An interview with

Holly Frey & Tracy Wilson

Stuff You Missed in History Class Podcast

What did you guys want to be when you were growing up?

Tracy- I wanted to be so many different things. I tended to go through phases of thinking I wanted to be a botanist or an actor, I wanted to be an actor for a long time but I was terrible at that. When I was very young the first thing I wanted to be, and kept coming back to, was a writer. That ended up being sort of what I am at this point.

Holly- I was not all over the place. I was focused like a laser beam. For a long time I wanted to be a professional dancer, I pursued that for a while and as adolescence really kind of climbed on me I realized that I was never going to be able to sustain a career with the body that genetics gave me, unless I was really self-abusive. Then I was kind of like “oh writing sounds good” (laughs).

Tracy- When I got to college I planned to major in either psychology or mass communications, which is what my alma mater called journalism.  And then really quickly in my freshman year realized that neither of those was actually what I wanted to study so I fell into majoring in literature by accident.

Holly- I ended up shifting to acting for a while. I couldn’t decide in college what I wanted to do. If you listen to the podcast you’ll know that that I like to have my hand in lots of pies so I ended up majoring in both theatre and film studies and English and then I kind of tacked on dance at the end.

What were some of your first jobs coming out of school?

Tracy- After doing some administrative work for a while and trying to get my foot in the door, I had some writing jobs that were sort of in the fields of business-to-business technical writing. One of the main opportunities for English majors was writing for businesses and for a lot of reasons I didn’t find that to be particularly satisfying because most of the things that I got to work on had a pretty tiny learning curve.  You would get there, you would learn what you needed to know in about a span of a week, then you would have to sort of rewrite that for as long as you worked at that company.

That was not very stimulating to me. I spent some years doing that kind of stuff before taking a break from the whole world of writing.  When I came back to it it was at HowStuffWorks.  I was actually recruited by HowStuffWorks to be a staff writer. That was so much more suited to my interests and my temperament because I got to learn a new thing every week instead of having to learn one thing and then expound on it for two years. I got to broaden what I got to learn about and what I got to write about and it was basically like being in college for money (laughs).

Holly- My first job out of college I was actually a receptionist in a hair salon and then I ended up in management in a hair salon, I did that for a few years, and then I ended up working at a university library as a technical services assistant.  I was originally hired to repair books and I got the job because I had an artsy crafty background and I could make a lot of things and find creative solutions that were not necessarily within the normal guidelines of how to repair a book.  I was a little too quick about it because in about 6 months I had repaired all the books.  My boss said “I can either let you go or I can teach you to be a cataloger” and I said “cataloger please”. I worked as a cataloging assistant for almost a decade, although I switched gears a little bit and took on acquisitions and purchasing.  That’s where I started to learn that I liked history for the first time because I always thought I hated it and then my boss pointed out that I kept putting in requests to order a lot of history books about clothes because I got really into historical Chinese garments and Victorian clothing and that’s when I was thought oh history is quite interesting.

Tracy- I kind of had the same experience.  Most of my K-12 education I had really dedicated teachers and they did a great job but most of our history instruction was taught from really dry textbooks.  The purpose of it was to regurgitate these really dry facts from really dry textbooks on multiple-choice tests.  Even though I loved reading I had a hard time slogging through these really dry textbook chapters.  It wasn’t until I got to college and the program I was in required that we had 16 hours of humanities and 3 hours of art and art was kind of an art history focus, that I realized that I really did love all of this.  When it was taken from more of a humanities based approach where we looked at the art, writing, and culture of all these time periods instead of just kind of picking through historical facts and spitting them back out onto tests I realized that I actually loved thinking about the past that way.  That completely changed what I thought about the whole field of history.

I had that same problem.  I saw history as just names and dates instead of thinking about it as really cool story, which is how I see the podcast.

Holly- We try to do a broad spectrum and cover a lot of things. When I’m picking topics I’ll be looking through our ongoing list, we have a list together and I have one I keep on my phone, and I’ll start doing research on a few and see which ones have tidbits that pique my interest.  We kind of go into it from an “oh that’s neat perspective”, which helps grow our notes and our outline for that episode.  Which is also how it stays interesting for me.

Tracy- We try really hard to pick all kinds of events and all kinds of people and all kinds of perspectives and also accommodate the kinds of things that listeners ask us to talk about.  The best episodes that we do are the ones that are actually interesting to us in some way.  There’s been a couple times where I have given up on a topic at an alarmingly late point in the game because I realized that it just was not interesting and the episode was not going to interest people because we couldn’t get  interested in it for whatever reason.

