Patty Hall, here, and I’d like to thank Julie and the gang for inviting me back to Seekerville. It’s always a joy to be here, though if anyone offered me a boat ride off unpubbed island, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all!
As some of you know, I am a writer who works as a first reader for Harlequin (you know, the one that gets to wade through those infamous slush piles?) and while I haven’t yet received THE CALL myself, I have been told by quite a few writing friends and editors alike that I have a knack for finding unique settings and historical events in which to set my stories. I blame my Granddaddy Smith for that. At an early age, he spun stories of family history and books that ignited my imagination as we rode home in the backseat of my Dad’s Comet. Thus, my love of history began.
Now before all you contemporary writers check out for the day, history can play an important aspect in giving your stories colors and texture. For example, my hometown welcomed the state fair every September with a loud, huge parade. School was dismissed an hour early so that all the moms could get a good parking place along the parade route. It was a big deal in our neck of the woods.
Take that information and think of it in terms of a story. Let’s say we have a heroine who grew up in this town but left under a cloud of heartache the day before graduation. Now a developer, she’s back and ready to tear down the town she grew up in. The hero is her best friend from high school, the boy who loved her and doesn’t understand why she suddenly left. To add to the conflict, let’s make him the mayor of this town who is determined to keep it as a historical site. How would you use the town’s parade in a scene to reveal the character’s motivations or internal conflicts? Here’s my try at it—forgive me for its imperfections:
Marley walked alongside him, a wave of reddish blonde hair falling to her shoulders as she tipped her head back. Her gaze moved over the crumbled brick and cracked mortar of what use to be Goldman’s department store. Was she remembering the last time they’d walked this sidewalk, talking about school and dreaming of the day they would return and make a life here in Marietta?
A life, he had hoped, they would build together.
“It wouldn’t take much to take this place down,” she said, her lips thinning into a straight line.
Matt’s stomach tightened. When had she become this consummated professional, bound and determined to change the homey feel of the town they had both grown up in? Had Marley forgotten all the good times they shared here? Maybe all she needed was a little reminder.
He pointed to a row of store fronts across the street. “Remember Eddie’s.”
She turned sharply, her gaze following the length of his arm to the familiar set of pane glass windows filled with various wares for the amateur magician. “Eddie’s is still up and running?”
“Don’t you think every town needs a magic shop?
Marley laughed, a rich throaty sound that warmed his heart like a summer day in July. She glanced at him, her eyes wide and full of unrestricted happiness. “Do you remember the first time you took me there?”
Matt nodded. “We skipped sixth period so we could get a good seat in front of the Strand so that we could see the fair parade.”
“And you dragged me into Eddie’s to get those fake cigarettes.”
“Hey, I didn’t hear you complain,” he answered, laughing down at her. “I seem to remember you were always up for a good joke.”
She punched him gently on his arm. “Until Mrs. Davis saw us and told my dad we were smoking the real things.”
“I thought it was that tattletale cousin of yours that ratted us out.”
“Taylor.” Marley’s face went blank, all the happiness from just moments ago replaced by the cool determination of the professional she had become. Her cell phone rang. She pulled her cell phone from her purse. “I’ve got to take this call if I want the demolition crew here Monday morning.”
Matt grimaced as he watched her walk away, clearly lost in the details of destroying their hometown. Had something happened between Marley and her cousin, something big enough to drive Marley out of his life? But what?
That’s what he intended to find out.
See how just a bit of history can layer your story and work to bring out a character’s internal conflict and set up the next scene?
So where are the best places to find those little bits of information that makes our stories shine like jewels?
Your Local Library:
Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE the Internet. Knowledge at your fingertips is awesome. But the first place I start my search for a new idea is in the children’s section of the library. While the adult selection of autobiographies and history books have a ton of information and can be a great resource later in the plotting process, children’s books are laid out more like bullet points, fast and to the point. Those short blurbs can fuel some fascinating ideals.
