Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interview with J. Stuart Richards

J. Stuart Richards is the author of four books on Pennsylvania military history with a strong focus on Schuylkill County and the coal region: Early Coal Mining in the Anthracite Region (Arcadia Press), Pennsylvania Voices in the Great War (McFarland Press), A History of Company C 50th Pennsylvania Veteran Volunteer Infantry (History Press), and Death in the Mines (History Press). Richards also maintains four local history blogs: “Schuylkill County Military History”, “Schuylkill County History Chronicles”, “Props, Pistons and Old Jets”, and “Stories from the Great War.” At February's BDWN meeting, Richards will discuss the methods of researching, using official documents and photos, and becoming familiar with the public domain. Richards will also offer tips for writing an eye-catching query letter for an historic work that will immediately appeal to publishers. Richards talks with us about reading, writing, and researching local history.

BDWN: How did you become interested in Pennsylvania military history?

RICHARDS: My interest in Pennsylvania military history came about with a trip to Gettysburg when I was 10 year’s old. I was fascinated that all of the regiments fought with a designation of their state, like the 96th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry our local unit at Gettysburg . I immediately researched all the Pennsylvania soldiers who served at Gettysburg and started keeping lists of the soldiers.

BDWN: Is there a particular time period that you're most interested in?

RICHARDS: The American Civil War is my favorite, although I have a fond interest in World War 1 and WW II because of family members who fought in the wars. Over the years, I have become less interested in a time period and more interested in the life and times of the common soldier and what they experienced during war. I am a Vietnam veteran and know that the big picture doesn’t matter to the common soldier. It’s what happens 100 feet in front and behind one that matters and that is what interests me. I also write about the soldiers from the French and Indian War through The War on Terror.

BDWN: This is a "chicken or the egg" type of question--were you writing before you became interested in history, or did the writing stem from your historical interests?

RICHARDS: My writing stemmed from my interest in military history and the good feeling of being able to write into history people who are generally forgotten.

BDWN: How do you choose what to write about next?

RICHARDS: Choosing something to write about has never been a problem for me. I read everyday for several hours. When I find something that catches my interest in aviation, local history or military history, I begin researching whether anyone from the local area was involved and to what extent. I am fortunate as my personal library contains over 1,000 books related to military history aviation, and coal mining.

BDWN: You'll be talking about research methods at our February meeting. Without giving too much away, have you ever used any, shall we say, unconventional methods to get the information you needed?

RICHARDS: I can’t say I’ve used unconventional methods to get the information I need. There is so much available to the researcher writer especially with the advent of the internet. Through historical societies and archival collections I found almost everything I needed. Information, such as personal letters, is found through other web sites etc. Without the internet the researcher of years ago would never have access to so much information.

BDWN: Again, without giving too much away, have you ever run into "roadblocks" with your research, such as a book or item that was impossible to find, unhelpful sources, or other general difficulties? How did you get around them?

RICHARDS: Oh, yes, that happens many times. I have a blog entitled “Schuylkill County Military History”. I have been frustrated more times than I would like to say especially when writing about World War II soldiers and airmen. Many times I can’t find what unit the soldiers or airman belonged to. I like to have the regiment, company or division in which they fought. One really needs this information to add flavor to the story. After WW 1, military officers censored so much in the letters it causes the researcher to come up far short of having good information about which to write. So one has to really dig, tracing battles through books, journals and hoping something turns up that matches what one is researching.

BDWN: What can you tell us about your writing process? How much time do you usually spend on research, and then how long does it take you to actually start writing?

RICHARDS: My process for writing a book begins with the initial research and what I know is available on a particular subject. Over twenty-five years I have accumulated good source files of what I will need. I usually start with the Historical Society and old newspapers on microfiche, from there to the internet sources and from there to one of the best unknown research sources available, Google books, I gather, over several months, all available information, on disc or hard copy, which I will usually put into various folders. Laying out the book begins with organizing all my research via time line. The actual laying out and writing will take me 8 to 10 months. Especially when my wife, my first editor, gets the initial manuscript and makes me feel like I am back in fourth grade. But all in all, it will start to take a good form in about six months.

BDWN: How did your musical group come about? Can you tell us a little more about it?

RICHARDS: I was involved in living history programs for 25 years. I had a big interest in coal mining and the early coal miners’ life and times. I recited poems and sang ballads that I found in George Korson’s book, Minstrels of the Mine Patch. While doing a program at Eckley Miners Village , I met my partner Tommy Symons, a fellow actor who was interested in my program. We then got totally involved developing a program we called “Once a Man Twice a Boy”. We both are musicians and over the years we added the guitar, banjo and mandolin. It has been a very positive experience, playing all over the state for different types of venues. We try to bring the life and times of the early coal miners and minstrels back to life.

BDWN: What are you currently working on, and what's next for you?

RICHARDS: I am currently finishing two books, one on the 129th Pennsylvania Infantry, a Civil War Regiment and another on the 103rd Engineers, of World War 1fame. And it takes a lot of time managing and writing four blogs.

1 comment:

  1. Trying to contact J Stuart Richards as we would like to communicate information of interest to him. We are relatives living in Southeastern Pa. and are descendants of Henry Withelder.