A trip back in time

My recent research on the history of eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania has been enlightening, motivating, and fun. I appreciate more than ever having been born when I was, instead of in the 1800s. But I need something more: I’m such a visual thinker and my right brain wants pictures! I have several trips planned to satisfy that need. I got an unexpected preview last week.

On Wednesday, I went to the doctor for a regular checkup. I usually just phone to ask them to call my pharmacy and authorize refills on my prescriptions. I’m supposed to do that ten-fourteen days before I run out, so they have time to call the drugstore. No, patients cannot request refills online. And no, they won’t email requests to the pharmacy—by choice, they have no internet/email access. There is little about this practice that could be classified as cutting edge or high tech. I hadn’t been to see the doc in a year and figured I’d better show up in person, for a change.

The office is about eighteen miles from home, and another seventeen miles in the opposite direction to my pharmacy of choice. The tiny village (population in 2000: 2,130) probably has changed very little since the first settlers arrived in the early or mid-nineteenth century. Yeah, there are traffic signals and telephone wires and a health food store, among other things. But it is very definitely best described as a quaint, small town in rural Ohio. Its entire claim to fame: a nationally known ice cream manufacturer has a quaint and old-fashioned restaurant there (the ice cream menu is spectacular).

The route from my house to the doctor’s office is along two-lane, hilly country highways that wind through Amish country. It was a perfect day: clear blue skies, moderate temperatures, and light enough traffic that I could take my eyes off the road occasionally to see what was going on in the “hood.”

Only a couple of miles from home, I saw an Amish woman plowing a field. A large horse pulled the plow on which she was seated. There were no men in sight. There was no traffic on the road and no ‘city noise.’ There was only a plowed field with lush green woods behind it; the horse; the plow; and the farm woman. Other than the sound of my car–peace and quiet! For an instant, a split second, I was in a different time and place.

It wasn’t the first time that I’ve seen farm work in progress around here. But it was the first time I’ve seen it when I was writing an historical novel and looking for visual impressions to use in a book.

The woman was dressed as traditional Amish women always dress. Simple fabrics; some color, but usually only solids—no patterns. Long skirts, long sleeves, and—in this case—a bonnet exactly like the one I inherited along with all the old family photos and papers. It struck me that what I was seeing was exactly what I would have seen on the farms where my family lived, after they bravely left the civilized east coast to claim the land in the wilderness that was their only payment for military service in the Revolutionary War.

They headed west toward the frontier, to an unknown and untamed wilderness in what later became Pennsylvania.  Everybody plowed, chopped down trees for wood to build log cabins, and for heat and cooking fires. They cleared the land for planting and for pastures so they could produce, rather than hunt for, food. They defended themselves against the native American ‘savages’ who were really upset about having their land stolen out from under them. And they fought off frightening wild animals that have long-since vanished from the landscape. They took the first steps toward civilizing a largely unexplored wilderness, and the generations that followed continued their work.

The woman on the plow showed me exactly how any woman, of any religion and on any farm, would have looked back then. Respectable women always covered as much flesh as possible with long skirts, long-sleeved and high–necked blouses, and high boots. The only flesh visible was on their hands and faces. Everything else was covered; it was the only decent way to dress in public. I’m assuming they took the sunbonnets off in the house. Snapshot permanently saved to the hard drive in my brain.

I saw, not for the first time, the one-room schoolhouse that the local Amish children still attend, and Amish men—alone or in pairs—working the fields with their horses. I slowed down at least a half-dozen times until it was safe to pass horse-drawn buggies making their way up the road.

That’s not unusual around here. Even on days when automobile traffic is light, extra caution is required when going over hills or around blind curves: there is no way to know in advance when you will suddenly come upon a carriage moving at four or five miles an hour.

I was returning from town a month or so ago and, as I rounded the last curve before the last big hill before my street, I saw a carriage in front of me. Most of the time, the drivers are extremely courteous and pull as far to the right as they can to allow cars to pass. This time, since we were heading uphill and couldn’t see what was on the other side, the buggy stayed in the middle of the lane. I slowed down and stayed behind it.

When the driver reached the top of the hill and could see that there was no on-coming traffic, he pulled to the right and waved me ahead… letting me know it was safe to pass. As I approached my street, I saw the carriage pull into the pizza shop… the only one within seven miles. I’d be so disillusioned if I thought the guy had phoned his order in before hitching up the horse!

I could give you a whole list of reasons I don’t like living in the country. But last Wednesday, I would have given you a single reason why I believe I’m supposed to be here, at least until I finish writing this particular book: there are moments when it provides the closest I’ll ever get to a trip back in time!


Mrs. D. was not the granny you always dreamed of!

I was fairly sympathetic about my grandmother when I undertook this major writing project: there were circumstances in her life that almost gave her a pass on some of the things she did. What now has me feeling significantly less sympathetic is that, ultimately, she had a choice to make. She made the wrong choice most of the time, and many people suffered–at least until an unlikely “knight in shining armor” managed to rescue her from herself. She has definitely become the antagonist.

It’s good to be obsessive about learning. I’m still working to put together all the character profiles from my parents’ notes–almost a full-time job. But every time I reread the notes, I pick up some new insights and connect a few more dots of the kind that have led me to change my approach to this book

The ongoing research has been valuable too: the more I learn about what was expected from “decent” women in the late nineteenth-early twentieth centuries, the more I understand all the ways in which Grandma differed from that “ideal.” It is unlikely that she was ever accused–in real life–of being decent.

The research gave me the knowledge to compare her to the expectations of her time. That, in turn, led me to rewrite the first chapter; I’m much happier with the new version. The completion of the second chapter will have to wait until I’ve answered a few more questions about the family history (or get really creative about filling in the blanks–it is a fictionalized biography, after all).

Chapter three is in the works and is much easier to write with a solid outline and character studies in place. And perhaps most importantly, the characters in the story are finally beginning to take on a life of their own… just as I wanted them to do.

Stay tuned!

Published in: on June 15, 2010 at 3:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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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.


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…)