Last week while I was poking around on-line looking for folktales, I stumbled upon Missouri Digital Heritage. This project makes documents, photographs, maps and more available on-line. The originals are held by various institutions throughout the state.
Some actual items (such as newspapers) are available on-line. Others provide indexes vs the actual material.
I found a variety of newspapers including publications from Hannibal and Rolla as well as Sandborne fire insurance maps. Exhibits include:
- Carrie Watkins cookbook ca 1870
- A photo exhibit of the Kirksville Cyclone, 1899
- Quest for the Cure, photographs depecting Missouri’s first mental hospital ca 1844
- St. Charles Postcards
- The first 25 years of the Missouri State Fair
Take a look. You might find something you can use for your current project. Or you may find the inspiration you need for something new.
Whether you are writing or doing research, you must keep bias in mind.
Note: I don’t say “possible bias,” because we are all biased. You. Me. The woman who wrote the diary entries you are using for your historical fiction. The fellow who participated in the conservation department’s wildlife count. Biased. Each and everyone.
The key is to know what the author’s bias is, because some biases are strong enough to skew the data to the point that it is unreliable. Sometimes this is due to racism. Sometimes to sexism. Sometimes it is another -ism or -ology altogether.
But also be aware of your own biases. I have a bias toward believing what I read in sources from university and scientific presses. Yet even scientists are biased as became obvious at the T-Rex Sue exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center.
One display discusses the dinosaur’s gender.
Initially, paleontologists had not found a particular bone when they unearthed Sue. Because many scientists believe this bone is found only in male T-rex’s, they decided Sue was female. But then they found the bone. Male? Maybe not. Apparently the jury is now out on whether this bone is an indicator of gender. Then whoever wrote the text revealed their bias by stating that until scientists know one way or the other, Sue is not a boy or girl but an It.
And, yes, I read it again. They didn’t say that they should use It when writing about Sue. They said that Sue was, until proof could be found, an It.
Um, no. Sorry.
Hate to disappoint your sciency self.
Sue is either a boy or a girl no matter what you know, think you know or had for breakfast. Please. Check your bias at the door.
It really isn’t a great secret — there is a wealth of information online if only you know where to find it. A great source of folklore and texts from various belief systems is the Internet Sacred Text Archive.
Some of the treasures I found include:
- The Book of Filial Duty by Ivan Chen, 1908
- Myths and Legends of Our Land by Charles F. Skinner, 1896
- Coffee in the Gourd: A Collection of Texas Folklore by J. Frank Dobie, 1923
- Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wolstonecraft, 1792
- The Woman’s Bible by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, 1895
Why not see what you can turn up?
I love folklore and the other day I was searching for versions of the Fish Bride. When you do something like this, I hope you pay attention to the URL of whatever information you just found. Sometimes it can lead you to a gold mine.
One version of the Fish Bride was archived at ttu.edu. Texas Tech University? What’ s up with that?
Deleting bits of the URL to get at the main archive, I found the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative which contains both folk tales and music.
For me, the best part is that these scans of the typed tales include handwritten notes and footnotes. In the Fish Bride, the fisherman hides to see who has been preparing fancy meals for him. When the young woman appears, he asks if she is a supernatural being, a djinn. The footnote tells us that this is the “stock question” when someone appears unexpectedly.
How cool is that? What does it tell you that this society has a stock question for such situations?
Yesterday, I talked about starting from scratch when a rewrite won’t come together. Today, I’m adding a footnote. There are times starting from scratch doesn’t make sense.
Many of my nonfiction articles are based on interviews. I start the writing process by selecting the quotes I plan to use and assembling them in a logical order. Sometimes it doesn’t work out and after the second or third draft it becomes clear that the article in this form simply will not sing.
But I don’t want to trash the quotes or the paragraphs that I’ve built around them. Not the paragraphs that work.
So I print out a copy of my horrid article. I take a notebook, scissors, tape and a pen and leave my office. By now, I usually have a better idea what order will work and I make a quick outline. If my original lead won’t work, I write a new one. Then I find the section that should follow the new lead. Snip, snip, snip. Whatever text works, including quotes, I cut out and tape down. I write the supporting text with my handy dandy pen and then go on to the next section. Some sections endure very little change. For others, I may have two handwritten pages.
I can’t tell you exactly why this works for me when cutting and pasting on screen don’t. But it does work.
Next time you get stuck on a rewrite, this may be the technique that gets you going again.
This week, my son is on spring break. That means that last week I had work to get done. I had to do better than stay caught up. I had to get ahead.
