Whenever I begin new writing projects, I do so not by heading directly to the archives, but by going to the place where events happened. There’s usually something about the geography, the architecture, street patterns, and even the climate that helps me better understand the places I write about.
I’ve been doing this ever since I wrote my first serious undergraduate history paper. The place was Hillsborough, North Carolina, and I wrote about a female seminary called the Burwell School that operated there beginning in the 1830s. I went to Hillsborough, once the colonial capitol, to familiarize myself with the place. Fortunately, the building that housed the seminary was there, too, so I spent time in and around what had also been a large home. In fact, very often such schools operated out of peoples’ homes–a fact I learned by going there.
More recently, I’ve spent time in Natchez, Mississippi, where it all began with an exploratory trip with a fellow historian from Mercer University, Sarah Gardner. We flew into New Orleans, rented a car, and made the 3 hour drive to the little town on the bluffs. Had I done a better job of looking at a map, the closer airport for reaching Natchez is in Baton Rouge, less than an hour and a half drive away.
It was a great beginning to a new book project. Seeing the town, walking its streets, touring some of its mansions, and going to the edge of the bluff on which the town overlooks the Mississippi River helped me gain a better perspective of the town’s historical importance in the antebellum era. Over the course of several visits there, I continued to learn more about the town through its streets and geography. So well, in fact, that I have even given people directions when I’ve been there on a research trip.
It’s not always easy to get to the place one studies, especially for students. Still, I think it’s a worthy goal to encourage them to go if they can, and find ways to assist them when they can’t, by encouraging them to study maps or even go on Google Earth to “see” the landscape for themselves.
Exploring the land–both the natural and built environments–is a wonderful way to get to know the places we write about. It also adds to our historical perspective.