Sarah Park Rankin is a writer and book designer living in Mount Holly, North Carolina. She recently published Common Threads: Gastonia and Gaston County Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow, and has worked as a designer, production artist, and photo editor for a number of other books and publications. If you’re interested in writing about local history, you can learn from Sarah’s experience.
- How to shape your book within a given framework
- Ways to work with images
- Which tools can make your project more manageable
Sarah Park: I used to work for the Gaston County chamber of commerce, and when they were approached by the publisher to sponsor a book commemorating their centennial anniversary, they hired me for the project. The publisher works with organizations like chambers of commerce and historical associations across the country to produce books with a “then and now” focus, which generally feature a lot of photography comparing historical buildings and landmarks and their current status.
My book fits that basic framework, however I wanted to do something a little different. Since the sponsoring organization was a hundred years old, I wanted to narrow the focus of the book to the first quarter of the twentieth century. Gastonia was the epitome of a New South town, for good and ill, and those few decades were literally explosive. I could write about it forever. And because the chamber of commerce is primarily concerned with the civic, business, and commercial life of the community, I wanted to focus on that as well.
Luckily for me, the publisher was willing to stray a bit from their standard format. The book is still mainly focused on images, but they underpin the narrative I wanted to present: a portrait of a specific place at a specific time.
HDYWT: How did you begin work on this project?
Sarah Park: Project is a good word for this. I was as much project manager as writer. This book is actually made up of production calendars and spreadsheets, databases, Dropbox folders, and metadata. So much metadata. One of the things that most excited (and later terrified) me was that every aspect of the book was mine. I did all the research, writing, photo sourcing, as well as the design and production work. Because of the publisher’s business model, I also had to produce about 40 local business profiles for the book, which were enormously complicated to schedule and organize. I spent a lot of time and took much geeky delight in setting up a flexible, powerful system to keep track of everything.
I started with photographs and I started with maps. The first call I made when I got the project was to a friend whose passion and personal mission is to archive, digitize, and restore images of Gaston County. He’s very generous but also very protective of his collection—as I said, he has a very strong sense of mission. I’d worked with him on a few other projects, and he knew my heart was pure, so to speak. I wanted active, visually compelling images with a strong sense of place. From many thousands of images, I built a database of a thousand or so, which ultimately were winnowed to the approximately 150 that made it into the book. I spent about a year researching, organizing, and really, just staring at them.
I also spent a lot of time with maps. Since I had restricted the scope of the book to the early twentieth century (though there is a bit of leeway on either side), I was obsessed with knowing what was where, and how it had changed over time. I wanted to know as precisely as possible where every image was taken, and I wanted to be able to stand in the same spot today.
As is the case in many towns, the mid-twentieth century brought a lot of changes to Gastonia’s downtown that most people regret today. In particular, a significant portion of downtown was demolished to sink train tracks below street level. Today it exists only in maps, photographs, and memory. Sanborn Fire Insurance maps, which exist for most communities in the country, were my main resource. Their level of detail is astonishing, and luckily for me several sets of Gaston County maps have been digitized at high resolution and made available online by the University of North Carolina. I overlaid them on the present day map in Google Earth, and spent a great deal of time moving back and forth in time. I also spent a lot of time driving and walking around, usually with a camera.
HDYWT: How do you organize your research?
Sarah Park: This book really established how I will organize research for future projects in which text and images are completely integrated. A primary goal is to make sure my notes and work stay attached to the images, and that I can call up what I need without a lot of trouble. Again with the metadata.
I relied on a few reference works, but tried to use as many primary sources as possible—mainly maps, photographs, and city directories. When I wasn’t online, I was in the local history room of the public library.
I am always on the lookout for the PERFECT system, which is a highly efficient way to prevent myself from actually getting any work done.
HDYWT: What does a typical day of research/writing/promotion look like?
Sarah Park: I like to write and think in the morning, and research in the afternoon. Writing is hard. I’m always fighting the urge to jump up and do something else, especially, for some reason, when it’s going well. When I’m researching, I need to have very specific goals or I’ll look up and realize I missed Christmas or something. I think I lost a presidential election and maybe a moon landing to Google Earth. I am terrible at promotion, and mainly work at not feeling too embarrassed to even talk about my book.
HDYWT: What are your favorite tools in your writer’s toolbox?
Sarah Park: My public library has a wonderful local history room. I am usually the only person in there, and through some combination of friendly spirits, light, and dust I’ve never found a better place to work. As a University of North Carolina alumnus, I am proud to say that their online library resources are incredible. So much great stuff has been put online, including all the Sanborn maps and decades worth of city directories. I can’t even say how much I love city directories. They are unbelievably rich and endlessly fascinating sources of information.
I am a big Dropbox user. My publisher was in Alabama and I’m in North Carolina, and everything we did was via shared Dropbox folders. I used Apple’s Aperture to organize and manage my whole collection of images, and Adobe Creative Suite for everything else. I like Scrivener, but more as a management/organization tool than as a writing tool.
Bonus question: What are the special challenges of writing about local history? What’s your best advice for someone who’d like to tackle a similar project about their hometown?
Sarah Park: I believe understanding the “where” of a place will lead you to the “who” and even the “why.”
I believe the biggest requirement in writing local history is to doubt everything you think you already know. Act as though you’re newly arrived and you know nothing about where you’ve just landed. Challenge the mythology. Never assume. Be respectful, but don’t worry so much about upsetting people. Local history can be very personal, which complicates and enriches the story in equal measure.
The most important question I ask as I research and write and even produce a book is, whose voice is not being heard in this story? Whose face is not being seen? In Common Threads, I thought it was crucial to keep everyone in the same story. I was writing about a small Southern town in the early twentieth century, and there were a lot of people whose experiences, whose work, whose presence simply wasn’t included as part of the story. At best it was a side note or an afterthought, at worst it just wasn’t there. The story of a place or a time is the story of the people who were there.
Don’t leave anyone out.