TALKING PAST: Oral History - Preserving and telling the dramatic stories of your community.

Talk by Paul Mackey of Past Forward Heritage Limited at The Cultural Heritage Tourism Conference Pembroke October 19th 1999

I will be jumping ahead quite a ways from the rock paintings and archeological sights that we have just heard about to history that is in living memory. My father and I have been working for five years researching and writing our just released book The Fossmill Story: Life in a railway lumbering village on the edge of Algonquin Park. During our research we spent a lot of time in archives, reading Canada Lumberman newspapers and related information. These were the records of lumber companies and their owners, the records of the wealthy, the records of government and so on. They were not the records of the social history or of the lives of the people who were living in Fossmill. But, because of my father’s previous interest in oral history, we also interviewed over 50 people to try to find out about the lives of the workers and their families in the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s in the backwoods of Ontario. Fossmill was as far back as you could go before entering Algonquin Park. It was on a dirt road in the last organized township in the northwest corner of Algonquin Park, south of North Bay.

I want to start with a personal anecdote on the urgency of writing oral history and preserving those stories. When we first began to learn about Fossmill, my father did a one-hour interview in an old folks' home with 98-year-old Stella McGibbon, the wife of the former woods manager at Fossmill. Stella was a very dynamic person and made the story of Fossmill come alive. The amount of information we got from this brief interview was so exciting that we decided we were going to pursue this story. She told us to talk to the daughter of the Fossmill locomotive engineer, which we did, and she suggested we talk to another person and we started meeting all of these people and they told us fascinating stories. We knew from the historical records and the Women’s Institute records that there were train wrecks and people killed and we knew there were fires, but from the interviews we began to get the details, the intrigue, and the relationships between people.

Later, while doing the transcript of the interview with Stella McGibbon, I was at home in Toronto at the keyboard with earphones on listening to this amazing, strong, intelligent woman—a woman who understood the technology and economics of logging. I also remembered that Stella’s daughter had said her mother had enjoyed the interview but that she hadn’t told all of the stories, because we hadn’t asked the right questions. In the middle of this my father called me and said, “are you sitting down?” I said “yes.” He said, “I have an obituary here. Stella McGibbon has died.” Thirteen of the 50 people we interviewed have died. It is important to get the interviews before it is too late.

Today I want to talk to you about two major topics. First, collecting and preserving of oral histories, and second, how to use techniques of dramatic/narrative nonfiction to tell those stories, to bring them alive for a broader audience. 

Collecting Oral Histories:

On the topic of collecting oral histories I will deal with in two types of collecting. The first is archival collecting—that is, the collecting for later use by social historians. With archival collecting you are trying to record the stories of the old folks in the local community as soon as possible for future use. The second type of collecting is goal-directed for a specific project such as a book, video, play or a display for a museum.
My father did a lot of archival collecting in a project back in 1993. The township got a grant to hire a student and they interviewed many older people in the community. They created a file on each individual. Each file includes a tape recording, a photograph of the person, a map of where they lived and some information from the Women’s Institute on who they were so that a researcher in the future could have a picture of that person. The interview tape gives a detailed account of what life was like, how they lived, how they did their jobs, and so on. Most of them have died now but their stories are preserved.

Goal-directed collecting is more like investigative journalism. The object is to find the collective memory of a community and somehow pull out or find some sort of “truth” as to what happened to a community in the past. You need to get many different points of view of the same events so that you can compare what people are saying and get a sense of what really happened. Everyone has his or her own view points; every one has his or her own opinion; everyone has his or her own truth about what happened, based on who they are, their race, their gender, their age, and their class.

When I got off the bus in Powassan a few days ago, my father rushed me off to North Bay where we interviewed the wife and daughter of the man who organized the union at Kiosk (our next book). There were two strikes against the company in Kiosk and they told us the workers side of the story. We had already interviewed the sons of the owners, who gave another view on what the strike was about and what the union organizing was about, so we now have some differing views that we can compare. You can also compare what people are saying in the interviews with the historical records to get a sense of their accuracy.

Perhaps the most important part of the interview is getting the anecdotes—the stories people tell about their lives. This is the material that really makes the research come alive because they are telling you I did this, and so and so did that, and they said this, and they said that, and then this happened and you’re really starting to get the story. When you put all the anecdotes together you begin to get a sense of the whole story. What you’re trying to find here is the meaning and the drama of the story, so you can then present it in your video, play, book, etc.