You mentioned it a little but how did your positions with HowStuffWorks come about?

Tracy- I had actually applied for an editorial assistant position at HowStuffWorks several months before I wound up being recruited to work here.  That was a position that I was definitely overqualified for. At that point I had several years of experience and had moved beyond the assistant level but I really wanted to work here so I was willing to take a step in a different direction in terms of responsibility and income in order to have an opportunity. I didn’t wind up being hired for that position but not long after that I got an email from the person who was the editorial director at the time who was asking if I was interested in applying to be a staff writer and I said “absolutely”.

I started as a staff writer in June of 2005 and eventually moved into a senior staff writer position and then into a position where my role was hiring and training new staff writers and editors. I guess it’s been 3 years since I moved into the site director position where all of the writers and editors report to me and I manage the editorial calendar and work on the podcast.

Holly- I had been at another company, I had started working as a writer for another network, got laid off at that job, worked for another big subsidiary, and was not super happy there. There was nothing wrong with the job it just was not a good culture fit for me and Tracy and I had already known each other, we had met through mutual friends, I don’t even know how long ago…

Tracy- Wasn’t it Trilogy Tuesday?

Holly- It was. It was when The Lord of the Rings was running in theatres.  I met her in line for that movie because she knew people who we were in line with.  She happened to mention on social media that there was an editor job opening up and I said “I want to apply to that” and she said “you should!” So I did.

I was going to ask how you met each other because you have a great rapport on the podcast.  Starting out was  that a natural thing or did you have to script it a little bit?

Holly- The first podcast we did here was called PopStuff, we did that for a year, that was basically the two of us having a conversation about something that was interesting to us.  We sat down and recorded it in one take, there was very rarely any time that we’d stop to change or fix anything.  We had notes but the conversation was pretty extemporaneous.

Tracy- The history podcast is a lot more scripted than that because it has to be, if we sat down and tried to tell a separate story it would be a mess. If we were talking about a person’s life or a historical event and it became this sort of random assortment of facts about the thing I don’t think it would be as satisfying to history listeners as it was in the world of pop culture.

Holly- It would be perhaps compelling for psychologists to listen to who were trying to unravel how insane we are. I actually don’t like Tracy a great deal and don’t like spending time with her.

Tracy- That’s not true.

Holly- When we first started doing podcasts and being together on PopStuff I think I said something on Facebook like “I hope we get paid to sit in a dark room and talk about television forever“.  It’s just so enjoyable and she’s someone who the moment I met her, even though we didn’t hang out that much, but every time I would run into you at a party or I remember running into you at the renaissance festival one year, we would have these great conversations where I would think she is so smart and interesting.  To get to do that as part of my job, to have conversations with a smart, interesting person who I found enjoyable to be around, it was like heaven.

Tracy- Thank you! I would say we hang out 10 times more post-starting the podcast together. We wound up with the PopStuff podcast because my boss heard us riffing on something at a holiday party (laughs) that’s how PopStuff came to be.  History was sort of a matter of necessity.  The prior hosts, one had gotten a position elsewhere, which was something she was really excited about, she had ambitions of moving into a leadership role at a company and she had the opportunity to do that so she took it and I completely supported her. Although I deeply miss her being here because she was awesome.  Then Sarah, the other co-host, decided at that point that she was also ready to move away from the podcast.  So us moving onto History, we were sad about losing our old podcast, but it was a new thing that definitely had a much bigger audience and a new opportunity to explore with the two of us.

Was there anything you had to do to get yourselves radio ready?

Holly-We get all of our cursing and swearing out before we start, well we try, it doesn’t always work.

Tracy- Because both of us had had some background in theatre and some background in speaking before, I also had been involved in a community organization here called The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company and while I had not done a lot of on-mic work with them I had some basic training.  I think we both had a lot of the basics under our belts before we got in the studio.  Although there has been a learning curve. I can tell the difference in our work from a recent episode compared to one from March.

Holly- Oh for sure. I think it’s a very different audience on History than when we were working on PopStuff.  PopStuff had much more of a loosey goosey vibe where we could just riff and have fun and if there were flubs it was usually funny to leave them in because they were usually pretty minor and hilarious. Whereas the History audience was not, we were both trepidatious I think, which kept us a little more buttoned down and less prone to engage in the type of conversation and banter we would normally have.  That audience really had a certain level of expectation about getting the facts and getting the real story in there, with some banter but they didn’t always like it when we tried it in the beginning.  Now I feel like we are all as a group, both us and the audience, kind of relaxing into what the podcast has become with us as the hosts versus previous hosts.

