May 30, 2016

Q & A with Sam Forman, author of the new YA historical novel "Twenty-One Heroes"

A year ago when Sam Forman, author of the recently-published historical novel for young adults, Twenty-One Heroes, told me what he was working on, I thought he was joking. He quickly disabused me of that notion. Sam is one of three authors and historians who helped launch History Camp. I knew him as the author of the definitive biography of Revolutionary War hero Dr. Joseph Warren, and he's received much praise for his work of historical fiction for young adults, including from noted author Nathaniel Philbrick in December:

If you're looking for a book for young readers this holiday season that brings America's Revolutionary history to life, check out my friend Sam Forman's Twenty-One Heroes. Sam's biography of Dr. Joseph Warren was a big help to me when I was researching Bunker Hill.

A few signed copies of both of Sam's books are available now: Twenty-One Heroes and Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty.)

This interview with Sam provides an insight into his novel for young adults.

As an author, you are best known for writing the definitive biography of founding father Joseph Warren. What made you turn to fiction for Twenty-One Heroes?Twenty-One Heroes, a historical novel for young adults

Formal histories of our American Revolutionary era are not written from the standpoint of the young people who lived in the era. Surviving diaries and letters, written by privileged young men and women, are rare. Their language and context make them inaccessible to general readers. I turned to historical fiction to convey the experiences of more ordinary young people, interacting as friends and acquaintances over an extended period of time.

Coming of age stories fit well with tales of the American Revolution. Young people must decide what they stand for and how they will conduct their lives. The reality and legends of America’s birth and adolescence provide the perfect backdrop.

What was your inspiration for this story? Why were you drawn to writing a romance?

My first inspiration to write what became Twenty-One Heroes occurred following a springtime romantic picnic. My girlfriend and I spread our blanket on a green space between the old Delaware Canal and the shore of the Delaware River. We soon realized that we had set up in a park-like graveyard whose residents cast a pall over the moment. Our neighbors of sorts were lying under a line of plain marble gravestones. Inscriptions marked them as unknown soldiers who had perished during the Continental Army encampment on that very site just prior to the dramatic events of Christmas Day 1776. Our picnic was taking place on hallowed ground.

We were young, both just embarking on professional careers. Ultimately we went our separate ways. As I reflected on that afternoon, both at the time and later, I contrasted the modern experience to that of those soldiers. 

What is it about the revolutionary period that appealed to you as the backdrop for this story?

As you explore your own place in the world, it is natural at the same time to learn of the creation saga of the society in which we live. I have always been attracted to stories of origins and creation.

Are there other historical novels, for adults or teens, to which you would compare Twenty-One Heroes? What makes your novel different?

Harkening to my own experiences as an aspiring history enthusiast starting in junior high school, fiction - accessible to my young self - hooked me into the personalities and concepts enlivening America’s story. Fiction, like Ester Forbes’ Johnny Tremain, offered up main characters with whom I could identify. The story, readily acknowledged as fictionalized, invited my further pursuit of the real stories and real challenges at America’s Founding. Recently I have been impressed by how popular culture films and mini-series, like Lincoln, Turn, and Sons of Liberty, and the titles that inspired them, have reached a broad public and gotten them excited about important historical episodes with implications for today’s world.

Twenty-One Heroes is different from tales written in earlier generations. I include forthrightly challenges faced by some characters–racial prejudice, slavery, sexual harassment, disparities in opportunity, etc.–that hardly registered in written records of the time. In am convinced of their importance to actual lives as experienced at the time, and to American experience both then and now. They are integral to Twenty-One Heroes.

In another respect my fiction shares an outlook common to older classics. I am an enthusiast for the American experience.

Why is historical fiction important?

My point of view is that of a diverse group of young men and women, rather than of Founding Fathers as encountered in schools and textbooks, in their formal writings, and in cold marble statues. My characters live in the present. They do not know whether they will realize their hearts’ desires, though they try mightily to do so. They do not know the outcome of the issues of their day, though they make what choices they can within the confines of their worlds.

