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Writing grassroots history

I think it was C.L. Sonnichsen who coined the title “grassroots historian.” Certainly, he wrote about and defined such non-academic (and often non-academically trained) historians in an article of the same name appearing in a 1970 issue of Southwestern Historical Quarterly (Vol. 73, No. 3, January, 1970, pp. 381-392). You can find the article at .  I can’t speak for other fields of history, but in the niche of Old West lawmen/outlaws/gunfighters/armed & dangerous sodbusters, the grassroots historian probably has been responsible for much, if not most of the discoveries of the past 35 or more years concerning the details of the lives, acts of violence, and deaths of such men (and occasional women), and of the many men and women who were witness to or wrapped up in their stories. The Journal of the Wild West History Association and the publications of its parent organizations, NOLA and WOLA, have provided the main outlet for the grassroots historian’s discoveries and fresh interpretations. WILD WEST magazine, the old TRUE WEST, and, to a lesser extent under its latest incarnation, the new TRUE WEST, have also provided the “roots” with a forum for their work.

If these journals and trade magazines provide the stage for the grassroots historian’s work, the discussion websites serve as the coffee shops and neighborhood taverns where the work of professional and grassroots historians alike can be lauded, picked over, and sometimes picked clean.  While it would not be accurate to say that discussions in these forums are universally about an author’s facts—whether or not the author has uncovered “new” facts, whether or not an author has cherry picked them, whether or not the interpretation is fresh or holds water, etc.–facts (and factoids) and their meaning are king on the boards.

What is largely if not entirely missing from the field of Old West lawman/outlaw/gunfighter/enraged citizen studies is any meaningful concern about writing. Has the author shaped the facts into a story? Or is it a string of factual beads? This happened and this happened and that happened. Is there any evidence at all that the writer cares about the reader?  Is there any evidence that he or she edited and polished and did it again? A writer’s got to know his limitations. As expert as he or she is at uncovering and assembling facts, does he care enough to get some editing help when he needs it?

I’ll admit it. I’ve been writing for 40 years and publishing for 15. And it was only two weeks ago that I attended my first writer’s conference. Sure, it was largely filled with novelists and would-be novelists. I met several authors of the next Twilight, and a few more who aim to bring on that dystopian future we’ve been waiting for.  But those of us who write about and footnote the unruly past would do well to pay attention to what the best novelists, and the agents who handle them, have to say about carefully crafting and polishing that first sentence in chapter 1 , about breathing life into our historical characters. About caring as much for the reader’s enjoyment as we do about the number of horses in the vacant lot.