Being a Civil War Intern: Writing Tours

Of the many challenges one faces as a National Park Battlefield intern, preparing and delivering tours is certainly the most daunting. The process involves research, lots of writing, and finally the presentation. I would have thought that by now – having just completed my sixth tour outline – I would have the process down pat. Unfortunately I do not. Tour development is not an art one can master; each experience is completely unique (and a little nerve wracking). Still, the process is undeniably rewardable and serves as a learning experience for both tour guide and guest.

I didn’t think twice when I found out my internship at Stones River would include writing up to five tour outlines. Not only had I done this plenty of times before, but I also have considerable experience writing public history programs and interpretations during my two years as a graduate student. I was in for a surprise when I started researching for the first tour. I had forgotten just how much time and effort is involved…which brings me to the realization that, with nearly three quarters of the summer gone, I have only three tours finished.

Research, Research, Research
Research, Research, Research

The single most difficult aspect of tour writing is creating a “flow” that visitors will be able to follow and understand. While you may be an expert on a certain battle, it is the overall tour concept that makes a successful tour. In other words, knowing the facts of a battle is one thing; knowing how to convey that story to the public is another beast entirely. Interns are not experts. Heck, even our bosses can rarely be called experts on Civil War history. Yet visitors come in every day and expect everyone at the part to be an expert. My many internships have taught me that it’s okay to say “I don’t know.” While I certainly wouldn’t want to disappoint a visitor, a single person cannot have all the answers.

And when it comes to tours, there’s no such thing as “all the answers.” No matter how many times you’ve given a tour, you will always second-guess yourself. No matter how many articles you read, guests will always have questions you can’t answer. Outline writing can be stressful, as with most things, when you have spent too much time working and reworking it you will convince yourself that something has gone horribly wrong, and despite your hours spent researching, your outline now reads as if the Confederates are fighting the Redcoats in Germany.   That’s when you know it’s time to take a break! In reality, mistakes do happen; like using the term “offensive” instead of “defensive.” Thankfully most outlines are heavily reviewed. And while it can be uncomfortable when your boss “tags along” to see how you’re doing, it’s important to remember that he/she has been in your shoes and will understand.

The Visitor Center Library, where the research begins
The Visitor Center Library, where the research begins

The best way to start writing a tour is to chose a topic that interests you. One of our goals here at Emerging Civil War is to bring new and fresh perspectives to the Civil War history community. History is a glorious thing insomuch that each person can approach and interpret events in a different way. While some historians focus on military strategy, others take a more civilian approach; still others focus on something specific like the effects of good leadership versus bad leadership on the battlefield.

When asked to write a tour, you have opportunity to make it yours. Someone told me after a recent tour of mine: “Zone in on what you are passionate about and go for it.” If you are excited and passionate about the topic, chances are that feeling will spread to the audience. Passion is what allows you to hone in on a particular aspect of the story while writing your outline. However, balancing the elements of passion, historical fact, and visitor experience can be difficult. According to my fellow intern Claire, the toughest part of tour writing is, “Giving visitors an experience rather than just information…You have to build in opportunities for visitors to connect to the story while maintaining your own connection to the story and to the audience.”

When you have the tour finished and the worst seems to over, your next challenge is public speaking. It’s time to put all that time and effort to good use and present your tour to the public. Your very first tour will probably make you want to cry. I called my best friend after my first tour and told her I didn’t think I was cut out for the job! Don’t worry if you feel this way. Bad tours happen and there’s no way to avoid it. And it’s not always your fault. It is often the crazy and unexpected things that come up that end up ruining a tour – things like bugs flying into your face or a storm. Claire has developed a reputation for “thunderous tours.” Virtually every tour she has given has been interrupted by a storm. Her response, when asked about dealing with these unexpected circumstances: “When developing tours, you have to assume something will go wrong and have a plan for how you will still provide a good experience for the visitor.”

The Finished Product
The Finished Product

Tours are rarely “bad,” but oftentimes different than what you had expected. And the great tours will make up for the not-so-great tours. Sometimes you’ll have a tour that runs so smoothly you’ll wish it could continue all day long. Once you reach a groove and become comfortable with the material, the story, and speaking in front of an audience, you will look forward to and be excited about each tour. And with every experience, you will come to realize that there really never is a dull moment when working with the National Park Service.

4 Responses to Being a Civil War Intern: Writing Tours

  1. Enjoyable perspective. I have given a few tours, though not at a national site and understand what you say. Visitors don’t see the work and time that goes into tours. I try to remember that when I visit a park or museum.

  2. Great article and nice insights behind the scenes at the park service! Your point on having a focused perspective in tours is so important, and the best tour I’ve ever had was at Petersburg National Battlefield a few years back. In that case, the tour guide not only had a perspective and a very vocal opinion. I know that can probably go badly with some audiences (if they don’t share the same opinion), but in our small tour group, the presentation was spectacular. And that guide said during that tour that his favorite question was “Do you know about?” because if he didn’t know whatever was being asked, it forced him to look it up and continue his learning of the material. I loved his attitude.

  3. Hello Caroline, we’re ‘battle fielding’ through Dixie and expect to reach Stones River on Friday, July 31, after a visit to Franklin. Are you still at Stones River? Mind a visit from one of your ECW fans?

    1. I would love for you to come and visit the park tomorrow. We are open from 8am-5pm and have programs at 10, 11, 1, and 2. Hope to see you guys here! Safe travels.

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