I found a book. It hasn’t yet been written.

old letter in cursive
The first letter, exuberant after the dance.

I found a book. It hasn’t yet been written. But it has begun. And I am the writer. After Mom died in 2006, I emptied her house and put it up for sale. She had tons, really tons, of clutter. Sorting took months. She kept everything! I found some treasures in the slow thorough process.

In her basement I uncovered her desk, the one she used for her church secretary work. It was heaped with papers and file folders and books, a knitting project, plants, and too much more to remember. Inside a deep drawer, in an unlabeled folder mixed with church papers, I found photocopies of letters.

They were written in 1918 and 1919 by my grandfather, courting my grandmother. I found the beginning of their relationship right up to the day he married her. I found the story of families living in the Pacific Northwest during World War 1, haying with horses, building the railroad, and joining the army. I found a book to write, based on the courting letters.

The letters document the influenza epidemic, boats stuck in the river by deep ice break ups, barn dances, a locomotive derailed by a mud flood and much more. Most importantly, they reveal human hopes and struggles, concessions, forgiveness, and celebrations.

The storyline moves along the tracks of the traditional plot diagram. It has complexity in its conflicts. The action rises to the turning point and ends with resolution. It’s so ready to write.

My problem is how to develop the details, how to bring the characters and setting to life for modern readers. How do I write the story so readers will care and get a deeper understanding of their own lives from the book? Each letter gives enough information to inspire creative writing. What is really the story behind the story? How can I tell it?

I am a storyteller, a performing storyteller. I know a lot about folklore weaving magic into tales. I teach writing, literature, and history. Now, I have a book to write, one letter at a time. I’m scared. Can I practice the crafts I teach? It’s a challenge I give myself, to write creative non-fiction. How do I even categorize the genre? Could it be a novel of poetry telling the story like Out of the Dust? Will I write chapters? How about short vignettes? How will I link the ideas together? How long will the book be? Will anybody be interested in reading the story, the little stories within the stories?

I have a lot of research to do. How did men work hay fields with horses when tractors were just emerging into the industry? What was the sphere of devastation by the influenza pandemic in the Pacific Northwest? What was transportation like then? The letters stand in place of telephones and texting.

How can I show, don’t tell, the depth of humanity revealed within the letters? I’m going to need a lot of feedback as I progress, a lot of help. I am asking you to follow my postings as I write this story. Please tell me what you think of my writing, what changes I should make, what’s written just as it should be. How is the story affecting you?

I posted a first draft of the first page yesterday in Cat Rock, the First Dance. One blogger, gave me powerful feedback in her comment. Thanks Wendy! http://wendybarronwrites.wordpress.com/

That’s what I’m looking for. Will you help me?

What do you think right now about this story idea? Please tell me.

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Cat Rock, the First Dance

This is the first piece for a book. When my mother died, I found a series of courting letters from my grandfather to my grandmother. The letters began after their meeting at a dance. They end with their marriage. I am using each letter to inspire vignettes of what Grandpa wrote about. I use their real names for the book. Cat Rock is a rock formation that resembles a cat overlooking a river. Grandpa worked and lived at the railroad section house at Cat Rock when he wrote the letters.

July 5, 1918

The First Dance

Edith reached for her paring knife from a group of them behind the sink. This one fit her left hand the best.  She began skinning a large lumpy potato but her mind was not on her work.  She was reliving last night’s dance, twirling and reeling cross the hard packed barn floor. Her chore was familiar and the brown peels flew into the wash basin while her heels and toes tapped the kitchen floor boards. Bouncing, jigging, hopping, she danced to the lively rhythm  that pulsed in her mind. Dancing made life spin by with abandonment. When she felt the music and let her body move with it, she knew she was in tune with all that gave freedom to that moment. She tossed the slippery peeled potato in the air, caught it and flipped it into the bowl with a thud. She picked up the next potato and took the knife in her other hand.

She hummed and swayed in time with her peeling. What was the song? The fiddler had played it as if the instrument was dancing with her, guiding her moves. She heard it for the first time at the dance but it seemed like she had always known it, had danced to it often. And the fiddler. The fiddler. She knew he watched her swinging to the music he played, the jigs, waltzes, fox trots, and reels.  Something in the way she caught him looking at her, when she had tried to steal glances at him, made her smile as she worked at preparing dinner. His name was Frank.

He had brought her home after the dance with his brother, Tom, on a big hay wagon drawn by two sturdy black horses. The wagon was packed full with her two chatty sisters and their husbands and a party of people who were staying on for the long ride home to Middle Valley. It was late when she got off the wagon with her family at her father’s farm. Tonight she would make his favorite fried chicken dinner to thank Papa for staying home with her baby.