In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Finding the Personal in History

photo courtesy of anna
Whether in a classroom or a community group, with youngsters or adults, when I talk about American history and the stories I write, I'm talking PERSONAL. A fascination with the timeline of history begins as we see our own lives pinned to the numbers. So that's where I like to start.

1. Draw a number line of from the year 1900 up to this year. Mark your birth year and "today."

2. For adults, this next part is easy -- for youngsters, it may require a homework item "interviewing" parents at home or by e-mail or phone (be aware that 50% of American youngsters eventually live with both a birth parent AND an adult who is not their birth parent -- which means some other parent is "off site"). Mark the birth year and, if applicable, the marriage year and (if it's already happened) the death year for each of your parents, step-parents, and grandparents.

3. Make a list of the "big wars" from 1900 until today, with their years. If you need to do some research (or help a classroom do some research) on the actual years, that's great. You're becoming accurate! Be sure to include at least World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the first Gulf War, and your view of the most recent wars that America has participated in. Mark the years of the conflicts onto your timeline.

4. Pause and reflect: For each of the important family members on your timeline, connect the person with the "big history" of the nation's conflicts. Ask yourself: How was my father (grandfather) affected by the start of that conflict? What did my mother (grandmother) know about it? How did she or he cope with family changes taking place during that time? What happened to family finances there? What marriages or births were scheduled around those larger events? What "stories" of my personal history could I discover by asking family members or examining documents? What "stories" would I prefer to imagine and use as creative writing prompts? 

5. Not writing a story or history yet? Add another layer to your timeline: Brainstorm the big inventions and social changes that took place during that time. Here are some examples: electricity arriving at homes in your town, invention of plastic, women's right to vote, Prohibition, the invention of "Social Security," x-ray machines, milking machines, home telephones, antibiotics, polio vaccines, artificial knees, co-ed colleges, the Civil Rights movement, assassinations of key political leaders, long-distance trucking, home refrigerators, personal computers, electric cars, space travel, movie theaters, cell phones. Now consider how each of those changes affected the people you've marked on your timeline.

You've now created a project that interweaves math, history, sociology, critical thinking, and, most of all, your own personal history. Do what professional historians do at this point: Photograph your timeline and place that photo in an archive of some kind.

Then make a plan: What do you want to know more about? What do you want to tell or write about from your discoveries? Your curiosity and your capacity to reflect and question will be your biggest assets in this project. And guess what -- we all have those two assets, and the more we use them, the stronger they become.

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