The best way to capture the past is to step back into it -- visiting the places you are writing about. Last week Fran and I toured Monticello, the mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson. There is no better way to get into a person's head than to walk the red Piedmont soil and marvel at the blue rolling hills off in the distance. Now I know why he called it his "sea view."
But stepping back in time also takes a healthy dose of imagination, too. Mulberry row, where slaves lived and worked, is empty now. I have to imagine the lane busy with boys making nails, and the air thick with smoke from the forge and the cook house. Instead of the two white women driving a four-wheeler from tree to tree in the orchard, I have to envision perhaps two black men carrying a ladder and saws to trim the branches.
The past is not black and white, either. Old photos make everyone look somber and give the impression that history was fuzzy and dull. But people wore shades of red and blue, laughed and danced. One of the more startling things I noticed at Monticello was the neon yellow dining room. Not what I would have expected had I not known how much he appreciated light and air.
Hustled through the house with other tourists it was hard to really see everything, but then again, it gave me a more accurate portrayal of a house filled with children, servants, and family. And when I return, I can dig deeper, look closer, and reveal even more.