A Writer’s Notebook: Personal ads

Today’s exercise is in response to a 19th-century personal ad (you can read the ad and the blog entry about it here). For the exercise, see below.

Matrimonial. – A young lady of prepossessing appearance, fascinating manners and romantic sentiments desires to open a correspondence with a gentleman with a view to matrimony. He must be young, handsome, amiable, and a [?] Union man. Any person possessing the abovementioned qualifications will please address L.R. Vincent, Herald office.

Her name was Martha, like George Washington’s wife, and she was in love with her writing desk. Since she was a child of ten–so, nearly half her life–she’d dreamt of sitting in a small parlor, with the drapes open over a narrow bay window and the afternoon sun streaming through at a slant, just enough light to see by but not so much it would cause her headaches, and there she would while away her afternoons writing correspondence. Sometimes she imagined herself writing to her brothers, both of whom had returned from the war heroes and had since gone into politics (though in reality one had died and the other the family had not heard from in more than a year). Other times she imagined herself writing letters to the editor of the local newspaper decrying some moral indecency or supporting some politician–for she dearly loved politics and longed to discuss it more openly. But it was only in this last year that she’d begun to dream of writing to a beau, long wistful letters of such sincerity and poeticism that she herself would cry at rereading them. She thought sometimes to practice these letters, to create drafts or at least keep notes in a diary of the things she might write to a man, but she worried doing so would sap all the spontaneity and romance from the words. Better, she decided, to save it for the moment. Which meant she needed to create the moment in which to write such missives, and to that end, she set about seeking male companionship. It was not easy, in her small city with all the eligible men gone to war, but she was determined, and as she did not often venture beyond her own shaded neighborhood, she decided the simplest, most intelligent solution would be to advertise. Also, she had need of an intelligent man, one who would appreciate her love of writing, and cared little for his appearance so long as he was mannered and well-groomed. A husband needed to be  attractive to be the object of romance, of course, but in truth she wanted a Cyrano more than an Adonis. So her first measure of a potential husband would have to be in his words, and it seemed only fair that his first measure of her would be the same. So on this day, she sat at her writing desk–not in a parlor, for she was not married yet and so had no parlor to sit in; rather, she sat in her small bedroom upstairs, where the window was shaded by a beautiful elm but the sunlight was filtered and poor–and began an short advertisement to the local newspaper.

This exercise is a kind of reversal of an interesting exercise I found at Lori Ann Bloomfield’s blog, First Line. In Bloomfield’s exercise, she offers us a few short character sketches and then invites us to write personal ads for those characters. I wanted to tackle that exercise, but I was having a hard time getting my head into it, and I realized after a while that I was actually avoiding the writing–and an exercise is supposed to generate writing, not stop it. I was failing the exercise. But I also realized that the reason was I was much more interested in the sketches Bloomfield had provided, which is when I decided to turn the thing around: I went looking for personal ads with interesting characters I could then write about.

There are a lot of really freaky personal ads out there. I don’t like to judge people, but seriously, some of the ads I read? Scary stuff. (Here’s an idea for a character: A psychiatrist who operates like an ambulance-chasing sleazy lawyer; the shrink prowls the personal ads to find new clients.)

I didn’t have to look long before I decided I couldn’t write about the people who wrote those ads. Well, I could–sometimes I do–but I couldn’t post them here in the blog. I respect you too much to subject you to that. And then I stumbled across a fascinating blog called Advertising for Love: A collection of funny, strange, poignant and just plain bizarre personal ads from the nineteenth century.

Ah, the 19th century. Such a simpler time. No promiscuity; no mail-order spouses; no strange, lonely people calling desperately into the dark, just praying for something that might resemble love.

How we do like to romanticize the past.

The truth is, the ads on this site are just as bizarre (and as interesting) as the ads today, but they’re also (generally) better written, with a stronger command of the English language. Or at least they’re politer.

So, try Bloomfield’s exercise and write some personal ads for your characters. Or turn it around and write some characters from some personal ads.  Or both.  But in all cases, have fun with it!

BONUS:  I’ve written before about how you can use classified ads and newspaper clippings as part of your research for fiction, but I hadn’t considered how important personal ads can be for that process, especially when trying to flesh out personalities in historical fiction.  Definitely a resource to add to your list!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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