For example, years ago, my daughters were totally into the movie Pearl Harbor and made a point of reading everything they could get their hands on about World War II. So when I was standing at the checkout, a stack of books piled high in front of me, I flipped open a book my oldest had picked out. It was a book about women serving in the war. It had the usual suspects—nurses, reporters—but on the last two pages, I came across a piece of history I’d never heard before—women pilots. A few years later, the intrigue I felt over these great women garnered me the Genesis Award in Historical Romance for my manuscript, Flights of Freedom.
Another wonderful item most libraries offer are the stacks—newspapers from the area that date back over a hundred years in some cases. If you’re unsure of what historical event you’d like to center your plot around, the newspaper collection is the place for you. And if you’re a contemporary writer, you can get a feel for the setting by reading the town’s newspaper—it may even offer you a state fair or parade. Yes, the Internet offers this option too, but without the freedom of endless searching and usually at a hefty cost.
When I was in college, I was assigned a term paper on World War II, a subject I found as dry as a Georgia July. That was until my father introduced me to my Uncle Sam. At 92, my uncle not only knew about WWI, he had lived as a doughboy in the trenches in France. One afternoon, tape recorder in hand, I listened for three enthralling hours as Uncle Sam relived the horrors of mustard gas, the delusion of a country promised peace and thrust into war, the memories of a country boy who traveled halfway around the world to fight a war.
I got an A+ on that paper, but more importantly, that tape become one of the first entries into the vast audio/video history at my college. Most universities collect these about the areas around them and make them available on the Internet for free. All you have to do is enter the subject you’re looking for into the Google search engine and let the Web do the rest.
And while we’re on the subject, don’t forget those wonderful gems of information that are our elderly family members. In a society where youth and technology are prized, it’s a crime to ignore the wealth of information these wise people have to offer. And I want to give a shout out to my grandma right here—without her stories about an antebellum house we were visiting for a wedding reception, I never would have found the main setting for one of my manuscripts.
I’m a very visual person so to me, a picture truly is worth a thousand words! Which is why I love the photo collections by Arcadia Publishing. Each book offers photos along with a short description that are set in a timeline from a town’s inception to present day. Books in the collection also cover such historical events like WWII in individual cities or pastimes like baseball and road races. For visual writers having pictures in front of me helps with descriptions, promotes ideas for new scenes and acts as a photography reference. To look over their vast selection of books, go to www.arcadiapublishing.com.
Another great resource is Reminisce magazine. Not only does it have fantastic pictures, it publishes firsthand stories from people or family members who lived through various times of history. It’s also a wonderful reference for period clothes and glimpses into daily life. Contact them at www.reminisce.com.
In her recent article in Romantic Times, Jennifer Hudson Taylor talked about the uncanny connection between her ancestors and the characters she’d created in her books. She had researched her family tree and found that one of her Scottish grandmothers several times removed was the spitting imagine of her heroine in her novel, Highland Blessings.
As a big-family person myself, I started researching my grandparents on Ancestry.com recently and found so many wonderful documents and stories, particularly about a grandfather who traveled to the New World soon after his wife died. In researching her, I found that she passed the same day as her father. My imagination went wild! Did she die in a plague or some tragic accident alongside her father? Or was she a victim of the religious persecution that was going on in England during that time?
1) Historical Societies—even the smallest town has a historical society and when it comes time to plot out a book, the resident historian can be a writer’s best friend. Most large cities charge $50 or more for a yearlong membership but offer rare papers and traveling collections that you may not find anywhere else. Plus,
the permanent collections can spark new ideas. For example, I found out recently that Sherman’s march through Atlanta was not the biggest fire to destroy the city—the Great Fire of 1917 was.
2) The Library of Congress—you may not live in Washington, DC, but the national library and its experts are available to every citizen of this country through the Internet. Simply go to their website, www.loc.gov/index.html and type in your questions. An expert in the field will get back to you with references and articles addressing your needs. And if you’re ever in DC, stop by and get your library card that gives you access to private areas of the website.
Thank you for graciously putting up with my nerdiness and love of research today. I would love to hear some of your own secrets for research, so feel free to share. Also, as a reader for Harlequin, I have a pretty good idea what to look for in a “must read” manuscript, so if you’ll leave a note and your email address, you’ll be entered into a drawing to receive a ten-page critique from an official Harlequin reader. Good luck!