Thursday, April 29, 2010

If you’ve ever taken a writing course, read Reader’s (oops!) Writer’s Digest or any of their books, or–for that matter–almost anything about writing a novel–you have heard that you need to read as many books as possible in the same genre. Since this is my first novel, I am following the advice of (most of) the experts.

I called the reference desk at the local library and asked for the names of authors from the appropriate era and general location who had written memoirs or biographies. Yesterday morning, I got an email notification that my books were in–all four of them.

The first one I started reading is a bit tedious, and that’s just the front matter! The book, The Chalmers Pancoast Story: Saga of a Roving Reporter, was written by the subject’s wife. The front matter reminded me of a couple of books I’d been asked to ghostwrite, but didn’t. The worst of them was no more than a recitation of the author’s accomplishments, was very badly written, and didn’t reveal anything about the man himself, just his achievements.

But even though I found pages I-XVII in the Pancoast story to be a bit of a chore to read, I still picked up some good insights into the times in the “Outline in Brief of Life of Chalmers L. Pancoast,” “Masonic Record of…” “Ancestors of…” “The Pancoast Family,” and finally, the will of Mr. Pancoast’s oldest son and the executor of his estate. Lots of good information about the times, even though it was a bit tedious to work through in places.

The next book I looked at was The Country Undertaker’s Wife, by Cora Dodd. The forward, written either by the publisher or Mrs. Dodd’s editor, pretty much says it all:

…taking pen and yellow pad in hand, she recorded these experiences for posterity. The charming result is an anecdotal mixture of humor, pathos, and enlightenment sprinkled with just a touch of the bizarre.

and

Having been born in the previous century, Mrs. Dodd was a modest and proper lady who spelled husband with a capital “H” and believed that private family matters were to be kept private. Hence, we don’t learn as much about her personal life as we would like, but we discover some unbelievable things (more…)

About The Notorious Mrs. Dauber

A few months ago, I was going through some old papers to confirm something in my memoir, Living on the Sunny Side. When my older sister died, I found a large number of yellowed, typed pages of family writings, but hadn’t bothered to read many of them in the intervening nine years. I seem to have come from a family of very prolific writers!

There were short biographical pieces from my parents; a whole notebook of my mother’s poems; Uncle Fred’s poems and stories; and a moderately long and detailed autobiography by my sister, among other things. Needless to say, I spent a few days reading. I retyped the most fragile ones and stored the original pages in acid-free jackets in an album to preserve them for future generations.

The most astounding discovery comprised sixteen typewritten, single-spaced pages of notes and the first drafts of two chapters for a biography about my dad’s family. It suddenly became very clear why no one was ever anxious to answer my questions. But mom and dad recognized it was important family history, as well as an interesting story.  In the notes, they were kind enough to include not just character names, but the names of the real people represented by the pseudonyms.

My first read-through of the notes was confusing, thrilling, and definitely shocking. It was confusing because mom and dad wrote some of the notes in their own shorthand–key words (for them) that would remind them to include the story about something or other. There are references to documents to which I don’t have access. For example, a note might read “see Jim’s page 2.” Well, Jim is dead and his second wife’s family probably took his contributions to the book, along with a couple hundred years of family heirlooms that they cleaned out of the house, possibly before the family was even notified of his death.

Some time lines and locations are fuzzy, as are some non-family relationships. Initial research on Ancestry.com has filled in many blanks so far, and even connected me with a previously unknown cousin in New York. But my parents provided plenty of important details about the people and events.  I really want the story to be as accurate as possible, especially the way the main character impacted the lives of the other family members. That, of course, means that I need to fictionalize parts of it. I continue to hope that my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents–all dead for many years–and other relatives will forgive me when a bit of artistic license is my only option.

The notes were thrilling because I was finally able to get acquainted relatives about whom I’d known virtually nothing. I was a late-in-life and totally unexpected child, born only fourteen months before my dad–and his story–died. I learned not just about the family, but about myself as well, including where some of my aptitudes (and quirks) may have come from. And after many readings and much analysis, I was amazed to learn that my life and that of my notorious grandmother were frighteningly similar. As a matter of fact, I almost feel like I’m channeling her occasionally, and have speculated during ‘off in the ozone’ moments that I may be the reincarnation of the notorious Mrs. Dauber.

The shocking part: learning that grandma got away with murdering (more…)