How do you find people to interview? You find people through referrals, looking in phone books, and on the Internet. There is a service on the Internet called Canada 411 were you can type in a name and get telephone numbers of anybody listed in telephone directories in Canada. My father is very good at making cold calls. I’m actually more comfortable in archives and libraries. My father calls people up and says “Hello we heard you were at Fossmill and we would like to talk to you.” The response is almost always positive. Fossmill doesn’t exist anymore so there is no one living there today. To talk this community we had to interview people from all over the province and as far away as Florida. We were making links and connections, interviewing people that had not talked or met in 60 years, and we were bringing their information back together.

Much of the time when we called someone they would say “I don’t remember very much, I don’t know anything, what do you want to talk to me for?” we would say, “maybe you have a few ideas. We just want to come over and talk for a few minuets, show you some photos.” So you go over and three hours later you leave. The point is they don’t know who you are and they want to have an out. When you arrive you have to make them comfortable, explain who you are, engage in a lot of small talk, and you have to explain why you’re doing the research. They want to know why you want to know their story. Most people just love to tell their story, but some need encouragement.
Another thing my father taught me was the importance of getting the genealogy of people. He asks them when they were born, when their parents were born, who their brothers and sisters were, when did they arrive, all the boring genealogical stuff. But when you’re trying to get to the truth of what they are saying it is important to know this information because their view point is going to be shaped by when they were there, why they were there, their age, and so on.

One story illustrates this. We interviewed a couple of people who told negative stories about a particular teacher. We made the mistake of prompting them by mentioning the name of the teacher and they responded with their stories. But something just didn’t seem right, so we started to look at the dates. Well, one person wasn’t even there when the teacher mentioned was there, and the other was only 6 and she said she was strapped for smoking. We concluded that it was a different teacher than the one we had mentioned! We had prompted them with a name, and they trusted that we knew who we were talking about and wanted to be agreeable.

It is important to get the story from people without any prompting at first. One of the books in our bibliography is White Gloves, by a psychologist who studies autobiographical memory. He points to studies that found the most accurate memories are the ones that are unprompted and uninterfered with. The studies also showed that detailed memories are not necessarily more accurate than less detailed memories. 
After you have the basic story from people then you draw out other memories, opinions, and ideas. You can evoke a lot of response from photographs. People say “I know that person” and you get another story. On one occasion we started visually walking a man through the town from one house and street to another and we ended up walking the full 14 miles of the railway. He talked about Split Rock Hill, the train, and new people. We got a lot of stories and information we wouldn’t have had otherwise.

As you will see, when you want to tell your story dramatically you need to ask about details that you may think are kind of strange like how the house was laid out and where the furniture was. You want to know the colours, the sounds and the smells. You want to know the conversations people had. You want to know how people felt about events. You want to know their opinions of events. The answers will give you a sense of who they are and the meaning of their stories. Sometimes people will have amazing memories for events but have no photographs. With one woman we got six hours of tape of every little detail of the town but not one photograph. But you need to ask for photographs and other material. We interviewed the company owner’s son who was only twelve or thirteen at the time of our story. We got some good material on the Fassett Lumber Company and Fossmill and on his father. He had only been to Fossmill once, so he didn’t have a lot of detail about the town, but he happened to have three photo albums handed down from his mother with hundreds of photographs. He also had twenty minutes of film footage commissioned by his father in 1934 that showed the operations of the company. This film became the core of our video Logging by Rail in Algonquin Park. It shows the logging, the train, and the lumber mill. So it was useful to have asked him for photographs! 

Once you have completed an interview, you have to preserve it. I am not going to spend much time on this part. But you have to label the tapes, put them in a safe place, scan the photographs or otherwise record them and get them back to people. In our book we have over 350 photographs, one on just about every page. They are extremely useful in bringing the story to life.

Telling the Story 

The second part of my talk is about telling the story. What are you going to do with this stuff? The first draft of our book was satisfactory. It would have been interesting to a lot of special groups, the people who lived there, the logging and train fanatics, and other researchers who were interested in logging railroads in the 1920’s and 30’s. There were lots and lots of words, with chapters on all the logging companies in northern Ontario, chapters on the history of logging, and chapters on schools and so on, in a very thematic way, but it lacked drama. It lacked excitement. We wondered how many people would keep reading once they started. So we decided to rewrite and look at it a little differently. We reworked it and reworked it and cut it down, making it more of a story.

Ian Wilson said some things this morning related to what we were trying to do. He said history is about people making choices, and about uncertainty. He also talked about authenticity. He said that people crave a genuine sense of time and place—the sights, smells, and sounds of a place, they want to experience the past.

