Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Make yourself at home

I've written about using diaries for research, but I also use several other sources when doing research for a historical (or contemporary) book. For example, I use magazines and catalogs from that time; weather records; newspapers; any primary sources such as letters, postcards, photos, diaries; and books and articles written about that time.

Today I'm working on a manuscript for a middle-grade novel set in 1918. No one needs to be reminded that a lot of stuff was going on that year, especially in the second half:

  • World War I
  • The influenza pandemic
  • Women's suffrage
  • Ongoing racism toward Irish and Irish American people (and others, of course, but this book is focused on the Irish)

Although I'm telling a fictional story, it's based on historical events and the prevailing culture. To create a believable story, I want to know as many details about that time so that I can authentically tell the story from my character's perspective. Not all the details will go into the story, of course, but my knowledge of the details will be reflected in what my character notices and how she frames her thoughts, words, and actions. 

Just the other day I discovered that is actually the secondary reason for doing this research. The first reason is more significant to how I work as a writer and create the worlds of my characters. 

I realized that the hardest thing for me to do is believe what I make up. So, when I make up stuff (which is essentially what fiction writers do), I know that if I don't believe this world I've created, my readers won't either. I'm a stranger in this world I'm trying to create for my character/s, and everything feels weird and questionable. But, if I steep myself long enough and deep enough in the world my character lives in, then it becomes my world--my home--as well. I'm no longer a stranger to this world but a citizen of it. One who eats, sleeps, dreams, walks, and loves in this world.

And it's so much easier to write when I feel at home.

Tuesday, February 09, 2021

Writing from diaries

During the past year, I’ve been working on four new projects: 

  • a memoir in verse
  • a historical young-adult novel
  • a time-slip adult novel
  • a memory book for my brother’s milestone birthday

As you can see, each project is unique. But they all have one thing in common: a diary. Each one either includes actual diary entries or is fully or partially written as a diary.

  • The memoir in verse quotes and references entries from my diary and my great-grandmother’s (Gramma Clark). I wouldn’t have been able to re-create the timeline of events and my emotional response to them without reading through my 2011 diary.
  • The young-adult novel is written as the diary of a girl living in 1918. While living through a pandemic, a global war, institutional racism, and the Suffrage movement, she had more than enough to write about.
  • One protagonist (of two) in the adult novel tells her story in a diary. What better way to record a secret love affair, while confined to a “home for unwed mothers” than in a diary?
  • The memory book includes scanned pages from Gramma Clark’s diary that reference events in my brother’s life. The witnesses to our lives, especially our youngest selves, give a treasure when they mention us in their diaries.

Why am I so enamored of using diaries as a tool and a form for creating fiction and nonfiction work? Here are a few reasons:

  • Diaries provide a template for stories that cover a specific period of time, showing patterns and growth in a character’s life.
  • Diaries mark important events in history, especially the history of a person’s life, which might not have appeared in newspapers and by other public means.
  • Diary entries can deeply explore and reveal the innermost heart of their author, whether fictional or actual.
  • A diary reveals to the reader what’s important and unimportant to its author, by what the author chose to include and omit from the entries.
  • When you have a diary, you hold history—as it was made, as it was perceived and analyzed, as it was preserved.

Btw, recently I came into possession of a few diaries from another family member. You can imagine the hours I’ve spent with them! I’m already thinking of stories they will lead to.

Happy writing!