The only tools a writer really needs are something that writes – pen, pencil, chalk, one of those black rocks that we used to play with as kids – and something to write on – paper, canvas, sidewalk. We can get by with those, although the chalk and sidewalk is a little messy and doesn’t lend well to revision.

Bleak House Plantation, where CVHR has helped to find descendants of the people enslaved there.

But most of us use other tools as well. In the process of writing You Will Not Be Forgotten, I have come to rely on five really crucial things that help me get my work done well and thoroughly.

5. Books. This may seem very obvious to most of us since as writers, we usually read. A lot. But in the case of writing this book, I could not possibly complete this manuscript without the work of those who have gone before me. I have read books on the institution of slavery and on Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings; I have read biographies about the man who built these plantations and studies on plantation architecture; I have read books on African American genealogy and on the concept of race and race relations in the 21st century.

4. Archives. Without the work of librarians and archivists, this book would not be possible. I have spent countless hours (and will spend many more) in the Special Collections Library at the University of Virginia. I will soon visit the Library of Congress and the National Archives to comb through their collections. I will look at the archives of the nation of Liberia, and I will sit in our local historical society and flip through boxes of pages.

3. While this tool isn’t perfect for the kind of work I am doing, Ancestry has given me a way to compile vast lineages and dates into a format that is not only visual but also publicly accessible. I want people to be able to find what I am researching, not just because I could use their help but mostly because I want them to be able to find their people if they are looking for them. Ancestry does that well.

2. Facebook and Twitter. While these tools can be distracting, they are also invaluable to my work. They help me connect to people, and those people help me with research. They give me suggestions of people to talk to or books to read. They tell me their stories, and more than anything, they support my work. I can lose hours on Twitter, it’s true, but sometimes the insight I gain in those hours outweighs anything I’ve read that day.

1. The Central Virginia History Researchers (CVHR). This group of scholars, independent researches, family historians, archaelogists and librarians has provided me endless assistance in research projects, has given me a model for the work I am doing, and encourages me whenever I start to get discouraged or frustrated. By far, they are my most valuable ‘tool.” But beyond that, they are my friends.

What tools do you use for your writing? What technology, books, people could you not do without?