The bibliography includes some books we found very useful: Follow The Story and Writing For Story, both by Pulitzer prize winning journalists who write what they call dramatic or narrative nonfiction. There is a Canadian, Heather Robertson, also a journalist, who has a very good chapter on interviewing in her book. 

The main thing to remember in dramatic nonfiction is not to tell the end of the story at the beginning. Dramatic nonfiction is not like a high school or university history essay where you learned that you had to tell what you’re going to say, then say it, and then tell what you said. It was boring to write those essays and boring to read them. Maybe it was useful as academic history in terms of proving important points about history, but in terms of really making a good story—throw that idea out! 

Some of these books teach a strict outlining structure to force you to determine what problems a character is facing in your story, how they confront that problem, how they resolve the problem, and what new problems they encounter so that a reader is constantly wondering what is going to happen next. What are people going to do? What decision are they going to make that is going to make life better or worse for them? What contradictions and issues are they facing and how are they going to solve them? You have to let the reader learn along with the people how to deal with those problems.

Presenting history is a bit complicated because generally people know the outcome of historical events. We all know the Titanic sank so you can’t make a mystery about whether the ship is going to hit the iceberg and sink, but many dramatic stories have been produced about the Titanic even though everyone knows its fate. The trick is to find the universal stories in the narrative, so the reader can learn something about human nature, people and society. They learn by wanting to continue to read to find out about the people. What decisions they make, what happens to them, and how they solve or don’t solve their problems. That is “dramatic nonfiction.”

When it comes to authenticity there is a technique called “narrative nonfiction” In narrative nonfiction the story is told in scenes, like in a movie, where the reader is actually there experiencing the events in chronological order. This technique, borrowed from fiction, makes powerful stories. The problem is how much do you make up when you don’t really know exactly what happened. We found that if you do your research right and ask the right questions when you do your interviews, you can get everything you need to produce historically accurate narrative. I was watching a biography of Pierre Berton the other day and he told a story about a scene he wrote about an early Prime Minister of Canada sitting in his office. He added details about the weather and the Prime Minister’s emotional state. When the book came out some historians criticized this saying he had made up the scene. In response Pierre Berton produced a letter written by the Prime Minister in his office that day that included all the details in the scene. So if you do your research and ask the right questions in an oral history interview you can get the information that you need to create accurate narrative scenes for your story. Scenes that will give the reader an authentic experience of another time and place.

In conclusion, dramatic/narrative nonfiction stories based on oral history can tell the story of common people. The stories will draw the reader in and provide universal lessons from these individual stories. When our book came out we gave them to the people we interviewed. Some of them reported to us that they couldn’t sleep when they got it. They started reading the book and stayed up all night learning new things even though they had actually lived the events. We are encouraged that even the people who lived the events are drawn into the drama of the story. We are getting reports now of people who had nothing to do with Fossmill having the same experience. That is what we had hoped to do by adopting this approach. We hoped people would read this history and care about the people they were reading about, care about what happened to them and at the same time learn something about the Canada’s past.

Selected Bibliography


Kotre, John White Gloves: How We Create Ourselves Through Memory. New York, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1996.
John Kotre, a professor of psychology, analyzes “autobiographical memory” and how it changes over time and with life changes. Useful for understanding oral histories and in assessing the accuracy of peoples memories.

Reimer (editor) Voices: A Guide to Oral History Ministry of Provincial Secretary and Government Services: Provincial Archives: British Columbia, 1984. 

Thompson, Paul The Voice of the Past Oral History. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1978.

Yow, Valerie Raleigh Recording Oral History. Sage Publications, Inc., California, 1994.


Franklin, Jon. Writing For Story. New York, New York:  Penguin Group, 1986.
Two-time Pulitzer prize winner Jon Franklin shows how to make true stories come alive by finding the complication and resolution in each story. His rigid formula for constructing an outline forces you to critically rethink your story to make it exciting and dramatic.

Provost, Gary. Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing - For Fiction and Nonfiction. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 1990.

A good book on all the basic techniques of dramatic writing. He also has an out-of-print book on writing true crime with a section on how to construct scenes from the available evidence without making it up.
Robertson, Heather. Writing From Life: A Guide For Writing True Stories. Toronto, Ontario: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1998.
Canadian author Heather Robertson writes about her techniques for writing true stories. A good chapter on interviewing.

Stewart, James B. Follow The Story: How to Write Successful Nonfiction. New York, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. 

A former editor of The Wall Street Journal and Pulitzer Prize winner shows how to use the techniques of feature story writing and narrative to turn what could be a boring true story into a dramatic one.

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