How did you select which historical figures, events, and locations to portray in your novel? How much of your depictions of them are fact vs. fiction?

The kind of people I portray – lesser known historical figures, college boys, women, blacks-are only scantily documented in original sources. My characters incorporate composites of known facts about different people, what I know about the time and place in general extrapolated in fiction to an individual, and universal attributes of the human condition that appear across time and culture. As a romance, concerns with whom we love and care about, and how we chose and are permitted to show it, figure prominently.

Historical figures do appear – Phillis Wheatley, George Washington, Benedict Arnold, Joseph Warren, and Thomas Paine – in manners consistent with what is known about them. The reader will learn a lot of real history from these appearances. Their appearances are very much in the characters’ present. I hope Twenty-One Heroes will be a most enjoyable real history lesson for readers. Yet the famous people in Twenty-One Heroes are subordinate to the fictional leads – Katherine, Ezra, and Joshua – and their romantic and action adventures.

Twenty-One Heroes takes its title from the twenty-one unknown Continental soldiers who died at the site of Washington’s crossing of the Delaware. How much is known about these anonymous heroes? How much of that real history is woven into your novel?

Since they are unknowns, all the tools of the historian could never reveal their individual, true stories. I wondered, who were these people? What were their personalities, friends, lovers, families like? Only fiction can approximate what their lives may have been like.

What did your own experience as a Lexington Minutemen historical re-enactor bring to the process of writing this novel?

As a Lexington Minuteman historical re-enactor I bring a tactile feel and immediacy to the imagined experiences of fictional characters. Additionally, being a physician has afforded me the privilege of helping people during trying and intensely personal times.

I include some historical figures. I emphasize and sometimes speculate how they would come across in a present reality, rather than how their legacies have been polished, extracted, and analyzed by later generations of historians and novelists.

Twenty-One Heroes balances language of the revolutionary period with some modern sensibilities. Why did you think it important to combine the two?

Original 18th century writing and social situations can be incomprehensible to modern readers unless they are steeped in archaic language, handwriting, and the issues of that distant time. I selectively chose language to convey the period and manners. I hope I have achieved a reasonable balance of modern comprehension and fidelity to the modes and spirit of Revolutionary America.

As a historian, you have stated that you steer clear of accepted wisdom and undocumented legends. How was your approach different when writing fiction?

I have woven snippets of real people’s lives, extracted from original documentation with extrapolations based on universal aspects of the human condition, into a tapestry of realistically portrayed lead characters.

For example, history records that a maid of Salem, Massachusetts, lost her cool and chewed out a menacing soldier during a confrontation between raiding British soldiers and townspeople on a Sunday Sabbath. Nothing, aside from her name and that single episode, is known of that young woman, the soldier involved, and how her friends and neighbors felt about that dangerous incident. In Twenty-One Heroes this footnote to history is pivotal to Katherine’s fate and her introduction to Ezra, one of her admirers.

Sometimes gaps in non-fiction can be filled in plausibly by realistic fiction, so long as it is clearly labeled as such. Warren’s biography has always posed a challenge due to gaping chasms in primary sources. Anyone acquainted with early Revolutionary history knew Joseph Warren’s name and influence was writ large on pivotal events –the Boston Tea Party, dispatching Paul Revere on that Midnight Ride, and heroics at the Battle of Bunker Hill. I uncovered and analyzed key documents, found a few never before linked to him, and pursued elaborate forensics clarifying his battlefield demise. But those gaps in sources remain a challenge to non-fiction.

An author can fill in the blanks to achieve a satisfying narrative of individuals’ lived experiences. In straying from the surviving documentation and filling gaps, we have entered the realm of fiction.

I have incorporated a couple of undocumented legends. I judged them very likely inventions of previous generations, though memorable scenes evocative of the time period. Thomas Paine writes his most famous pamphlet by firelight on the head of a drum. A pensive George Washington hurls a silver dollar across the Delaware River as the fate of America hangs in the balance.

