Like many children, I learned the story of Francis Scott Key and “The Star-Spangled Banner” in school, so I was surprised to learn from author Marc Leepson that there had not been a new biography of Key since the 1930s. But this week the Key situation has has been remedied with the publication of Marc’s newest book, What So Proudly We Hailed, on June 24.
In this interview, Marc reveals
- How he maps out a research plan
- Where he found free, keyword-searchable books for his research
- A surprising source for old newspaper articles
Marc: It was in 2011 after I’d finished my previous book, Lafayette: Idealist General, a concise biography of the Marquis de Lafayette. My agent and I were going over ideas for my next book. I was thinking about 2014 and 1914, that portentous year when World War I started. I did a lot of searching around, but couldn’t come up with anything suitable.
Then I thought about 1814. “The Star-Spangled Banner” immediately came to mind. And I remembered that when I was doing the research for my book Flag: An American Biography in 2003 and 2004 I couldn’t find a current biography of Francis Scott Key. The most recent one had been published in 1937.
So I checked and, sure enough, that was still the case. I thought it was time for a new one, convinced my agent, and wrote a proposal. An editor at Palgrave (which had published my Lafayette bio) liked it and offered me a contract.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Marc: The way I always do. I read the best secondary sources, including the two bios of Key published in the 1930s. Among other things, that provides a road map to the primary sources, which is what I concentrate on after that: letters, journal entries, diaries, newspaper articles of the time, memoirs, official documents.
I also contacted historians I know who are more familiar with the time period—the Early Republic—than I was and asked their advice.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Marc: I find that in general one thing leads to another. You read and read and you see references to more materials that you need to find and read. I try also to go to the libraries and archives early on and gather as much material as I can and then go over that later back in my office. That also often leads to more sources to find.
In addition to Word files, I usually print out most of the material and organize that in physical file folders which I keep on my desk.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Marc: I am an early riser. First thing, I write in my journal and then exercise, have breakfast and get to my desk at around 9:00 or 9:30, somewhere in there. I work on whatever tasks I need to do.
I typically start the day with a handful of things to do. As soon as I hit my desk, the list begins to grow. I break for lunch at around 1:00 or 1:30. I used to eat at my desk. No more. I need to get out of the office—if only into the kitchen—to give my brain a rest.
I usually work till around 6:00-6:30. I have an early dinner most nights. And I often go back to work for an hour or two after dinner. I work seven days a week, but usually only for a few hours on Saturdays and Sundays. However, when I’m in full-time writing mode, I have been know to work nearly all day on the weekends—and some nights, too.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Marc: Google Books has been amazingly helpful to me for my last three books. I have found more than a few memoirs that I hadn’t even known existed on Google Books. And there they were, right on my desk top, searchable and printable. The same is true with books containing official records—as well as good secondary sources. I can’t even begin to calculate how much time that has saved.
I made great use of ancestry.com and genealogybank.com for the Francis Scott Key bio. I used them mainly for the wide number of newspapers they have going back to the 18th century. They are searchable by word, and you can narrow your searches to states, cities, and individual newspapers—along with date ranges. I found many, many contemporary newspaper accounts of Key’s activities I hadn’t run into in any secondary source. Invaluable stuff. Plus, they also have birth and death certificates, as well as Census materials.