Writing Real Stuff

Edith here, north of Boston, and packing for Malice Domestic!

We Wickeds are fiction writers. We make stuff up. We are goddesses of our story worlds. Don’t like that guy? Knock him off. Discover the hint of a new romance between two characters? Make it blossom.

ACM

One of my series, the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, is set here in my Massachusetts town of Amesbury, which sits on the New Hampshire border one town in from the coast. So I use a real setting – but the action takes place back in the late 1880s. We have a thriving Amesbury Carriage Museum, which has been focusing in recent years on all of Amesbury’s industrial history.350thsquare

This year is Amesbury’s 350th birthday and the ACM is sponsoring a series of lectures about various aspects of the past.

JohnMayerThe ACM’s dynamic director, John Mayer, asked me this winter if I would give a talk on the lives of Amesbury’s women in the past. I didn’t have to think long to respond, “You know, John, the historical woman I know best is FICTIONAL.” He laughed and assured me that was okay. I gulped and said yes. I really like what John is doing for our town and wanted to contribute. We decided I would focus on the twenty years surrounding 1900. But write about real people instead of made-up ones? I had my work cut out for me.

For a couple of months I’ve been interviewing our town’s elders, sharp-minded women in their late eighties and nineties, plus some of their children. I’ve poured over old diaries of farm women, learned about the lives of more well-known women, heard stories about immigrant families, traced the charitable activities of the wives of the factory and mill owners. Every bit of it was fascinating.

And what hit me in the face again and again? Women are absent from the history books, even the three local histories written by women! The ladies were working behind the scenes just as hard as – or harder than – the men. Their stories deserve to be told, even though they didn’t end up with their names on buildings or in the town reports.

I presented my talk last week to a standing room only crowd.

EdithTremblays

I had a slide show, extensive notes, the privilege of seating some of my primary sources in the front row – and more nerves than I’ve had in a while.

EdithChairs
How a mystery author saves front-row seats for her honored guests. Photo by Christine Green

In one of my first slides, I made sure everybody knew I am an amateur historian. That I love delving into the past, but have no professional credentials to back me up other than an award-winning historical mystery series. Nobody seemed to care.

Here are some of the women I interviewed. Clockwise from top left, Betty Goodwin, Jodie Rundlett Perkins, Pam Bailey Johnson Fenner, and Sally Blake Lavery, treasures all.

And here are some the strong, hardworking women from all economic classes I showcased – the women absent from the history books.

Blake Family
Josephine Blake at left, Jessie Blake at right, whose detailed memoir of her childhood I drew on.
IMG_6974
Mina and Florence Blanchard. Mina became a teacher, Florence a nurse.
Lydia D Crowell copy
Lydia Crowell Bailey, very much of the well-off class, who nevertheless lost two young children. (Blemishes on the photo, not her skin.)
MaryJewelLittle
Mary Jewell Little, left, and Annie Little Woodsom, far right
MarieRosanna
Marie Tremblay, French-Canadian immigrant, and daughter Rosanna. Neither ever spoke English.

The evening was fun. The audience seemed to love it. Our local cable TV filmed it and I’ll post a link in a couple of weeks to the video on the ACM cable channel. And I sold a lot of books afterwards. For now? I’m glad to get back to making stuff up!

Readers: Who are your local or family elders you hear stories from? Which of their and your own stories have you shared with the next generations?

24 Thoughts

  1. My Dad was the historian of our family. To him family and our connection was extremely important. I think that was because he virtually had no past. When my Grandfather came the this country, he literally left behind his past. He changed his name legally and refused to talk about or discuss anything past stepping his foot on US soil. The only reason we know who my great grands were is from his citizenship papers. Due to all that, I realize the important of sharing what we know on to the younger generations. One of the things that stands out in my mind is the story my Dad told about finding a board with an odd word on it in his barn when a kid. It was then when trying to find out what it was all about or what it meant that he found out it was his Dad’s original name but couldn’t find out any more information about it.

  2. Edith, don’t you love their names? You did an amazing job! Hope we get to see it~
    We just lost a 98 yr old friend who was a nurse during WW2; she had wonderful stories!

    1. There will be a link to the video, Marni. Yes, I do love the names, and plan to use some in my next Quaker Midwife mystery. Wow, I bet that friend had great stories. Glad you knew her.

  3. Great blog. As a former history major and lover of history, I was always amazed and quite angry that women were so neglected in history. (My use of language here was tempered.) Its the old boys club version of life. Men preferred to write about their own sex and do the patriarchal view of the world. Amazingly, many came from matriarchal societies. Philadelphia has been doing some nice programs on Women during the Revolution, and giving us the names! Finding primary sources about women is like finding gold. Even Rosie the Riveter was discarded to a degree after WWII. She was a symbol that the USA used to advantage and then quickly tried to hide, at a time when they brought the “men” home. It takes a woman to dig in and research! Go for it!

    1. I have photographs of the pages of an 1880 journal kept by a Massachusetts housewife. Sheila Connolly found it and shared with me. A bunch of great details!

      Glad Philly is doing the right thing.

  4. Edith, what a fantastic event! Congratulations. I wish I could have gone. I wonder if there’s now a non-fiction book in your future.

    It’s interesting, a real-life event I’d never heard of inspired the story for my 4th book, Mardi Gras Murder. A friend gave me a copy of a book about the Louisiana orphan train. I knew of the ones that went out west, but had no idea that between the 1850s and 1929, a train brought orphans from NY to Cajun Country. My friend had used the book, which shared about the lives of each orphan, to research an ancestor. My take on the story is purely fictional – a past influencing the present story – but I learned there’s an orphan train museum in Opelousas that I hope to visit someday.

    1. That’s very cool, Ellen. I’d heard about that generally but didn’t realize they’d made that trajectory. Orphan trains…ideas already swirling!

      If/when I get time (rolls on the floor laughing) I want to at least integrate the photos in my power point project with my notes, which are in Word.

  5. So many people’s stories are left out of history books period.

    When I was in 11th grade, we had an extra credit assignment to interview someone who lived through the Great Depression. I was able to interview my three living grandparents. It was interesting to hear their stories, especially the one who moved to California from the Dust Bowl during that time.

  6. Many years ago, as a volunteer, I worked with a 100-year old woman who was a nurse during WWI. Besides treating injured soldiers, she set up well-baby clinics in many places in Africa. She was friends with Lawrence of Arabia. And that was just her first career! She had two more careers before she retired at 82. Then she taught herself to cook and take care of an apartment for the first time. She was just one of many older women I learned so much from. I loved discovering their feelings and attitudes and how little has really changed in women’s minds in all those years.

  7. My parents and grandparents and other relatives shared some stories. Unfortunately they are all gone now. One way I learned was watching The Waltons with them and also with my college landlady. It made the TV show stories come alive to hear what people who actually lived through the Depression and World War II.

  8. Great blog Edith. My grandmothers told us stories about our families past, some happy and
    some very sad. We have only one great aunt still living, on my father’s side of the family and she has told so us many facts and stories about our family and her experience as a fifth grade school teacher. Times have definitely changed since she first started teaching. Now our mother, who will be 86 on May 15 continues to talk to us about our family’s history and her recollection of when she was a child during WWII and her days as a nursing student in the big city , New Orleans. She also tells stories to her three grandchildren, stories my daughter calls “ When everything was in black and white like the old tv shows and movies.”

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