old letter in cursive

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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17 thoughts on “I found a book. It hasn’t yet been written.”

  1. This sounds like a fabulous story idea, and what a rich vein of material you have, to mine! I hope you have photographs from that time, too. Or access to the local archives; visual materials to go along with the letters would be fabulous!

    If you’re concerned about not being able to write creative non-fiction, consider writing it as fiction. I encourage you to do a lot of Invention before you start writing. Gather your source materials, read them, harvest ideas from them – themes, patterns, motifs, characters, framing devices – and then play around with them. What will you include, and what will you leave out? Where are the conflicts and the antagonists that will push the lead couple forward? Are there characters who need to be fleshed out more, or some who need to be eliminated? If your real grandfather had six brothers, does your story’s protagonist have to have that many, or would three suffice? Would this story be better told as a start-to-finish chronological narrative, or is there some other way of framing it to illustrate the important events, people, themes, etc.

    Don’t rush into this. Give yourself the time to dig in to the materials and play around. Here’s something I’d try: make a couple of sets of photocopies of the photocopied letters, and put the originals away somewhere. Then read a set of photocopies and mark them up whenever you encounter an event, a theme, a pattern. Cut the photocopies up and move paragraphs or sentences around, to see how your perspective and narrative would change. When you find a structure you like, tape the pieces together and copy or scan or photograph them for later reference.

    Do lots of freewriting that’s for your eyes only. Fifteen minutes a day, muse about whatever aspect of the project is on your mind in that moment, and let yourself run with the possibilities, the questions, the challenges. There is no right or wrong with freewriting; it’s just to open your mind to the possibilities.

    This sounds like a terrific story, whether you decide to fictionalize it or adhere to the strict truth. I look forward to reading more about your process. I have some blog posts about process, and this one might be of interest to you. The class where I learned all this was revolutionary for me. 🙂

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  2. I love the idea and I’d love to read your book. I love reading about people’s lives and courting/love stories all the more. This is something I would definitely love to read.

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    1. Thanks! I checked out your blog. Nice photos. And you have a hiking story, too. I hope you give me more feedback as I progress through this courting story. I’m not really into romance, but the letters have so much more than that in them.

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  3. Thanks for the kind comments. I will keep a watch on your work, while you keep a watch on mine. My main trouble at this moment is deciding what to include and what to leave out.

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    1. I’d say write everything, get it on paper or into a doc.. then you can start cutting, or identifying parts to put into posts of their own. I’ll give more comment after I read all of the post. I’m still not sure I am following you. I keep clicking it in my reader, but where is the folow spot on your blog?

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  4. You know, I just have an idea you might like.

    You might want to go the way of alternate universes. Set the letter as one part of the chapter. Base it in your world in another part of the same chapter. Lots of things will change, except the emotion.

    What we would be basically witnessing is although the times change, the human quotient remain the same.

    This way, you’ll be able to add creative writing into it without taking away anything from your grandparents’ story.

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    1. Great idea! I have been thinking of the way Ivan Doig related his life in present times to Swan in the past. Both lived on the Olympic Peninsula. But I didn’t really think he compared to Swan as much as he thought so.

      In the letters and real life, Grandpa played fiddle at the dances. I also married a musician who plays dances. I’ll do some free writing to see how I can tell a piece of the story in the letters, and use it to reflect on current life, or my experiences. Thanks for your idea.

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      1. Here is a link to Doig’s book I was talking about. It happens on the Pacific coast along Washington state and the peninsula there, in America. The site tells about the book and how he used a man’s journal writing and compared the entries to his modern life.

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  5. Would like to read it when you’ve completed. Here’s a little entry from my mother’s journal, from Council during the same time frame. My Grandparents were residents of and married in Council, ID in 1920.

    The following is from my mother’s (Dorothy Audrey Zink Brown) notes and journals: Recorded in her journal in late 1980’s

    The Romance of Edie
    (My mother told me this story 10 or 11 years ago)
    Mom lived in Council, Idaho where at one time she worked for Grandma Zink (Minnie Jane), who had a type of home where she took in invalids and cared for them. Anyway, mom (Edith Lakey Zink) was a shy girl, never too sure of herself where boys are concerned. She had several friends and would attend occasional parties. In those days house parties were popular as the only other social events were public dances.

    She had seen my dad (Vollie Zink), usually at a distance. He was usually working, or as mom said, “Tom-Catting” around. From what I understand he was quite a “macho” man.

    One night a friend was having a party and mom’s cousins, either Hansen or Wilson, asked mom to go with her and her date. They convinced “Edie” after some cajoling to go with them.

    As mother tells it, they played “parlor games” such as Spin the Bottle, Post Office, and Charades in those days. On this occasion some daring soul at the party suggested they play Post Office. Mom didn’t think they should because it was embarrassing to be “kissed” in front of other people. Well Vollie Zink and Tom Doughty had come to the party and were all for playing! They played the game and whenever someone would deliver a letter Vollie or Tom would blow the lights out. They did this, mom said, because they thought it might give them a chance to “put their hands where they shouldn’t. Mom thought dad was too wild, but yet she was very attracted to him.

    As time passed there was a skating party on Miller’s Pond. Mom went, and she saw Vollie out on the ice skating figure eights, jumps, etc. Then he asked her to ice skate with him and the romance was on.

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  6. I read this a couple of months ago, but upon reading your Thanksgiving letter, I can see I am behind. I can see I have some catching up to do 🙂 I can’t wait to see what you’ve created from this.

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    1. You’re not behind, I am. I made an editorial calendar to post 2 entries a month stemming from these letters. I haven’t done that. I was distracted making and posting photos for photo101, a wonderful experience. Now I hope to get back on track about the letters. (Hey! a pun! Frank worked on the track Thanksgiving day. :))

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