Doris Kearns Goodwin on storytelling 

This Pulitzer Prize-winning historian reflects on writing narrative history

Last week I interviewed and wrote about the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin for her upcoming appearance at Rider University in New Jersey. I’m a big fan of hers and a big fan of Lincoln and American history in general so it was a treat to speak with her. Two things we talked about that didn’t make it into the story were her writing process and her strategy as a storyteller.

Goodwin mined the diaries and letters of Lincoln’s rivals to illuminate the president through their eyes.

She rarely writes straight historical biography; instead, several of her books expand into multiple biographies. “The price you pay for choosing the people about whom so much has been written is that you do have to expand the list of characters,” she told me. “By having more people in the story, hopefully you’re getting a deeper insight into the period of time. Hopefully you’re giving the reader a sense of what it was like to live at that time.”

Goodwin cited a strategy for narrative writing that she learned from the historian Barbara W. Tuchman, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner probably most famous for her history of the run-up to WWI, The Guns of August. “She said in one of her essays that even if you’re writing about a war, you have to imagine to yourself as a narrative historian that you don’t know how that war ended so you can carry your reader with you every step of the way from beginning to middle to end, as the story should be told.”

Goodwin writes with the intention of positioning the reader as a person living through history. To achieve that, she relies on specific details mined from diaries, letters, newspapers and other first-hand accounts.

For Team of Rivals, she said, “Luckily, all of these guys (Seward, Chase, Bates) had written letter to families and kept diaries, so I could get to know them and through them get to know Lincoln in a different way.”

For No Ordinary Time, she used a White House usher’s diary that recorded the details of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s daily routine. “People had used it for big events like Pearl Harbor,” Goodwin said. “I copied every single one of those daily entries. Once I knew Franklin had lunch with one of the cabinet officers, I could read (the officer’s) memoir and see what they talked about. If I knew Eleanor had taken a trip, I could read the reports of the trip or her column from that day, so you could really re-create that day and that moment. That became my anchor in a certain sense.”

Goodwin took six years to write “No Ordinary Time,” her portrait of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt during World War II.

Writing that book required six years — longer than it took World War II to be fought. Writing Team of Rivals took 10 years. Goodwin told me that searching for specific details and expanding the story by adding multiple characters were her rationale for taking so long to write.

She also researches and writes in pieces. Instead of completing all of her research and then trying to write the entire book at once, she researches sections of the story and then writes that part of the book. “If you didn’t start writing, if you would just spend five years researching and then start writing, you’d be paralyzed. When you finish each chapter, at least you can feel you’re building a book.”

After all that work, what does Goodwin hope readers will take away from her work?

“I guess what I really hope is that people who read the books will have some love of history the way I do,” she said. “If history is taught right, almost everybody should love it. It’s about conflict, it’s about drama, it’s about people who lived before. You can learn from what they learned: that you’re not a generation alone; that people have been through these problems before. If things seem really hard right now, there’s some solace in looking back to the 1850s when people were carrying revolvers on the Senate floor.”