Tuesday, May 3, 2011

How to Make History Come to Life

When Kate decided to write a book about the founders of Naperville for children, her first thought was to present the history as a narrative, like a DuPage County, Illinois version of “Little House on the Prairie.”

In fiction, character development, dialog, conflict resolution and narrative arc are all important elements of the story. In history, the facts about dates, places, clothing and customs have to be accurate. To create a successful historical narrative, the writer needs both.

Joseph Naper was the organizing force behind Naperville, bringing several families with him from New York and Ohio. One of those families was that of his sister Amy and her husband John. Ruth by Lake and Prairie is the journey as seen through the eyes of their daughter Ruth.

Trying to discover the personalities of Ruth, Amy and John was difficult. No photographs or paintings have been identified of them, nor did they leave any diaries. John, however, was one of the first settlers of Ashtabula, Ohio and so he is mentioned in the earliest histories of the area.

The 1878 History of Ashtabula, Ohio said said he was a “school teacher and hired man.” In the Portrait and Biographical Record of Cook and DuPage Counties, the entry on Robert Nelson Murray talks says his father was a “a talented man, and taught music, as well as school.”

Kate started with these small details to put together a portrait of John Murray and his times. She researched what a school teacher in 1809 would teach and with what sort of materials, as well as what it meant to teach music at that time. While few of the actual facts wound up being relevant in the book, they did help form the description of John’s character.

Particularly interesting to Kate was learning about Shape Note Singing, a practice that was extremely popular in the early 1800’s and most likely the sort of music that John taught. Shape Note Singing was developed to simplify musical notations to make it easier to sight-read music, with the shape of the note indicating the pitch rather than it’s location on a staff.

Entire congregations could then sing the hymns in four-part harmony rather than just listening to a trained choir. Singers sat in a hollow square formation, each side of the square being one of the voice parts, so they could hear each other harmonizing.

Shape Note Singing continues to this day. While it started in New England, Shape Note Singing lives on most strongly in the Appalachians where the English, Scottish and Irish settlers remained relatively isolated. You can go to several online locations to get an idea of how it may have sounded when John Murray was leading the song.

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