KT Johnston writes historical narrative nonfiction. She is the author of Railway Jack: The True Story of an Amazing Baboon, a picture book about a man and his very unusual service animal, Jack (Capstone Editions, ages 8-12). KT earned a degree in biology and conducted wildlife studies before settling into a corporate career. KT and her husband live in Minneapolis and are the parents of two grown children. JACK is KT’s debut.
How do you find your stories? How do you proceed from there?
I stumble across a true story with elements that speak to me, often on some history-related site or feed. I first check to see if there are other books in the same genre telling the story already. Then I do a quick first pass search to gauge whether there are enough reliable-looking sources and facts. If the story’s coming together in my head, I do a deep dive into research and start collecting copies of articles, books, images. When I feel I’ve got a solid collection, I comb through them and take notes, tracking down additional material if I run across something new. Somewhere in there I’ve drafted my story’s arc so I try to keep my notes organized against the plot as I go along. I turn those into narrative and edit, edit, edit. And edit. Finally I formalize my bibliography based on the sources I’ve used.
How do you conduct your research? What kinds of sources do you use?
I try to locate material that was written as close to the time and location of the story as possible. The stories that catch my attention are at least a half century old and are sometimes from outside the U.S., so it can be a challenge! Unsurprisingly, I start with internet searches and often find myself at sites like newspapers.com and books.google.com. I might use ancestry.com to try to determine ages and such. I look for accessible online archives of newspapers and journals, use local libraries, and even contact museums and historical societies, which can be especially useful for obtaining copies of publications that are no longer in production or not yet digitized. I look at bibliographies and footnotes as well and try to track down an author’s sources to try to get closer to the original story.
Particularly rewarding is finding a person who has some direct relationship to the story such as the descendent of a character. It takes some sleuthing to find a way to message them and feels a bit creepy, but sometimes it pays off. In the back of JACK you will find a photo of Jack and Jim from the family scrapbook of one such man, complete with quaint old-timey handwriting in the margin identifying “Railway Jack.” Here’s how I found him: I ran across a letter to the editor he had submitted in 1990 correcting a journal’s From the Archives reference to their 100-year old account of the story. His byline included his position at a Canadian university. After nearly 30 years, I didn’t have high expectations of finding him. Regardless, I searched their website and found he had since transferred to a university in England. A search of that university’s directory revealed he was still on faculty(!)—and it listed his email address. He graciously replied to my inquiry and was happy to dig out and send some things from his family’s papers.
If it’s at all possible to visit the site where a story took place, I definitely do. There’s nothing like touching, breathing in, and seeing first-hand a location I want to try to convey to readers. Research is not only a pursuit of facts, but a pursuit of impressions. I can’t write what I can’t feel!
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
I store all research digitally, so if I have a physical item, I scan it and box the original. For sorting and ease of locating, I include an article’s publication date and source in the filename, and store them all in a folder dedicated to research for that book. If I found an article online, I put the URL & access date at the top of the article because if I end up using that source, that would be needed for the bibliography. I also add a note if I received it from someone (e.g., a curator at a museum) so I can be sure to acknowledge their assistance. When I capture material from a book, I take photos of the copyright page and the relevant pages so I have the complete text in context instead of just a summary in my notes. When possible, I convert PDFs to searchable text, which is really useful when trying to find something I remember reading but can’t remember where. Yes, I’m quite methodical, but that’s just the way I am.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I learn so much. I’m passionate of course about the story I’m writing and learn all I can about it—but I also learn so much related to its setting. I can spend a whole day absorbing peripheral material, which can help generate the images and feelings I need to tell the story. Some call it being down a rabbit hole, but I don’t see that as unfavorable. In fact, it can even lead to “read more” topics and discussion questions for the book. Down a rabbit hole is different from being off track. It’s not a bad thing if it’s still moving you forward.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
Slowing down enough to capture what is needed for the bibliography later—a lesson probably every nonfiction author has learned the hard way. (If you like constructing bibliographies, raise your hand!)
Also right up there is the frustration of running into an archive that requires subscription or onsite viewing to access; being teased by a snippet (so that I know there’s an article of interest there) but not being able to get at it.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical nonfiction?
In my writing, I feel I’m advocating for special voices from the past, keeping their stories from being forgotten. Stories that may not have been inherently spectacular, but nevertheless made a mark on history, and in a way, perhaps even on humanity itself.
What are some obstacles writing historical nonfiction brings?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of writing narrative nonfiction is filling gaps in the historical record in order to tell a story in an engaging way without corrupting history.
Another obstacle is that sometimes sources conflict. When that happens, I go with the version that seems to me the most reliable or suitable for my telling (e.g., what I feel is appropriate for a children’s book).
Why is historical nonfiction important in children’s literature? How do you reflect this in your writing?
Besides being just plain interesting, history is important because it provides a point of reference for interpreting the world today and can be used to anticipate the future. I realize this is far too nuanced for a discussion about writing for children, but in the stories I write, I try to elevate tiny episodes from the past that do in fact have indirect echoes in today’s world. The degree to which a child feels a story affects the degree to which it will stick with them. I hope my stories will help children connect the base concepts of past and present, and perhaps someday, correlate that relationship to the possibilities of the future.
On a more straightforward note, children’s biographical books are almost always about famous people—after all, those are the people who gave us notable history. However, I like to write about everyday people, because most of us ARE everyday people. I like to tell their stories through the remarkable animals who lived the only life they could have lived, yet made a profound difference in humans’ lives.
History that reads like story time, educating while entertaining; I hope my writing can seed a child’s conversations with their adults about human issues, as well as spur an enthusiasm for knowing more about our world.