A few months back, while looking through some old family miscellany, I had an idea for a new novel. This month, I’m writing that novel for NaNoWriMo. But unlike in years past, I’m trying to avoid reading much of anything while I’m writing the book — I have a pretty clear narrative voice and, as of yesterday (more on that in a later post), I have a very clear sense of structure, and I don’t want other reading to distract me from that.
But I make an exception for the material that sparked the idea in the first place: my maternal grandmother’s family documents. So, in addition to revisiting the legal and financial documents I found a few months ago, I’m also reading a shoeboxful of correspondence among various family members, almost all of it from the early 1920s, which is near when my novel is set.
The letters are mostly between family in Oklahoma, though I have found the occasional postmark in Texas and Louisiana. And I haven’t got far in their content yet — mostly I’ve just organized them chronologically and by author/recipient — but already they are offering some fascinating clues to the period. And I’m finding some wonderful stylistic quirks in the few letters I have perused while sorting, like a whole series of letters addressed to “Dearest Boy of Mine” — I love the human warmth in that!
(Also, the family farm had letterhead! Though note that this isn’t the same Breeze Hill Farm that currently exists in New York, nor is it the Breeze Hill Farm in Kentucky, and it’s not the Breeze Hill Farm in Virginia either . . . . Turns out, there are a lot of Breeze Hill Farms, though the modern ones seem to exist mostly east of the Mississippi)
I even found some old Valentines, though they seem to have never been mailed — there’s no postage and not much beyond a name written on the backs, so perhaps they were hand-delivered, or else were just collected as pretty cards.
I also have a file folder full of memoir narratives my grandmother wrote, as well as a bunch of tall tales written by her father (whom the family still refers to as “Daddy Bill”). And that man, folks, was a hoot! Look at his humorous experiments with dialect, for example!
“The Bar I Met When I Was 15”
I am gettin to be a ole man now, so gess I will tel u a few uv the things that happened to me when I wuz groan up. They wuz purty eksitin to me when they wuz hapenen so u mite enjoy herrin about them. I wuz bouarn bak in the das when oklahoma wuz still injun teritory an i didn’t hav no edication only ma tot me to reed an rite.
We get it drilled into our head in writing workshops that we should avoid dialect as much as possible, a lesson I kept in mind while trying to capture the accents and idiomatic quirks of my characters in Hagridden, and here, it’s easy to see why that rule exists — you almost have to relearn English in order to read a text written entirely in dialect! But you can also see the temptation of dialect — look how much fun that is! (And before people chime in with examples of dialect done right — Robert Burns, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Amy Tan, Toni Morrison, Irvine Welsh, etc. — I know. I’ve seen it work, too, and I love it. But there is definitely a learning curve both in the writing and the reading of it!) And I certainly enjoy watching my great-grandfather play with words on the page!
So what am I doing with all this material? Some of it is already providing details for my characters, in much the same way that my grandmother’s narratives provided crucial details for Hagridden, though this time the facts are more contemporaneous to my novel. In fact, several of my grandmother’s narratives, both of her own life and of the stories she’d heard growing up, are providing crucial insight to the world I’m writing about.
Sure, I’ll be fact-checking all this and reading more academic accounts of the time, the regional history, agricultural lives in pre-Depression Oklahoma, and so on. And already I’ve started taking notes on a few details, like the types and mechanical operation of 1920s cars and farm trucks, phases of the moon and growing seasons, and so on. But I know from experience that research, especially the detail-oreinted kind, can too often serve as a distraction from the writing, and these family narratives and letters can provide me with a lot of intimate, human details of actual lives lived in that time and place without sending me down into a cross-referenced labyrinth of other research. Which, so far, is how I’ve been using these: I just sit with them (or, to use my grandmother’s phrasing, “set with them”) and read them for pleasure, and whenever a detail leaps out at me, I either make a note and keep reading or set aside the pages and start writing my novel.
Speaking of which: the word count, as of this post (which doesn’t include the writing I’ll do later this evening) sits at 16,735.