A kind of getting to know each other stage?

Holly- I think we’re through that, at least I hope (laughs). Certainly at the start there was a bit of a rough transition. There are people who don’t like change, which I completely understand, I’ve been in that position as a fan of a thing where it changes and I’m not terribly thrilled.  I think now we’re more comfortable, we have a better rapport with each other within the guidelines of the outline that we have to prep for the show and the audience is a little more willing to let us go down different paths once and a while.

Tracy- They’ve gotten to know us more.  It was a difficult transition and it’s been difficult with every host’s transition on this podcast, there have been several, and every time a new host would come on there was this pretty vocal objection to that person from the audience regardless of what that person’s voice sounded like or what their experience was or anything.  The story I remind myself of is Mystery Science Theatre 3000 when Kevin Murphy took over as the voice of the robot Tom Servo.  Somebody sent him a many-foot-long dot matrix banner that said “I hate Tom Servo’s new voice” (laughs).  I really respect Kevin Murphy, I think he’s hilarious, I had no problem with Tom Servo’s new voice.  The fact that he had gotten that response really gave me comfort as we were getting similarly angry responses from people about the fact that we were now on their favourite history podcast instead of the people who had been before.

What goes into picking a topic? You said you pick some, you take some audience requests, how much research and writing goes into it?

Holly- For topic picking there is no real clear path for me.  It’s a combination of listener requests, we have a long list of listener requests, we also have a long list of our own ideas. Sometimes it will be determined by something that’s happening in the news.  We are about to air a podcast that kind of got generated by something that happened on a television show.  There’s kind of a non-formulaic formula of “what did we talk about lately?  Let’s not talk about that anymore” (laughs).  Nobody wants to hear me talk about another fashion designer every week.  I try to balance it.  I always get worried that I want to pick too many science projects because even though my background is humanities I’ve always had some science nerdery in me.

Tracy- Yah, me too. When we first moved onto the podcast I made a point of writing down every single suggestion that listeners gave to us and in a month that list was 300 items long, which was no longer useful to anyone.  I became more selective about which things to put on the list.  We get a lot of suggestions that are great and then we get some that are so specific to a particular person that it would not work.  Or it’s something that we can’t find information about. That happens a lot.  I became a lot more selective about curating that list and that’s a list that I turn to pretty often when I’m choosing a topic. I also imagine the world of subject matter as a giant dartboard with the stuff that we’ve talked about recently covered up, and just throwing a dart at the board to find something outside of that area to make sure we get a broad selection of topics.

What is the research and writing process like for each episode?

Holly- I do a lot of Google Scholar, a lot of JSTOR, I have been lucky enough to have accumulated an awful lot of books on my own that come up, especially if we do anything related to fashion.  Before Tracy came on the show, when I was guest hosting with Sarah, we did one on historical underwear and I have a shockingly large library of my own on that.

Tracy- The first thing would be a straight up Google search to get basic information and then I’ll move into Google Scholar. The University of Georgia and the public library system in Georgia has a thing called Galileo, which is a way for library patrons to be able to access databases of academic papers and things.  That’s usually my next stop.  Because we’re talking about history a lot of contemporary documents are scanned and available online. On or The Gutenberg Project there are scans of actual documents that were written about the subject at the time.  There’s a whole lot of reading, a whole lot of research, occasionally we will get a book on something if it’s a feasible amount of money to spend, sometimes there are great books that are way beyond our budget.  I go through all of that and then start taking notes and start trying to refine those notes into a story that is compelling and makes sense.

How much time do you think goes into each episode.

Tracy- We record two episodes a week on a typical week. Right now is not a typical week because we are building a buffer in advance of the holidays because I will be away.  So we will each take the lead on one of those episodes and do the legwork and outline for it.  I would say I spend at least a solid business day doing the research and the outline.  It usually bleeds into longer than that but that’s sort of the minimum that I need to get the facts and story.

Holly- I would say for me the broad range is somewhere between 8 and 20 hours.

Tracy- That works.

Holly- If it’s a podcast that is near and dear to my heart and I can pull from memory some of the stuff it lands on the shorter side.  The Haunted Mansion podcast, even though it was very long, it was stuff that I am pretty intimately familiar with already.  While there was a lot of fact checking involved and following up on sources there were whole chunks of it that I could just write without having to do the depths of research that I would have to do on something like the Antikythera mechanism.

