Nina Sankovitch
Published in

Nina Sankovitch

How I Wrote American Rebels

First, the why?

Why did I write a book about the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy families, and their roles in fomenting revolution in the American colonies? While researching and writing my previous book, The Lowells of Massachusetts: An American Family, I had become fascinated by the choice faced by colonists in the decades leading up to the American Revolution, of whether to stay loyal to England or to rebel. In thinking about that choice, a plethora of questions rose up in my mind:

- What was it that led certain members of colonial families to remain loyal while others chose to fight for independence?

- How did the colonists have the courage to break with England, a country known for its awesome naval powers and military commanders?

- How did the choice cut across class lines?

- How did the choice cut across gender lines?

- What role did women play in making the community-wide debates over colonial rights?

- What role did individual voices — male or female — play in driving the call for rebellion and cementing collaborative effort towards achieving it?

I decided that I needed to find a community to study, preferably one with a wide range of social classes, a large dollop of human interest, and a vibrant rebel contingent, that would allow me to answer the questions rocketing inside my brain. It was only by chance that one afternoon while browsing through the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, that I came upon a book titled Where American Independence Began, published in 1902 and written by Daniel Munro Wilson, a quirky but dogged historian. And in that book I found these lines:

In the aspirations and heroisms of that little community of Braintree…was surprisingly manifested the genius of the American people.There if it may be said of any one place, Independence began…Few towns can boast of annals more brightly colored, not only with deeds of patriots, but with the surprises of romance; not only with the sturdy enterprises of plain liberty-loving farmers but with the debonair discourse of the colonial gentility.

Wilson’s description of Braintree lit a lightbulb in my head. I was enthralled by the claims he made, and on so many levels. Independence began in the small village? Which patriots, exactly, was Reverend Munro referring to, and what were their deeds? What was that about a romance he mentioned? And what was his point about farmers and gentility?

Intrigued, I copied the passage out word for word, and carried it around with me for over a year. Then one day I decided to try and answer the questions raised by the short passage. With the help of the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the generous support they gave me in the form of the Marc Friedlander fellowship, I began to dig deeply into the history of Braintree and the stories of the individual families inhabiting it during the years before the American Revolution.

The Research Begins

My research for the writing of American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution followed two pathways: the timeline of important (and unimportant) events that gave shape to the period about which I hoped to write; and the personal and collective experiences of the men and women — including John Hancock, John Adams, Josiah Quincy, Abigail Smith Adams, Dorothy Quincy Hancock — during that period of time: what they thought about the happenings of their times, both big and small, and how they coped; along with what they felt, what they ate, what they saw (and what they looked like); what they smelled (and what they smelled like); and what they hoped for and what they lost, what they mourned, and how they rejoiced.

Key to My Research: Writing Everything Down

Whenever I am undertaking research for a new book, I take pages and pages and pages of notes detailing what I discover during all steps of the process. I remember things best — absorb them, really — by writing down every interesting fact. Simply reading and underlining pages in a book or a document is not enough, nor is taking a photograph or scanning a page for digital recovery. For me, I must write to remember.

First Step: Books

I always begin research for a new book by reading through secondary sources on the topic in which I am interested. As I read, I either underline or place post-its on the relevant pages and passages. Then I read through each book again, taking written notes in the marble notebooks I purchase just for this purpose. In carrying out my research for American Rebels, I had seven notebooks, each labeled with either a family name — Quincy, Hancock, Adams — or with the title “Timeline.” In the timeline notebooks, I recorded dates of events, with details of such events. In the family notebooks, I recorded information about members of each family. In other words, I had a marble notebook for each specific person I researched, as well as for the timelines of the events I was covering.

Second Step:Archives and Collections

Once I completed my background reading, I began my primary source research. I scoured relevant archives located in libraries, historical societies, and personal collections. Most research libraries that I visited required that notes be taken on loose paper. I was also allowed to make digital scans of materials, as well as photographs. I took hundreds of pages of notes and dozens of photographs and scans.

Third Step: Site Visits

To get a feel for the places about which I planned to write in American Rebels, I scheduled visits to the relevant historical sites, including the Hancock cemetery in Quincy (formerly Braintree), Massachusetts; the Dorothy Quincy Homestead; the birthplace of John Adams and the home where he lived with Abigail Adams, both part of the Adams National Historical Park; and the Josiah Quincy House. Other sites important to the book were Carpenters’ Hall and Independence Hall in Philadelphia; Paul Revere’s House, Beacon Hill, the Boston Common, and the Old Granary Burying Ground in Boston; the partial reconstruction of John Hancock’s Boston mansion in Ticonderoga, New York; and Harvard Yard and the mansions on Tory Row in Cambridge. During my site visits, I took detailed notes and also took many photographs of the sites.

John Adams’ House; Josiah Quincy House; Inside Josiah Quincy House (and portrait of Josiah Quincy); Dorothy Quincy Homestead; Carriage belonging to John Hancock; grave of Edmund Quincy in Hancock Cemetery

Fourth Step: Organizing the Gathered Research

After returning to my office from a research trip or site visit, I transferred all the information I’d recorded on loose pages into the relevant marble notebooks. I stored digital documents and photographs on my computer. All loose pages and photocopied materials were placed in folders labeled by names (for example, “John Hancock and Dorothy Quincy”) or dates (“1773) or by category (maps, genealogies, etc). I also kept one folder labeled “Further Research” to keep track of follow-up research that had to be completed.

As my research notes accumulated, I took the time to read through my marble notebooks again and again, tagging all information that I wanted to definitely include in American Rebels. All tagged information was then written by hand, fact by fact, onto single notecards. Every notecard included the location of the tagged material (either a marble notebook or in a folder). By always noting the references of the information, I could easily return to the pages in my notebooks and folders to find more information as needed.

Once my research was more or less completed (more would be undertaken throughout the writing process), I began organizing my hundreds of notecards into years (1760, 1761, etc) and themes (such as “First Continental Congress” or “Harvard” or “Colonial Court System”). I arranged the notecards onto large sturdy poster boards labeled with a year or with a theme, rearranging the placement of the cards on the boards until I was satisfied with how the collected research all worked together. I then affixed the notecards to the poster boards with tape. I also created poster boards of family trees.

Let the Writing Flow From the Research

Using the poster boards to guide me, I created a detailed outline for American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution. With the outline in place, I could begin writing. I wrote the book on a computer, chapter by chapter. I wrote just about every day, and never moved on to the next chapter until I felt more or less satisfied with what I had written so far. Footnotes were easy to complete, as I had all my sources referenced on notecards and in my black notebooks.

If I ever found myself stuck in the writing of American Rebels and not sure where to go next, I simply looked over at my poster boards and once again found my place. I studied documents saved on my computers or skimmed through photographs. Or I spent an evening with one of my marble notebooks, finding in my scrawled notes the inspiration I needed to get back to writing the story I wanted to tell. The research was the foundation to which I returned again and again. Every note, every page, every scan and every photo had its place in creating American Rebels.




Because being witness to all types of human experience is not only important to understanding the world, but also to understanding myself.

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Nina Sankovitch

Nina Sankovitch

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