Norman H. Finkelstein is the author of twenty nonfiction/biography books for YA and adult readers. Two of his books, Heeding the Call and Forged in Freedom received National Jewish Book Awards. His biography of Edward R. Murrow, With Heroic Truth, received the Golden Kite Honor Book Award for Nonfiction. He is a retired public school librarian and lives in Framingham, Massachusetts.
How did you first discover Black Bart?
I discovered the story of Black Bart on a trip to California years ago and could not get it out of my mind. Here was a story that you couldn’t make up, and more importantly for a writer of nonfiction, was true. I began searching the available adult books and magazine articles about Bart and realized there was no children’s book about him. That’s when this book began to take shape in my mind.
How did you conduct your research?
I began by reading everything I could get my hands on about Bart. This led to research detours about stagecoaches, Wells Fargo and the California gold rush. I contacted the History Department at Wells Fargo as well as California historical groups. Throughout my career, I have found that archivists and librarians are the most knowledgeable, forthcoming, generous, friendly and supportive friends a writer can have. Perhaps the best sources for me in writing about Bart were contemporary newspaper articles of the era. They provided a good sense of what readers at the time were learning about Bart and his exploits.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I learn stuff not only about the major subject of my research but about related and unrelated interesting things. Some of which is relevant to the book and some just get added to my eclectic brain for future reference. I actually love the research phase, particularly the photo research since I generally prefer to search out the photographs for my books.
What is your least favorite thing about research?
I’m always afraid that by not digging deeper I may be missing something important from an undiscovered source. When I first began writing decades ago, research meant trips to sometimes far away archives and libraries. I miss that. On the other hand, sitting in front of my computer researching in my bunny slippers does have its benefits.
What are some obstacles writing historical nonfiction?
A major one is needing to double-check facts and quotes. Although Bart was a fun subject, he was not a well-known and documented historical personality. So I needed to do a lot of digging to get a full picture of he was and the times in which he lived.
What was the most interesting thing you’ve learned while researching?
It actually wasn’t about Bart but about James B. Hume, the Wells Fargo chief detective who tracked Bart down. It seems Hume was ahead of his time in employing scientific methods to solve crimes. His attention to detail ultimately led to Bart’s arrest.
When I write I like to consider each chapter as a stand-alone. Although I have lots of data collected for the book before I begin, it is only when I begin writing the specific chapter that I enter phase two of my research as questions arise requiring more specific information. Then, its back to sources such as newspapers and documents to wring out quotes and facts I may have originally overlooked. Getting to my first draft is probably 70 percent research.