As you were crafting the novel, did you seek any input from readers in the age range of your intended readership? Did you base any characters on actual young people whom you know?

I performed reality checks with young people of comparable ages to the characters. Finding myself back in college studying a subject in which I was not engaged, I sat in the back of the classroom with others of similar wandering minds. Instead of doodling in the margins of a notebook or tossing paper airplanes, I scribbled word sketches of invented characters and scenes partly based on friends in the classroom, transposed to the American Revolution. Polishing these musings afterward, I’d pass the scenes to the individuals featured in them. Does this flirtation scene work? How would you do it differently?

After a little while my ruse became generally known. Everyone it seemed wanted to be in Sam’s book.  Even the professor got wind of it and fortunately was not offended.

There are no one-to-correspondences with an actual person. Fictional characters are composites beyond linkage to a single living person or recognition by them. Others are total inventions based on snippets from 18th century primary sources and my own take on human nature. 

You aim to seamlessly inter-mix fictional and historical characters. Is this confusing?

I include an appendix of principal characters, distinguishing historical figures from fictional ones. History students will enjoy succinct biographies of the real people and a glossary of authentic, but now-unusual words.

Is this story grim? We have been talking a lot about soldiers’ graves.

On balance, it is upbeat and patriotic. The real-life 21 heroes inspired the story. Spoiler alert: most of the fictional characters do not end their days in unmarked graves.

 What do you hope your readers take away from Twenty-One Heroes?

I hope readers will find in it characters they can relate to, people believably grappling with the challenges of growing up and larger issues important to their community and to our modern world. Their decisions, achievements, and problems matter to each person. And they matter to our country.

What's next from you?

If sufficient numbers of readers enjoy Twenty-One Heroes and want to learn about what becomes of their favorite characters in the American Revolutionary era, I plan to continue their stories in subsequent books.Signed copies of Twenty-One Heroes, a historical novel for young adults

I continue to write non-fiction history. A future project immerses the reader in the epic journey of a pioneer family travelling across the perilous Western and Southern frontiers when the ink on the U.S. Constitution was not yet dry.

A few signed copies of both of Sam's books are available now: Twenty-One Heroes and Dr. Joseph Warren: The Boston Tea Party, Bunker Hill, and the Birth of American Liberty.


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March 30, 2016

Social media report on History Camp Boston 2016

History Camp Boston 2016 took place on March 26, 2016 at the Harriet Tubman House in Boston.  The event was sold out more than five weeks in advance.

This report shows selected social media posts in aggregate, followed by highlighted posts.  More information on History Camp, including links to presentations at History Camp Boston 2016 and to presentations at other History Camps.

To improve readability, click on the expand icon (arrows) in the lower right hand corner of the frame below.





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February 28, 2016

Private "Servants" tour of the Gibson House (1860) in the Back Bay in Boston

Photos from a private "Servants" tour of the Gibson House, an extraordinarily well-preserved Victorian (1860) row house in Boston's Back Bay.  This was one of our monthly History Camp Boston outings.  Read more about other outings and receive advance notice by subscribing to the History Camp Boston mailing list.  All of the spots were gone within a few hours of when we announced this private tour in a mailing to that list.

Thanks to Michelle Coughlin of the Gibson House for arranging the tour.  Learn more about the Gibson House and browse upcoming programs on their page on The History List.  To be notified of programs and events at the Gibson House and at other historic sites and institutions in Massachusetts, sign up for the weekly, "Guide to History Events in Massachusetts."





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February 21, 2016

My life as a guide and interpreter at a historic site—and what to know before you apply for a job

The resources on The History List that deal with finding a job or an internship are among our most popular.  (I've included links to several of them at the bottom of this post.)  Over the last few months I asked a few friends who are at different stages in their careers and who have worked at very different institutions for their tips and insights as interpreters, guides, and docents at historic sites and living history museums.  

