Keeping the Edmund Fitzgerald Alive for a New Generation

Edmund Fitzgerald

“Edmund Fitzgerald, 1971, 3 of 4 (restored)” by Greenmars. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg#/media/File:Edmund_Fitzgerald,_1971,_3_of_4_(restored).jpg

Today is a special day in my household. Today’s date, November 10, has been marked on the calendar with big red letters reading “FITZ.” We started the morning by listening to Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and my seven- and five-year-old sons are eager to get home from school this evening so they can put on the Edmund Fitzgerald play they created. At some point today, we’ll read through the countless articles written about the Fitz (especially the great series from the Toledo Blade) and watch the video footage we’ve all seen many times before.

For those who aren’t aware, today marks the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald, November 10, 1975, a tragedy in Michigan history. Around the state and throughout the Great Lakes region, commemorations are being held to honor the 29 sailors who disappeared into Lake Superior. At the Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point tonight at 7,

they’ll ring the bell of the Edmund Fitzgerald 30 times, once for every man killed when the great ship went down and once more for all sailors lost at sea.

My family wasn’t personally touched by the tragedy. We lost no relatives the night the Fitz disappeared beneath the waves. However, we spend our summers along Lake Superior, in particular, along a section known as Michigan’s shipwreck coast. My sons have grown up not just hearing about the great ships traveling the Great Lakes, but they’ve seen them with their own eyes. They’ve walked along the beach and touched the bones of old ships washed onto the shore. They’ve been to the museum at Whitefish Point and studied the bell retrieved in 1995 from the Fitz. My seven-year-old son has studied the museum displays and read so many books he even argues with others about his theories about what caused the Fitz to sink.

Edmund Fitzgerald CostumeSpeaking of my seven-year-old, this year, when we asked him what he wanted to be for Halloween, he took no time answering. He wanted to be the S. S. Edmund Fitzgerald. I shouldn’t have been surprised because he has a fascination with Great Lakes shipwrecks like the L.R. Doty, the Iosco, the Olive Jeanette, and others. It’s the loss of the Fitz, however, that has made history come alive for him in a way no textbook ever could.

Tonight, when we finish watching the play the boys have created, we’ll sit in front of the computer at 7 pm and watch the live stream of the Shipwreck Museum’s Edmund Fitzgerald Memorial on Fox32. We’ll mourn those lost on the Great Lakes, and we’ll ensure they will be remembered by a new generation.

Advertisements

An Opportunity to Remember: The Loss of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Since I’ve been writing a novel that takes place in the shadow of Lake Superior in the years between 1975 and 1995, it seems only fitting that I commemorate the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald today, the 39th anniversary of the ship’s loss. This is a solemn day for Michiganders, as we remember the many who have lost their lives on our lakes throughout the years.

If you’re in the Detroit area, the Detroit Free Press has announced a commemoration for tonight:

The evening’s activities are to begin with a lantern vigil at the Edmund Fitzgerald anchor, followed by a performance by Great Lakes balladeer Lee Murdock and an honor guard escort of a memorial wreath to the Detroit River for receipt by a flotilla of Great Lakes vessels.

Edmund Fitzgerald
Photo from Detroit Free Press, November 10, 2014
My novel is not about the Fitz itself, but not coincidentally the action begins on the same night the great ship disappeared from radar. As a Michigan resident and someone who has seen many of these giant ships traverse the Great Lakes, it’s hard for me not to be affected by the thought that such a large ship could sink below the water so easily. That idea haunts me–and surfaces in interesting ways in my writing.
Surprisingly, even though this was considered one of the worst maritime losses in Great Lakes history, few people remember much about the Edmund Fitzgerald these days. No such disasters have occurred on the Great Lakes in my lifetime, so many people find it hard to believe that the waters of the Great Lakes could have produced enough force to take the lives of somewhere between 25 and 30,000 people over recorded history.
Tragedies like the loss of the S.S. Fitzgerald affect the collective memory of a region (thanks to Gordon Lightfoot’s 1976 ballad, maybe even a country in the case of the Fitz) but are sadly often lost to time. After a generation or two, few remember the events of that night that seemed so terrible except for family members and history buffs.
Perhaps that fading from our collective memories is the greatest loss of all. Perhaps that is why I write, bringing the events and people of the past into sharper focus for readers. Today, I will remember the men who died on November 10, 1975, in the icy waters of Lake Superior–and the many others who have also perished in service on the Great Lakes.
What moments in your regional history do you consider important to commemorate? What will you keep alive through your writing?

