Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Beauty of a Good Documentary

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.
    John Muir (1838-1914)
    One of the earliest advocates
    of the national park idea.
  • 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.

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?


  1. I don't write historical fiction, but it is my favorite genre to read. LOVE IT. And so naturally I'm drawn to documentaries as well. I, too, loved the Burns documentary on the Civil War. I thought it was mesmerizing, like I was watching art and history in one take.

    And thanks for pointing me in the direction of a few others worth watching. :)

    1. I'm glad I could help. Yes, there is something absolutely mesmerizing about watching a Burns documentary. I think that's why I get sucked in every time!

  2. We are on a real documentary kick, too. We just finished the Ken Burns Civil War series: my son would seem not to be paying attention, but all of a sudden would say, along with the narrator, "William Tecumseh Sherman." We also watched "Five Broken Cameras," about life in the West Bank, which was especially interesting for my kids since we have family living there, and had recently traveled there ourselves. Another one that kept us riveted was "Jesus Camp," which was nominated for an Academy Award. I hadn't thought of any of them as research for historical fiction, just as fantastic explorations of topics. Now that you mention it, though ... :) (And it doesn't just have to be historical fiction: I'm sure someone could eke a novel out of "The House I Live In" about the very current problem of our "war on drugs.")

    I have deliberately sought out documentaries to aid in my research, too. When I was writing a book set in 19th Century England, I bought a documentary on Victorian farming practices, which was much more interesting than it sounds. It was molded after PBS's "Historical House" series, which puts modern people in historical circumstances — sort of a classy reality-TV show. The most famous one is "Frontier House," which I'd highly recommend; Mary Mary, I think you might like "1940s House." I think the library carries them. Very entertaining (my kids liked them) and educational.

    I am definitely going to check out The War! Thanks for all the great ideas.

    1. How do you guys find all these documentaries? History Channel? I think my son would love this one on the Civil War, though his "favorite" war is WWII.

  3. "Except for one student!"

    Too cute!

    I'm sorry to say I would have been one of your napping buddies. :) My interest in history only developed after I became a writer, but I always enjoyed period movies/soap operas and historical novels, so the love was there! It just took me a while to figure it out.

    My best friend and I were absolutely obsessed with "North and South" and recorded it for each other when one of us would go out of town (in Betamax tapes!) We couldn't get enough of it! (that damn Ashton!) And I think we were the only ones in the sixth (or seventh?) grade who watched it.

  4. Ken Burns' documentaries always come out on PBS. Since I've been watching PBS since I was little little, then I've always had a soft spot for public television. So, that's how I always manage to catch one of his new documentaries. Also, if you have Netflix or Hulu Plus or something along those lines, there are oodles of documentaries to choose from. All of Ken Burns' documentaries are also on Netflix (thus why I've been watching so many of them lately!).

    If your son loves World War II, then he would love The War. It's available at the library -- that's how I first came across it.

    As to something older, like On the Bowery, I only managed to come across that after I watched the old sci-fi movie The Andromeda Strain and one of the characters loves his Squeeze! So, I went in search of how to make it and came across one of the few film documented ways on how to make it. There's like a one minute scene where three alcoholics are making a quick glass of it. (Because you'd have to be an alcoholic to even think of touching the stuff, it's that toxic.)

    And, damn that Ashton! (But that's how I created the character of Marie in TJOH!) I have the whole series on DVD if you ever get nostalgic ; )

    1. I have it too! My brother-in-law gave it to me a few years ago, but thanks for the offer and for the recommendations!

  5. I loved the North and South series. I love history too and there's no shortage of places to seek out quality docos these days. I wish they would bring back the mini series. Don't see many any more.

    1. Oh, how I used to love the mini-series! I wish they still did more of them, too and not just relegate them to HBO to do so they can add all the "extra" stuff that can't be shown on regular television. I think there's still a classy way of getting it accomplished!

  6. The blog looks really good, sisterhood. I like it a lot.

    M&M, your high school story sounds like the makings of either a historian or a historical novelist. :)

    Shawn is really fond of Ken Burns's documentaries and one my sisters and her husband are practically addicted to documentaries of all stripes. I should ask them to recommend a few and come back here to list them.

  7. Thank you for following "Trainride Of The Enigmas". Most kind. There doesn't seem to be a follower's gallery here for me to do likewise so I have added your excellent site to my blogroll.

    1. Sorry Geo, you caught us in the middle of redesigning our blog. The followers' gadget is back up! Thanks for pointing that out!


  8. Like Geo said, thanks for popping over to follow my blog, too. I do appreciate it.

    Documentaries? Yep, love 'em. Doesn't matter if they're historical, scientific, or about nature. I'm nerdy enough to pretty much enjoy them all.

    If you're a fan of John Jakes' "North and South," you'd probably like his "Kent Family Chronicles," too. There's like seven longish books in the series, and when you finish the last one, I guarantee, you'll wish there were more.

    Since I always wanted a sister, how can I resist joining the sisterhood? Nope, I can't. Count me in as your newest groupie.

  9. Thanks for dropping by, Susan! Glad to have you along!

    I have read the whole "Kent Family Chronicles," and yeah, I sort of wished he'd written more in the series, like he originally said he would. I've read a lot of John Jakes's work, but his later stuff just isn't that great. It gets bogged down with way too much history and he just sort of pops characters into it to make it a story.

    Welcome new groupie!


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.