Secrets from the Research Library

My Utah history columns for the Salt Lake Tribune have a limit of 650 words; the Relief Society articles need to fit a single page. The brevity of these accounts may mask the complexity of the work behind them, so put on your deerstalker caps and I’ll recreate the process, using Frances Swan Clark as the example.

The first step is finding the indication of a worthwhile story. I may notice something in the course of research for other projects. Reading through the old Relief Society Magazine often yields a potential story, although I won’t merely retell anything that is spelled out there or in any other single source. With Frances Swan Clark, the first hint came from a reminiscence of Elizabeth Kane:

We knew Tom had landed in California; but that was all. On the 31st of May a strange letter reached me from a Mormon woman of San Bernardino, California. She was a bereaved mother, whom he had told to appeal to me for comfort. I knew no one but Tom would stop in the midst of his anxiety to pity her; and certainly no one but Tom would give me credit for such powers of consolation. The disconnected story she told was easily pieced out by the paragraphs we read, quoted from California newspapers. It was Tom who was the mysterious, soi-disant naturalist, Dr. Osborne, suspected of being a Mormon spy.

Who can resist strange letters, spies, and lost loved ones?

Mrs. Kane’s 1858 diary provided the first clue to the Mormon woman’s name:

A very fatiguing day … I had a long letter from a Mrs. Clarke of S. Bernardino telling me about Tom’s being there, and her husband’s accompanying him to Salt Lake, about her baby’s death etc. I am asked to write her news of him. God grant I may have good news to give!

With this, I could begin compiling a list of candidates using the 1860 census, the San Bernardino mission journal, and letters written to Brigham Young from anybody in San Bernardino who mentioned other local members. That search turned up Augusta Joyce Crocheron’s reminiscences about her California childhood. She referred to Frances only as “Mrs. Clark,â€? but she did record much detail about the experiences of the Clarks and Jacksons (Col. Jackson was her stepfather), including this version of Frances’s “You did not deceive me …â€? speech (I won’t invent conversations – these may or may not be Frances’s precise words, but they are the words preserved by a witness).

I found Frances’s letter to Mrs. Kane, signed “Frances Jessie Clark.� It was as disjointed as Mrs. Kane’s journal suggested, but it was valuable as a first-hand account of Kane’s visit to San Bernardino.

Finding Mrs. Clark’s first name allowed me to zero in on the Frances living with George Clark in San Joaquin County, not too far from San Bernardino. Working back and forth between George and Frances in the Church’s FamilySearch and other typical genealogical sources, I uncovered Frances’s maiden name, her connection to Heber C. Kimball, George’s background (he was the son of the first mission president to Hawaii), and the identity of the baby (Margaret Jane). In the process I discovered that apparently no one else had really identified Frances – the published Kimball histories and genealogies, for example, record that she married a Clark after leaving Heber C., but didn’t name George. Clark family records likewise don’t record George’s marriage to Frances.

Writing is straightforward – tell what happened first, and then next, and then after that. I emphasize storytelling over the presenting of mere facts. General readers, like newspaper audiences and ward sisters, are more engaged by reading something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with close connections between background facts and the events of a specific life.

These pieces have to fit in small spaces, but I write without regard to length until I have the story down. First drafts are always twice as long as the final draft. It’s a challenge – one I face as a game – to prune dead phrases and replace several weak words with a single powerful one.

Along with trimming the word count, I refine according to storytelling techniques I have worked out. I don’t know the technical names for these techniques (if Margaret Young reads this, perhaps she can identify them for us). I inserted early in this piece the fact that Frances had buried her baby in Iowa as a clue to her recognition of Kane, because when I read mystery novels I’m dissatisfied with solutions that come out of nowhere. I also included a cross/doublecross arrangement learned from novels: Osborne reveals himself as Kane and the reader thinks that’s the denouement. But that “cross� pales when Frances reveals her “doublecross� – not only did she see through Kane’s secret, she successfully kept one of her own.

The final step is reading the piece aloud, buffing out anything that catches my tongue. Many readers hear words internally even when they read silently, and I don’t want any awkward phrasing to pull them out of the story.

And that’s my research and writing process, as well as I can consciously reconstruct it.

17 comments for “Secrets from the Research Library

  1. I’m so embarrassed — can someone please correct my failure to insert the “more” tag and get this off the front page? Ooooooo……

  2. Ardis, thank you! When you say “search,” I’m assuming that most of the records are not digitized, right? So you’re searching through—microfiche? old papers?

    I like your setup/payoff technique very much.

  3. (Thanks, Russell)

    Rosalynde — There is limited digitization: googling is always useful, FamilySearch is online. The Utah Digital Newspaper scans and’s images of the census are must-checks. I also routinely search digital collections like those put out by Deseret Book, Signature, MHA, and the Utah State Historical Society, but of course nothing will appear there that hasn’t already been found and used by somebody else so I have to keep digging if I want to be original.

    The most valuable materials are the handwritten, never-before-transcribed records like journals, letters, membership records, minute books, and scrap books (mostly microfilmed).

