I’ve been in North Carolina part of this last week for a very quick research trip, looking for missing pieces of a research puzzle. One of the “delightful” things about doing a biography project with limited surviving/preserved/accessible primary source documents related to that person is the opportunity to get very well acquainted (in the library catalog) with all his friends.
If his papers leave many gaps in the historical record, what did his friends say? And how reliable are their primary sources?
It’s getting to the point that I’m now tracking down the papers belonging to cousins of the friend of the main character. Why? Because it’s working and puzzle pieces are surfacing that haven’t really been looked at before.
The best part right now is actually getting to see these preserved papers in person. Most of the “suspects” I’ve known about via online library catalogs for a couple of years now, but it’s been a waiting game to actually get to the archives — courtesy of Covid-19 restrictions, job requirements, and snow storms.
Here’s what I realized with a little embarrassment. If I can’t find the truth from the pen of the man or his lady, then I’m looking for the papers of their “bad friend.” The friend that nobody wants in real life. That one who gossips and writes down the matters that are really none of their business to be writing down. But the one who usually knows something, at least the rumors. Secret engagement?! Serious flirtation?! Wedding date?! What hints and stories could that gossip be willing to tell to his or her friend in the next county…
Here’s the fun part. I’m not actually convinced it’s going to be that great of a romantic reveal for this project. But…I have found just enough primary source hints and rumors already that make me keep looking for a few more weeks to see if there is more evidence.
“Why didn’t somebody just write it down?” I ask the blank wall above my research desk.
- Well, maybe they did.
- Maybe they destroyed the documents later.
- Maybe the papers got lost or are still in an attic.
- Maybe they didn’t write down the news, the thoughts, or the feelings, afterall.
While I will make lists, spreadsheets, and appointments to try to find out the facts or the “why” behind the facts, I also accept that some things — particularly emotions — won’t always be explained in the historical records. There are things that people want to keep secret. That’s okay. That’s expected. That’s being human. And one of these days, I’m going to go to my desk and say “I’ve done all I can,” and I’ll have to write the delayed chapters.
But for now…I’m still looking for the papers of the Gossip. That friend that nobody wanted in real life, but who created the documents that researchers will pay to view and copy.
(But, seriously, don’t be that person in real life!)