When I was in high school, um...once upon a time, my senior class was forced to sit through Ken Burns' take on the Civil War during our history class. I say forced, because I think a majority of the students sat through that documentary with a glassy stare, hardly any of them processing anything from the many episodes we sat through.
Except for one student!
And, yes, that was me. Every day I waited in anticipation for our teacher to fire up that VHS tape in order to watch that day's installment of the nine episode documentary. When I voiced how much I loved watching The Civil War, my friends stared at me as if I was a deranged monkey with two heads. None of them understood why I didn't use the hour to get in a good nap.
Thinking back now, I can name two things that highly influenced my love of history and eventually instilling in me the need to write historical fiction. One was Ken Burns' documentary and the other was John Jakes with his North and South series. Needless to say, I fell in love with the Civil War and every battle that was fought, every soldier that went off to the front, and every wife, mother, father, child who waited to read that day's deaths in the newspaper to see if his/her loved one was one of the many who perished. I believe a good documentary can do that to a writer, especially a writer of historical fiction. With documentaries aplenty I'm never at a loss for material. And I'll tell you straight up that Ken Burns is probably my favorite to watch, whether it be learning about The National Parks: America's Best Idea or learning a thing or two from Prohibition (which is one of my favorite eras and topics).
But, of course, I do indulge in other types of documentaries. I'm a sucker for a good National Geographic or History Channel presentation. Most recently I watched Serving Life, an OWN presentation about inmates serving life sentences in a Louisiana penitentiary. It deals with the hospice care of men who basically die in prison from old age and terminal illnesses since they have no chance of ever being paroled. Even though these men are hardened criminals, it's heartwrenching to watch the final stages of their lives and the volunteer inmates who take care of them. Then there's Wild Horse Wild Ride, a documentary about captured wild mustangs that are then given to 100 individuals who have 100 days to break and train the horses, which then compete and are put up for auction to good homes. Amazing how some of the individuals know how to work with wild mustangs! This documentary brings out that compassionate level of connection humans can have with animals. I even find material in older pseudo-documentaries, like On the Bowery, an early time in this genre of filmmaking when the idea of filming real life was just forming. In this film, post-WWII veterans find solace in cheap rent and even cheaper drinks, but not much of a future. Through watching this documentary, I learned the rudimentary science of making Squeeze, a very toxic drink made from Sterno, something I was able to use in one of my novels. (But, shhh, don't tell anyone because then the secret will be out!)
Since I tend to be more of a visual learner, I strongly believe there are many things a writer can learn by watching a good documentary:
- A sense of time: I know for me that when I sit through the stories that create a time period I begin to feel a connection. Since time machines don't exist, our best way to explore the past is through the eyes of those who have either been there and experienced such horrendous events as the D-Day invasion or the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby, or we listen to those who have taken extensive time to study the lives of historical figures like John Muir and Abraham Lincoln. When we are able to connect with the past and marvel at how Edison was so patient when it came to producing the lightbulb or how sickening places like Auschwitz were allowed in the first place, then we begin to tap into that human well of feelings inside all of us. And viewing the world through a different time period can strangely put things into perspective as to how we got to where we are today.
- A sense of place: While I watched The National Parks: America's Best Idea, I couldn't help but think how badly I wanted to visit some of those places like Yosemite and Mesa Verde if only to walk in the footsteps and beauty that others have already experienced. I wanted to take that raft trip down the Colorado and look up at the cathedral walls of the Grand Canyon. The same goes for the BBC's Auschwitz: The Nazis and 'The Final Solution' documentary. Walking with the cameraman through the gates of such an infamous concentration camp is both eerie and chilling, especially when you learn how things really worked in this camp of unimaginable horrors. Everything from the disease-infested barracks to the ovens to the actual photos showing the long lines -- one going to the barracks, the other directly to the gas chambers -- brings to life the terror in this part of history.
|John Muir (1838-1914)|
One of the earliest advocates
of the national park idea.
|Entrance to Auschwitz|
Notice it's by train only, meaning once
a prisoner arrived, he/she never left.
- A sense of characters: Not so long ago I finished up Ken Burns' documentary The War, which details World War II through the eyes of men and women from four different towns in America. There were many times I found I just wanted to have a good cry. Most of The War is told through survivors and veterans' memories of what they faced. Every survivor is fascinating to listen to, but two stories that follow the course of most of The War really struck me: that of a color blinded pilot named Quentin Aanenson form Luverne, Minnesota and that of Glenn Frazier of Mobile, Alabama, who endured the Bataan Death March and subsequent years in prisoner of war camps. Every tale told is filled with a wealth of understanding and character building for any writer. But that's what makes documentaries of any sort so fascinating and helpful -- there's so much to glean by just listening to history and seeing it through the eyes of those who've experienced it.
|Katharine Phillips with her younger brother Sidney,|
who enlisted in the Marines at the age of 17 in 1941.
In all, as a writer of historical fiction, I highly encourage watching a few good documentaries. If you're struggling to mold a character, if you can't quite seem to imagine the setting you're wanting to use, or if you fail to make a connection with the time period, then, by all means, grab a good documentary on the subject!
Do you enjoy documentaries? Are there any that you would recommend?