Tracy- I think that the very first episode I worked on was our episode on Margery Kempe and I chose that because that was someone I had studied in college.  I was moving onto the podcast, I was just coming back from some time away from the office, I wanted something that I already had a lot of familiarity with.  Most recently we did an episode about Laura Ingalls Wilder, which was a lot more than 8 hours because most of what we know about Laura Ingalls Wilder as consumers of her book is about her childhood and young adult life.  It took some digging and some comparing of sources to get into her older adult life and when she actually wrote the books so that moved into a much longer time commitment than I was expecting.

What are some of your favourite episodes?

Tracy- My favourite out of all the ones that we’ve done so far is the one about the Hessians. We really like the TV show Sleepy Hollow, it was tied to that TV show, the subject matter itself was really interesting, and then I feel like we got to have a really good time in the studio recording that. That one is a pretty high energy, full of banter episode, which I really enjoyed working on through all stages of it.  I enjoyed the research of it a lot, I enjoyed the recording of it a lot, I enjoyed the response we got from listeners about it.  All of that has made it one of my favourites so far.

Holly- I’m trying to think.  I really like our Paul Poiret episode again because it’s right up my alley.  I really loved doing the research on an episode we just recorded on the man-eating lions of Tsavo because that’s another topic that is near and dear to my heart and there has been so much modern research about those animals and the related animals that are still attacking people in Africa today.  It was just fascinating to juxtapose both the historical account and modern scientific research in an area that I love already, which is animal behaviour, so that one was super super fun.

Tracy- I also really enjoyed our episode about The Boston Massacre, which was really an absolutely down to the wire substitution. I had poured a whole lot of time into researching this 14th century Italian monk who as I got deeper and deeper into it I realized that most of the things I had found interesting about it were actually modern misconceptions.  I kind of learned from listener feedback that while it’s fun to dispel modern misconceptions about things and when all the interesting stuff you’re saying ends up not being true it’s not as satisfying. It’s sort of like well history isn’t interesting after all, which isn’t the case.  If it had been any longer I think I would have been in the studio without an outline and so I needed to find something else to be able to research in the time that I had and that turned out to be The Boston Massacre, which became just delightful because we have all the propaganda that people wrote about that event still existing today. And you can read them all and comparing the Paul Revere version of it with the British soldier version of it turned out to be just fascinating and delightful to me because they are absolutely different accounts of the same event.

I really liked your first episode together about Al Swearengen because I’m a huge fan of Deadwood.

Holly-I love Deadwood so much I made my husband an Al Swearengen costume (laughs).

I was a little bummed to hear how he died. I thought it would be a lot more dramatic.

Holly- You’d think he’d go out in a gunfight or a bare knuckle brawl, not so much falling from a streetcar.

Do you have any advice about communicating ideas an effective but also entertaining way?

Holly-  Mine is always just to kind of follow your gut just in terms of if you find this interesting probably other people will too.  If you find yourself going well I need to include this but it’s not really that interesting, that’s the stuff you minimize. Include the pertinent and important details but really follow the parts that get you excited because that’s what’s going to get other people excited in most cases.

Tracy- I definitely agree with that.  I like to read the writing advice and the editing advice of other people but also recognizing when it does not work for me.  You can learn a lot from people who are talking about their own experiences creating content but just because a process works for someone else does not mean that that’s the one that you should follow.  I see writing advice all the time not to edit while you write because you’re going to get stuck editing forever and never finish what you’re writing. For me that’s not true and if I were to follow that advice I would grind to a halt.  I think being able to understand and think about the advice of other people while not necessarily thinking you have to take it as a template you must follow.  Find the process that works for you.

I finished school a couple years ago and since then I’ve had to teach myself to write in my own voice as opposed to following an academic structure and giving the professor what they want.  I think your podcast helps with that because you’re able to able to communicate your ideas in a fun personal way while at the same time presenting the historical facts.

Holly- I think it’s a balancing act of finding the right amount of personal perspective to go with the historical facts. We have some listeners who would like zero personal perspective…ever (laughs) And others who would like us to do an opinion podcast.  We sometimes get listeners who write us and say “well all the facts are interesting but I want to know what you think about this stuff” we try to include that but I think they want us to do more of a bias opinion show where it’s like “I think blah blah blah” and sometimes what I think doesn’t have any real benefit to the conversation.

