Holmes, convinced her interest and willingness to travel so far was sincere.
Ms. Roach, has written film scripts, documentaries and was an Academy Award nominee for the screenplay for “Prizzi’s Honor.” She was a writer and director for various CBS reports including “Too Little, Too Late” that won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Television Production in 1979.
“History is about people, not about events,” she said. She started her career writing obituaries, citing the experience as an excellent means of learning about history and learning how to write.
“Obituaries are the primary tools of historians,” Ms. Shillingburg agreed. She and her husband are about to publish their 10th historical book, “The Nicolls of Sachem’s Neck” that will be launched at a publication party at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church November 2.
“I write about dead people,” Ms. Shillingburg said, emphasizing the importance of obituaries to her research. In the case of Charlotte Nicoll, the main character in the latest book, one thing the protagonist wanted people to know through her letters was “what a jerk her husband was,” Ms. Shillingburg said.
The author admitted hating history in high school because it was all about dates. But in college, she encountered a professor who told stories about people and discovered information that was sometimes “wonderful” and other times “horrifying.”
Interviewing can be a fascinating process, Mr. Gates told the students. Even when people are hesitant to talk, often those around them can offer important insights. And if you press people, you can often get them to open up, he said.
Ask broad questions to which people can’t just give yes or no answers, Ms. Roach said. If subjects “know you’re not axe-grinding,” they’ll often be willing to talk, she said.
One student asked if the writers ever started out with an assumption that turned out to be different once they did their research.
Absolutely, the writers agreed. The women on the panel pointed out how much history was long told through the eyes of men. It was only when historians dug deeper and researched the women involved that they were able to tell a fuller story of an event.
“Read, think, speculate and then start again,” Ms. Shillingburg advised as a means of getting at the truth.
“You should rejoice if you run into information you didn’t expect when researching a book,” Mr. Gates said.