    Because of the way archives are arranged, you can seldom look up a name and find her in a catalog, unless she was the author of a diary. Instead you have to search records that were created in the time and place where your target lived — who knew her? who might have mentioned her in his diary? who might she have written a letter to? what lists might she appear on? One thing leads to another, and you often have to circle back to re-read a document once you have additional clues to watch for.

    Some people think of research as a logical, plodding, methodical thing. I find it takes all the imagination I can bring to it. The trick is letting your imagination suggest possibilities so that you have more places to check, but not getting so carried away that you become locked into some imaginary scenario. (In unison now: “Conspiracy theories.”)

    And of course 19th century Mormondom was really an incredibly small, close-knit society, so the more you learn about these people in this place, the more likely you are to already have clues to those people in that place for the next project.

  4. Russel,
    Off topic–but could you please put your uncle’s (in Afghanistan) blog address up again?

  5. This is really intriquing for the rest of us who only occasionally do archival research. What a great idea for a post! Thanks for this, Ardis.

  6. How does one go about deciphering who the authors were who contributed articles to the Woman’s Exponent? Many of the articles are either unsigned or sometimes the author is using a nom de plume. For example, one of my favourite contributors is “Homespun” whom I recently discovered was Susa Young Gates. Is there a list (article, thesis) anywhere that says who authored what?

    Suzanne A.

  7. Here’s one more. What are your thoughts on the veracity of what was published in the “Anti-Polygamy Standard”?

    Again, thank you,
    Suzanne A.

  8. Suzanne — One of the church librarians has compiled an extensive list of the pseudonyms used in church publications from that period. Some are still not identified, though. You could email the library and ask that they look up any particular pseudonyms you care about: > Church History > Church History Library and Archives > Contact Us > Email:Ask a Librarian

    They won’t do extensive creative research, but they’ll do lookups like this one. On more complex questions, they’ll outline what resources are available and try to help as far as their personnel resources allow.

    I haven’t done any real work in the “Anti-Polygamy Standard” except some limited biographical stuff on Jenny Froiseth. Pat Scott, assistant editor of the Journal of Mormon History, is the real expert on that publication. Just off-hand, having read some of the letters the editors of the APS contributed to the Tribune in the ’70s, I wouldn’t give them any more credibility than any other publication with an obvious ax to grind. The ladies of the APM had no real understanding of Mormonism; they served a political agenda and had no reason to look beyond that agenda.

  9. Thanks for the feedback. I don’t give the APS any credibility actually. I was just wondering if you had any insights about it. I’ll see if I can get in touch with Pat Scott.

    I was surprised that the “Woman’s Exponent” did not respond to what was being published in the “Anti-Polygamy Standard.” A lot of it was personal and they named names, such as Eliza R. Snow and Phebe Woodruff for example. I was hoping for something along the lines of George Q. Cannon’s “The Western Standard” wherein he didn’t pull any punches in responding to the many falsehoods printed in California newspapers. Did the sisters respond and if so, where?

  10. I’m not aware of anyplace the sisters directly addressed their accusers point by point. They kept publishing their memorials and holding their mass meetings and speaking up in Washington to advance their own concerns on their own terms, but I haven’t seen anything that shows them as reactive.

    You’re a scrapper, eh? You’d like to see Eliza and Phebe and Emmeline and the rest running an early version of the FAIR boards? /g/

  11. Speaking of digital newspapers, heard anything on the grapevine about when we’ll be able to read the Woman’s Exponent online? The microform reels aren’t the best and where I live I have to get them as an interlibrary loan each time I want to look up something.

  12. Speaking of digital newspapers, anything in the grapevine about when we’ll be able to read the Woman’s Exponent online? The microform reels aren’t the best and where I live I have to get them as an interlibrary loan each time I want to look up something.

  13. I’m plugged in to the U’s digital newspapers project (I write some of the essays for their NEH grant proposals), but the Exponent would be a BYU project and I have few contacts there. No idea what their plans are.

    If your requests weren’t too lengthy and didn’t come too often, copying articles from the Exponent might be something you could request through Ask-a-Librarian. (They’re gonna kill me if I drum up too much business for them … don’t use my name! /g/)

  14. I know what you mean. I have a request in already to the Ask-a-Librarian and although my requests for info have never been turned down so far (touch wood!) I always make sure I have only one request in at a time and cross my fingers that they won’t get tired of helping me. LOL

    Truth be told there is a tab in the scroll down menu on BYU’s digital collection website for the Woman’s Exponent — there just isn’t anything in it yet. I was just wondering if you’d heard anything.

    I’m not saying the Exponent was a marshmallow publication, but yes, I was hoping for something along the lines of The Western Standard under the pen of George Q. Cannon. Reading his articles is loads of fun! I guess that wouldn’t have been very womanly behaviour back then.

  15. Last I heard, the raw images for the Exponent were to be sent our for Zoning and OCR last June and they were thinking that they would be up by the end of September. They missed that window, but the Young Women’s Journal was planned to be up before that and still isn’t, so I would imagine that it will still be some time.

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