Sheila Myers is the author of two novels: Ephemeral Summer (2014) and Imaginary Brightness: a Durant Family Saga (2015). She is currently working on the second in the trilogy for the Durant family saga which will be out in 2016. Myers is an Associate Professor at a community college in upstate New York where she teaches environmental science.
Sheila has written a very interesting guest post for my blog about the use of diaries for historical fiction.
What Diaries Don’t Reveal Can Be Just as Important as What they Do
I’ve been reading other people’s diaries. They’re dead so I doubt they mind. Yes, reading the thoughts and daily activities of people that lived over a century ago has become one of my passions as I conduct research for my historical fiction.
What I’ve learned from the process of reading diaries, both published and unpublished, is I can find out about familial relationships and events by what is not written, as much as from what is written in them. Small clues start to pop out and build up to the point where I find patterns that lead me to speculate. For example, I’ve been reading the summer camp diaries of two families closely connected to one of my main characters in the family saga I am writing. In both, I found patterns where my character, William, is conspicuously absent during the summer months.
Diaries left behind by his in-laws mention he was in New York City for weeks one summer in 1895. Just a passing mention: Mr. Durant is in New York City for the month of August. This was the summer that he separated from his wife. And then three years later, in 1898, the year they were finally divorced, he is absent again. Reading through the diaries of one of his good friends whom he hunted with on a regular basis, I found that there is very little mention of William in 1898, only his mother, who lived at the time in their summer home. Again, he stayed in New York City.
For the sake of propriety, neither author of the diaries mention why William stayed away from his summer home in the Adirondacks those summers. I’d have to conjecture. Was he ashamed? Mired in lawyer fees and unable to vacation? Didn’t want to run into his ex-wife or children? Who really knows?
Most of the diaries I have read reveal day-to-day activities of the people writing them, but some of these lead me to research other larger-world events. One example is a small paper clipping cut out and glued to the diary about the yellow haze that was hanging over the Adirondack Mountains for days. The diary entry mentions that the ladies’ skirts were covered in ash on the boat ride back from church one Sunday. When I looked up the date of the newspaper clipping (1885) I came across numerous articles about the forest fires that were ravaging the northern forests and causing air quality problems as far away as New York City. The haze was so thick in New York City at one point boats could not navigate in the harbour.
Small tidbits about the people revealed in diaries can help shape a character in my writing. In one passage, the diarist relates how one of the locals still believes the earth is flat and that the oceans have an outlet (nobody has discovered them yet). What a great character to write about. If he believes this still in 1898, what else could I have him talking about in dialogue?
And then there are scenes A small three sentence passage in a diary can become a 2,000 word scene in fiction. I found one notebook from a guide in the Adirondacks and in it he talks about a conversation he had with one of my characters. In this discussion, Dr. Durant (who was one of the men responsible for building the transcontinental railroad line) tells a tale of paying the Pawnee Indians $25.00 each for the scalps of Sioux Indians. Again, this small tidbit of information is steeped in historical relevance; it is up to me to place it into context in the story with a scene.
To learn more about Sheila Myer’s work and research visit her website – http://www.wwdurantstory.com/