5 Tips for Integrating Research Into Fiction

Image-1

So I took some time this evening to catch up with a little blog reading, including an email newsletter I get monthly from K.M. Weiland (2014) of Helping Writers Become Authors.  There were a few lines in an article titled “Research is Great! Now Keep It to Yourself” that leapt off the page at me tonight, including this first gem:

Fortunately for us, research is usually fun, especially since we’re often going to be reading about subjects that already interest us personally.

Wow, did that strike a chord with me! I’ve been researching for my next book, a story that takes place along the same historical arc as the sinking of the ship S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald in Michigan. I’ve become an Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck fact junkie! For those of you who aren’t from Michigan or who didn’t grow up in the folk music scene of the 70s, the sinking of the Fitz may be an unknown event. However, the disappearance of this giant ore carrier in the frigid waters of Lake Superior on November 10, 1975, and its immortalization in Gordon Lightfoot’s ballad have made this tragedy stick in the hearts and minds of many.

That being said, such a tragedy has been discussed, researched, argued over, and written about countless times. While my book has little to do with the story of the Fitz (my story sort of happens in the shadow of the historical event), I wanted to be sure I knew the story well and did my research accordingly—a LOT of research! I can’t help but worry, though, that there will be those who know a great deal more than I do who will find fault with my efforts. Thankfully, I’m not alone in this worry, as Weiland (2014) notes:

No matter what subject we’re writing about, we have to assume we’ll find some pretty smart readers out there who will know more about it than we do.

This is a fact of reality: There will always be someone out there who knows more about the topic than I do. Although I can’t solve that problem, I can make some effort to ensure that I’ve done my due diligence on the research and writing end. To that end, here are goals for researching and integrating that work into my own WIP:

  1. Read a LOT: To research a topic effectively, a writer should read whatever is available on the topic. And I’m not talking about sitting down and typing the topic into Wikipedia, although that could be a good first step. The bibliographic materials on Wikipedia articles can often be very useful “next steps.” The point, though, is to read widely on the topic, to be sure to see it from as many angles as possible—otherwise readers will gladly point out missed perspectives.
  2. Seek out Experts: While I realize that few of us have the budgets to allow for research trips, I’ve found that email is a great way to connect to the experts who have already spent countless hours researching the same topic. The best part is that many of them are happy to answer a few questions on their favorite subject—as long as their time is valued and respected. There’s no substitute for going to the source when it comes to authenticating research.
  3. Take notes: This sounds a bit obvious, but most of us aren’t very good at remembering things. How many times have you had that moment when you know you heard something somewhere—but just can’t remember where or when? While it may not be necessary to write down each detail from many sources—especially where the ideas from those sources overlap—it can be incredibly helpful to note where the sources differ. What are the causes for those differences?
  4. Give credit ethically: Okay, so I should out myself here and admit that I teach English, so I’m constantly lecturing my students about citing their sources. To not do that myself would just be hypocritical—and maybe downright criminal since I know better. However, it’s hard to give credit in the usual sense in fiction. There are opportunities in an acknowledgments section and in a works consulted section to give credit to the original researchers whose work has informed my way of thinking about the topic. That can also give the writer a bit of protection if a fact is challenged. Readers have some idea where the idea originated—if it wasn’t something that came from the author’s imagination. (By the way, since I’m talking about citation in this post, I felt it absolutely necessary to roll out the formal APA citation for this blog entry—don’t be alarmed!)
  5. Contribute to the Ongoing Conversation: Imagine walking into an ongoing conversation and just repeating what everyone else is saying. How well would that go over? The participants in the conversation would likely just ignore what we say entirely. Likewise, when writing about a topic that is already being discussed, we need to take in what’s being discussed, synthesize it with what we know, and add something valuable to the conversation—some new knowledge or insight. Fiction allows writers the opportunity to “see” a topic in an entirely new light. It’s important not to simply regurgitate the facts from our research; instead, we should aim to build on those ideas to create a fresh take on the topic.

I know I will never know everything there is to know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald no matter how much research I do. But that isn’t my goal. My goal is to use the research as a scaffold on which to build my own story. What research tips have you found most helpful in building your own story scaffold?

References

Weiland, K.M. (2014, February 1). Research is great! Now keep it to yourself. Helping Writers Become Authors. Retrieved from http://penforasword.createsend1.com/t/ViewEmail/j/FCA55A97ECE39E8C/A4C28CA257A89AFBC9C291422E3DE149

(In case you’re interested, the books in the photo are Frederick Stonehouse’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Michael Schumacher’s Mighty Fitz.)