From a guide and interpreter at a historic site in Boston

On clothing

  • One of the more difficult parts of interpreting is feeling comfortable in the clothes you wear.  While it is great to rely on a more knowledgable colleague to show you how to properly dress, take the time to do your own research.  Study portraits, fashion plates, or photographs (if they are available to your time period).  Read from primary sources about the fabrics/prints/ styles available to your region. 
  • People love to ask you about clothing.  Make it your business to understand why you are wearing what you are wearing and how styles changed over time.
  • You will be asked multiple times per day (sometimes per hour) if "you are hot in your clothes."  You can always explain that they are natural fabrics and that you are used to them, or try to connect on a cultural level and mention that other cultures today wear layers in the summer.  My advice? Come up with something witty as a retort, or you will eventually end up irritated.

On learning the tour or demonstration

  • Your job is, yes, to memorize your script or your facts, but how you will stand out in your interpretation is if you can't elaborate on facts, connect to your public, or answer questions?  The more you read on your interpretation, the more you will "own" it.
  • Within your demonstration or tour, find an area of the time period that interests you.  Read up on it.  You can personalize your presentation in this way.
  • If you are asked a question that you don't know the answer to, admit it. Keep a small journal nearby.  Offer to take the individual's email and share what you find!  
  • If you're not comfortable on your own at first, ask a seasoned colleague to do the tour or demonstration with you, them jump in when you feel comfortable.
  • If you are doing a walking tour, ask your group to participate by asking them questions, or give them leading statements and ask them to fill in the blanks.  When you engage your group or visitors, they retain information better and feel as if they have ownership of their learning experience.

On dealing with the public

  • Be prepared to have your picture taken a lot.  More often than not, you will be photographed without your consent.  You can deal with this two ways: Ask the individual to stop if you are uncomfortable or mention that you prefer to be asked first.  Generally, they will get the idea.  Unfortunately, if you are giving a tour, there's no way to really prevent this from happening from people outside your tour.  If you are indoors and your site does not allow photography, you can post signs or gently remind your public. 
  • Sometimes people forget that you are a "real person" inside your "historic persona."  This means they sometimes forget your personal space and will touch you, put their arm around you, and so on.  Gently remind them that you are working and they will usually back up.

On silly questions

  • Keep your patience at the ready.  People come with all levels of historic knowledge. Most wish to learn.  Use their questions, however silly, as a chance to educate.  For example, although I portray an 18th century Bostonian, I have been asked multiple times if I'm Amish, a pirate wench, one of King Henry's wives, or Pilgrim.  I take those questions as my opportunity to correct their misconceptions . . . and sell a tour. 
  • If repeated questions are intentionally asked to be silly, you can always use humor back to connect with your public.  Just make sure they don't try to take over your interpretation.  If they do, chances are your group is getting fed up with the antics.  You can always politely suggest they move on, or seek employment at the local comedy show while you will finish educating your group!

From an interpreter at a living history site in the midwest

  • I got my job by going through the intern program and made friends with the guy who chose the interns.
  • Nobody gets paid well. I get paid more as a grocery store clerk than my supervisors at my historic site do.
  • The clothes are not a huge problem. You get used to them.
  • I've learned to be a tougher person. I've had to man up to succeed in historical situation and in two short years I've developed an interest in farming.  In fact, after a short time I was no longer interested in learning about the time period. I was more concerned with completing my daily tasks.
  • The general public seems very unaware of the lowest level of information that we are trying to get across. However, if you treat them with respect you can connect with almost anyone.

From a guide and docent at historic sites and history museums in New England

  • Whether prepping for tours or informal interpretation, it is easy spend hours (of your own unpaid time) researching about the museum or site's collections, exhibitions, and buildings, to feel prepared enough for visitors. The organization never compensates you for this ongoing work. 
  • No matter if the expectation "not to touch objects" is printed on a museum map, in addition to having signs on the wall and to having physical barriers near and over objects, people will inevitably touch the museum's collection. Sometimes, the touching of the collection is accidental, which is understandable because museum environments can be dark or we as human beings learn through touch.  At other times, it can be frustrating when visitors tell you, "I didn't see the sign," or "I didn't know", despite the written, verbal, and pictorial requests they've seen and heard.  You'll find that you have to continuously educate visitors that no matter how clean their hands are, hands still have oils on them and these could damage an object over time.  

