• Using Local History for Inspiration

    Posted Posted by Guest Writer in Inspiration, Strategies     Comments 2 comments

    Photo courtesy of Jan at blog.wilkinsonranch.com

    When I was a child, my family didn’t go on vacations (no money, no time). Since I read voraciously growing up, I got a lot of literary inspiration about places I still haven’t gone to yet. San Antonio, my hometown, isn’t a commonly used setting and I only encountered it in books maybe once or twice. I used to get annoyed that I wasn’t born someplace else–New York, London, Paris–you know, the locations authors use ad nauseum. I spent eighteen years in San Antonio, enough time to know it thoroughly, but I didn’t have transportation to go to all the “interesting” places. So, I dismissed using my hometown as literary inspiration because all I really knew were the suburbs and strip malls. And after being in that atmosphere for two decades, I scarcely noticed the details and oddities of my surroundings.

    If I’d had the foresight, I would’ve dug deeper for local inspiration. Nowadays, I’m still broke and unable to travel to many of the literary hubs I know about vicariously. But I found a way to deal with it. So, what do you do when you’re strapped for cash, can’t travel, and want to see your hometown through new eyes?

    Besides the obvious like going for walks around town, socializing with random people, etc., there’s another option: exploring local history. Forgive me if that’s your forte, but it’s a mode of inspiration I only started using recently. I didn’t go looking into local history on my own either. Since I started working at the O. Henry Museum, I’ve learned tons about Austin’s history: the original uses of downtown buildings, the significance of street names (i.e. Convict Hill Road), and the stories of people who lived here over a hundred years ago. Luckily, Austin has many options for the lay urban historian. We might not get a lot of literary press, but boy do we have a fascinating past. The City of Austin, for instance, has several city-specific museums and archival havens under its jurisdiction, such as the George Washington Carver Museum and the Austin History Center. I don’t even need to mention the many movies that have been shot and set in Austin over the past few decades. You get the picture. If you do a Google search, you will find a wealth of information on Austin’s past.

    Because Austin’s the state capitol, I find that our local history is often better preserved than it is in some small towns and rural areas. It takes a little extra research to dig up dirt on rural areas, but trust me–the information is there. I lived in Podunk (Hunstville), Texas while going to Sam Houston State University. The night life consisted of a few crappy bars, frat parties, and illicit booze in the dorms. Despite its boring exterior, Huntsville has an interesting past you can explore through avenues such as the Walker County Genealogical Society or the county historical commission. Broaden your search to the county level, and you’ll find plenty of sources.

    So WBNers, are there any spots in your hometown that you hit for historical inspiration?


    In addition to writing for WriteByNight’s blog, Jenna Cooper writes for BE Mag and a blog called FemThreads.  Aside from writing, Jenna served as an AmeriCorps Member from 2008-2010 and will start her M.S. in Information Studies in Fall 2012.  She graduated in 2009 with a B.A. in English from the University of Texas.

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    David Duhr

    Not in Austin (yet), but when we lived in Boston? Ooh wee, I had history coming outta my ass. For a while I lived in the North End, right at the bottom of Copps’ Hill, one of the oldest cemeteries in the U.S. I would sit in the grass and write poetry. And I don’t write poetry! A block away was the Old North Church (“One if by sea, two if by land.”), leading to the rest of the Freedom Trail. I would take walks several hours long, several times a week, with my journal. Never have I had as… Read more »


    Wow, so jealous! I felt like that when I visited New Orleans–saturated with inspiration.

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