Yet one piece refused to come together. I had written my first draft but try as I might, subsequent drafts were no better. If anything, they were getting worse. So I did what I often do at times like this.
I started over.
Instead of trying to fix what I had already written, I started a new copy. When I know what I want to say but can’t seem to get there from where I am, I scrap it all and start anew with a clear destination in sight.
Tell another writer that you do this, and you might be surprised by their reaction. I get a lot of cringes. “But that’s means you’ve wasted all that time.”
Wasted? No. It only took me about 20 minutes to create this new draft. The wasted time was the 2 hours I spent on a rewrite that refused to come together.
When one way of doing it isn’t working, try something new. You may be surprised by the results.
Sorry for how late I am getting the Monday post up. This weekend we went fishing. We met a trapper who had been brought in to deal with the new residents — beavers — who may be cute but are putting the farmers downstream of the lake in danger.
Me being me, I was interested in this guy, never having met a trapper before. How many of us have in this day and age? Anyhow, I struck up a conversation and could tell by his accent that he was not a city boy. That matched, him trapping beaver and all.
When I asked him where they “came down from” (lake talk for “where do you live?”) he named a rather posh part of the city. Posh by my standards. Much posher than where we live. Originally, he came from a smaller city still in Missouri, had met his wife while going to college, and had a masters from a big name university. Now he works for a major scientific company in the city.
And he traps.
Are your characters this interesting?
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading just a little bit about what I learned at the retreat. I learned much, much more. In fact, Cheryl Klein gave us so much information that it will take me weeks to absorb it all. If I had been a new writer, a retreat of this kind would have been too much. That is why I’d like to encourage you to look at the type of event before you sign up.
- Conferences tend to be large and offer a variety of sessions that may or may not be focused around a particular topic. Probably the best choice for new writers but they can also be good for intermediate writers.
- Workshops give you the chance for “hands on” learning. You’ll probably be doing writing exercises. Good for intermediate writers looking to hone skills.
- Retreats, whether large or small, offer a chance for several days of intense work. They usually include one-on-one time with the editor, evaluations meant to help you improve your work. Expect to be told what you’re doing wrong although a good critiquer includes what you’re doing right so that you have something to build on. Best for the advanced writer.
- Agent or Editor Days are generally designed to expose you to several agents or editors in one day. Best for intermediate to advanced writers who have several highly polished manuscripts to market.
Pick the event that best fits where you are. It will make for a better experience.
The fantasy chapter book I’m working on is my first attempt to write in first person. When a critique partner asked me to add more detail, she gave me several suggestions but I hesitated. Were these details my character would notice? How much would that matter?
Fortunately, Cheryl Klein did a session on voice and discussed how the author’s voice differs from the narrator’s voice. She emphasized that your word choice depends entirely on who your narrator is, what the narrator’s backstory is, and what the narrator knows.
Think about it. Next week when we go fishing, I would describe the dock and the lake completely differently from my son or husband.
Me: Is it solid? Is the water cloudy? If so, has it been warm enough to worry about a snake sneaking up on us? Can I stay far enough from the edge to keep from tripping and falling in?
My husband: Is the dock solid? How can I keep them off it so they won’t stomp around and scare away the fish? Can I stand far enough away to keep anyone from smacking me with their pole?
My son: Is there some place to sit? This always takes forever. A snake! Cool! Where’s Mom going?
Remember when you add detail to your story, not only should it move the story forward, it should be something your character would notice described in words he or she would use.
Put away the thesaurus and get in your character’s head.
I’d heard it said before — to stand up to repeat readings, your picture book has to have depth to pull the reader back again and again. This weekend, at a retreat lead by an editor who primarilly works on novels, I learned to add depth to my picture book.
As much as my critique group liked this story, something didn’t quite work. It has humor. The main character is a child. It has a fun setting. And the kid is way smarter than the adults. The character even grows. What more could you want? Other than a fully functioning picture book manuscript, I mean.
Fortunately, Cheryl Klein helped me spot what was missing.
Cheryl is a big one for action — she believes that for your character to be interesting, she or he has to do something. They have to work toward something. Decide, move and do.
The current plot in my picture book allows my character to sit around and wait for other people to act. Than he reacts. These interactions are all funny but that just isn’t enough. They have to be more purposeful. Why? Because what I’ve been thinking of as the plot should be his desire, what drives him. It will make a great internal plot but I need a fully functional external plot. Add that to what I’ve already got and I’ll have a fun character, humor and depth.
Aren’t unexpected gifts the greatest?