Tracy- About a month or so after we moved onto the podcast I made, for my own amusement, a pie chart of the feedback we’d gotten and the biggest chunk, which was like 75% of the chart, were people who were basically angry that we are allowed to speak because they don’t like how we talk.  Then all of the other pieces of the pie chart were things that said the opposite, there was “only facts”, “I want you to be more linear”. “I want you to be more discursive”.  My advice to people who make content is that if you’re going to read all of the feedback that you get, which there are pros and cons to (laughs), would be to not let yourself get into analysis paralysis based on what a few people say because a lot of people are going to say flatly contradictory things to you about what you’re doing with your work.  I hear that advice from other creative people pretty often about how once you start changing your creative process and your creative work to suit other people, rather than because you’re thinking that’s the best way to do it, your work is going to get less compelling.

Do you have any advice for history majors or people who are interested in history to be able to work with the topic in a more traditional way.

Holly-For me it’s usually the details.  Part of what I think makes history when you’re studying it as a youngster in school a little bit dullsville is the fact that it’s like dates and names, this person did this and they died on this day.  But when you start to look at it as a bigger picture examination of that person you’ll find out that oh they only ate sausage and refused to eat anything else for 2 months, or some other bizarre fact.  Those are the facts that get discarded but when you put all those facts and details together you usually end up with a certain level of pattern recognition where you start to realize why some of the events in their life unfolded the way they did and how seemingly small things start to show their impact in other ways.  For me looking for the details and what appears to be on the surface minutia is usually the gateway to more fully understanding any topic and it kind of makes it more interesting as well.

You had mentioned that you really like costume design and I did an interview with a costume designer and we talked about how much historical research goes into designing each piece. Can you name some other jobs that people might not think of as history based positions but still require a similar background in history.

Holly- I think there are lots of scientific positions because so much of science is taking into account all of human history and where we’ve been and where we’ll go.  Costume design is a perfect example.  Any design job, set design, art, even if someone is a modern artist what makes an artist great is that their technique has been developed after studying historical artists.

Tracy- I knew someone who was studying art history and what she wanted to do was kind of become an art buyer.  She wanted to work on behalf of art patrons to help them find art that would be a good investment for them.  And then also help artists sell their work to people who were willing to pay them appropriate amounts of money for it.  She was really having to build this giant knowledge of art and the history of art to make herself somebody that could really fit that role.  Then also to have business sense and an aesthetic sense of what would be pleasing to people in their home with the art that they chose to have.

Do you have any final advice for people to keep history alive and interesting?

Tracy- We’re just looking at each other.

(Both laugh)

Tracy- It’s funny to think about these questions because my background of study has been literature and not history.  It always surprises me where you can find history.  You find history in really surprising places in the world.  This fall I went to New York and I went to the Corning Museum of Glass and that is a museum about glass science.  They have all of these displays there about things you would not think about like how we have Pyrex, what is the story of how Pyrex came to be, and how much did the world change when we were able to make bottles on an assembly line instead of having to blow them by hand.  None of these are things that I would have really thought of as history until I was standing there in a room full of examples of failed Pyrex chemistry.  Look for history in surprising places.

Holly- I always have that moment where I am looking at the world around me and I am keenly aware that everything was made by someone. Everything that is not a piece of nature was made by someone and as a consequence a process had to be developed over years, sometimes decades, sometimes far longer, to be able to make that thing.  So our lives are really the culmination of history.  To me history is always alive because we are still making it every minute.

Date: February 9, 2014 • Category:
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  • greedylobster

    Hello Tracy and Holly, just listened to you cast on Dyatlov pass. Quite interesting. I happened to read on it earlier in the year…. I was quite surprised that people are interested in the incident.

    Your Russian pronunciation was just fine, I must say…

    I grew up in Siberia where temperature routinely sits for weeks at -31F. I recall a few tragedies where school kids went on skiing trips on w’ends in -35F and wound up dead – frozen… The bodies would indeed be commonly found undressed with clothing neatly folded with victims next to clothing in a sleeping position… So much so about paradoxical behaviour…

    In the future if you looking at putting together another podcast on Russia and need some coaching on pronunciation of names and places – I can help you out with that (phone/Skype etc)…


    PS: I am glad I found your podcast and look forward to having more interesting stories from the past. I liked your guys flair, chuckles and giggles which make the show informal, relaxing and entertaining…