From a guide and interpreter at historic sites and living history museums in New England and the Northeast

  • As a naturally shy, quiet person, becoming a tour guide was definitely a learning experience. I had to get comfortable being loud, confident, entertaining. In fact, I'm still not sure I'll ever really be loud enough.
  • Something that I always had trouble with as a tour guide was being entertaining. As a trained historian (with a background in museum work), my tours focused on converting good, solid, information, and a lot of it. Some people absolutely loved that, especially people who had some prior knowledge of American History. However, unlike other guides, I didn't work constant jokes and entertainment into my tour, so I think I was less appealing to less knowledgeable or more casual groups. 
  • In terms of getting offered the job, the actual interview was the easy part. The trickier part was getting through the door. Nearly everyone got involved either because they knew someone who was already employed (like me), or they had been recommended through one of the local college's history department. Another small group found the job through acting/theater websites and connections. In my experience, it's all about who you know, and knowing when to apply—interpretation jobs generally hire January - April, and especially in February. You're unlikely to find anything if you look at other times of the year.
  • The pay rate at one historic site was set up so that you could make a ton of money if you worked hard and were lucky and had seniority. Tour guides who had been around the longest were given the best tours, like 11:00 AM on a Saturday, and they could easily make $300+ on a single tour (plus tips). As a newcomer, I was given the mid-week afternoon tours, and there were many days when I only walked away with the base rate. The trick is being flexible, and being willing and able to rework your schedule at a moment's notice.
  • Flexibility was at times great and at others frustrating.  Great because I could easily work this job about 1 or 2 others. It was less great, because you never knew when you'd have to change your schedule around to accommodate a new tour, or because a group was running an hour late. 
  • I enjoyed dressing up, generally, and I was lucky enough to have access to a few different outfits, depending on the weather. You are going to get sweaty and hot in the summer, and you are going to freeze in the winter, though. That's just how it works. Tips: In the summer, wear linen, it breathes much better than cotton. Wear a sun hat. If you have a kerchief, drench it in water before you go out. Don't let yourself get dehydrated. In the winter, wear looser garments so you can layer underneath them. I often wore jeans, a slip, and then my petticoat (the slip was to keep the petticoat from bunching up too much). Hand warmers in your pockets! Rubber bands below your knees to keep your stockings up.
  • Projecting your voice is serious business.  Ask experienced guides for tips. 
  • My favorite part of the job was definitely when there were people who were genuinely excited about what I had to teach them and they really cared. My least favorite part was then people just didn't care and they were on the tour because it was the thing to do. 
  • The best thing to know about being a good tour guide is that if you're really, really enthusiastic about something, eventually that's going to rub off on your group. 

Pictured, from the top: Fort Ticonderoga, aboard the Hermione when it stopped in Boston, Living History Farms (Des Moines, IA), and the Newport Historical Society's Stamp Act Protest (Newport, RI).

More resources for job seekers:



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February 3, 2016

Adding courses and workshops to The History List

We've revised the Conferences page to include courses. This was in response to several organizations that expressed interest in listing their courses, and especially their online courses.

Tips for adding your organization's classes:

  • If the course takes place over multiple days, include more information about the schedule in the description, but when you add the date, list only the start date.


  • A single course held once: An online course that is completed over a 30-day period. It has a start and end date. Explain this in the description. When entering the date, enter only the start date.
  • A single course that is offered more than once: This online course is offered every month on the 1st of the month, use the start date when you add the additional times it's offered.  In the example below, the course is offered on the 1st of the month from now through August, which is the last time it's offered.  The description of the course would explain that it is a course that is completed over a 30-day period.



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