History has been very good to me.
For 20 years, I have researched and written weekly stories for the Staunton Leader (Virginia) about what happened where and who did what to whom in days past. The “history page” is the most-read section of the newspaper for the entire week.
I have used these same stories, for which I was paid, to populate a series of books about Staunton’s history, all of which have sold well. As the local “history guy,” I am frequently called upon to speak to area groups and to sell my books afterwards. History, I have found, can be lucrative.
Do you have to be a historian to cash in on writing about the history of your community? No, but it does help to at least like history. Besides collecting a paycheck, the point is to write compellingly about events and people far removed from us, to “write in the now,” as historical fiction author James Alexander Thom once urged me.
Becoming a local history writer should start with a trip to the managing editor of your local newspaper and pitching the idea to him or her. I don’t know of a community that isn’t interested in its own history, even those that have, for example, knocked down most of their historic architecture. Have some samples in hand for the editor to review.
Staunton is the birthplace of silent film star William Haines, President Woodrow Wilson, The Statler Br,others and the city manager form of government, but I tend to focus on the lesser known stories. The Confederate soldier who shot a waiter over a plate of oysters; a series of “human flies” who climbed Staunton’s buildings in the early 20th century; the sensational jailbreak of a condemned man. These are the kinds of stories that bring history alive for readers.
Newspapers.com is the single most valuable resource I have for finding local history stories. The clipping feature even allows you to capture old photos. I also use court records, books, Internet searches – anything that will give me a story lead.
Most newspapers will want you to sign a freelancer’s contract. That’s okay, but ensure that the contract allows you unlimited use of your material after it has appeared in the paper. If it doesn’t, don’t sign.
Create a Facebook page. I call mine, not surprisingly, “Staunton, Virginia History.” I offer free articles and also promote my books.
The only thing limiting the money you can make from writing local history is your imagination. Sell your books in local stores; go on a speaking tour and sell books; create a website. Where the past is concerned, the sky’s the limit.
- RE-WRITING HISTORY By Sara Hodon
- ALL IN THE FAMILY: WRITING FOR FAMILY HISTORY MAGAZINES By Erika Dreifus
- Give Kids a Helping Hand with History By Natalie Hale
- Cash in on History By Mikel Weaver
- Writing the Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary People: How to Become a Personal Historian By Stephanie Kadel-Taras
Charles Culbertson of Staunton, Va., is a long-time journalist who works as director of media relations for Bridgewater College. He writes extensively of the history of Staunton and Augusta County with an emphasis on the area’s lesser-known stories (Staunton, Virginia: A Treasury of Historic Tales; Staunton, Virginia: Another Treasury of Historic Tales and The Staunton, Virginia Anthology. He is published weekly in the Staunton Leader and is also the author of Hellbent: The Life of Confederate Cavalryman William Meade McMechen and Purely for Pleasure: A Collection of Short Observations. He lives in Staunton with his wife, Janet, and border collie, Missy.
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