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Thursday, November 20, 2014

Messages From the Past: Part II



With the overview in the previous post, this segment suggests how to best prepare for an adventure searching archives for authentic character voice. Published with permission of the original site http://literarylabors.com//



by Teddy Jones
 
In a publication of the Association of American Archivists, Laura Schmidt explains, “Archives exist both to preserve historic materials and...to make their collections available to people, but differ from libraries in both the types of materials they hold, and the way materials are accessed…Archives can hold both published and unpublished materials, and those materials can be in any format.”   Some libraries may also hold archives as may some museums. Other archives are separate institutions housing numerous collections on a variety of topics.

The writer seeking authentic voices through archival research can gain maximum benefit by careful preparation prior to visiting the site. Preparation should include:

  • ·         identifying questions to guide the search,
  • ·         locating archives that may contain relevant material,
  • ·         gaining access to the archives,
  • ·         and planning for a visit to the archives if onsite work is needed. Those latter three steps are discussed in detail in Schmidt’s work.

Too much information can daunt even the hardiest of writers. To narrow the focus of her search, a writer should identify questions which, answered, would offer guidance to creating the character’s voice. My questions were: “In letters or diaries, do people in this place and time write formal, complete sentences? Is vocabulary common or elevated? Are spelling errors common? Is grammar correct? Is colloquial language frequent?” One further question was, “what types of materials from the time and place which might contain answers to those questions?” After this preliminary phase, the writer is prepared for the next steps. 

Schmidt lists several websites that offer links to archives and descriptions of their holdings, a useful starting point for locating potentially useful archives. A good reference librarian can aid in locating archives, also. After potentially relevant archives have been identified, the next level of important information resides in “finding guides” that describe the extent and type of materials in the specific archives’ holdings. The guides describe the number of boxes of materials, the types of materials, and any restrictions on use. If materials have been digitized and/or can be photocopied, they may be available remotely. If not, they may be only available onsite. Further, the writer can query reference personnel at the archive to gain details about the holdings of interest. The archive’s website may also contain information about research services provided by archive personnel. These preparatory steps help the writer decide whether to plan an onsite visit.

If an onsite visit seems important, the writer should seek several items of information ahead of the visit. Those facts include location, hours of operation, rules about use of personal cameras and recording equipment, how to notify personnel of an upcoming visit, whether materials may have to be brought from storage, and other operating procedures. Whether a trip to an archive proves fruitful can hinge on the writer’s awareness of this information. 

Using materials, whether accessed onsite or remotely, is probably best accomplished through immersion, followed by analysis. View, read, listen, sift, then sit back and ponder before focusing on the questions formulated at the outset. Since authentic voice is the treasure, “eavesdrop” broadly among your archival sources before making choices about the character’s voice. 

Please check back next week for the next two installments of this informative article.



Teddy Jones lives and writes in West Texas. Her first novel, Halfwide was published in September,
2012 and her second, from MidTown Publishing, Jackson’s Pond, Texas in 2013. Well Tended, her third, also from MidTown, will be released in December, 2014. Her short fiction has been published in 94 Creations, RealSouth Magazine, and Persimmon Tree and was short-listed for finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and named finalist in 2014. Jackson’s Pond, Texas was a finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in contemporary fiction. She holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University.  Find more on Teddy Jones at www.tjoneswrites.com.
 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Messages From the Past: Archives as Sources of Authentic Voices for Characters in Historical Fiction



This is the first in a four-part series. Published with permission of the original site http://literarylabors.com//


By Teddy Jones



Years ago an article in an electric co-op’s publication caught my interest. It told of a group of women known colloquially in Bell County, Texas, around 1868, as the Sanctified Sisters. It ended up in my “ideas” file.

Later, I drafted a novel in which the protagonist was a granddaughter of a fictional member of the Sanctified Sisters. The protagonist, in 1929, finds a journal written by her grandmother between 1880-1910. As I wrote the journal entries, I had experienced the feeling I was taking dictation. The grandmother’s diction and the content came to me as clearly as if she were speaking. Only after having drafted the entire novel did it occur to me I might have written an inauthentic voice.
 
In the years between my initial awareness of the Sisters and development of the novel, I read several books, including three academic studies in which the group was mentioned or was the prime focus. I later recalled that the researcher had cited an archive. That’s when my first experience with archives as a source for authentic historical character voice began.

Approaches to creating authentic diction for fictional historical characters might be thought of as points along a continuum. At one extreme is the “spice the dialogue with occasional words or phrases from the time” approach, the writer’s making little effort to capitalize on diction as an aspect of character development. Near the continuum’s center—more work, more benefit to the fiction—is reading, listening, or viewing performances about the period, found in historical research and/or in fiction or other art. The other extreme—requiring more work with potentially greater benefit—is reading, viewing and/or listening to the diction from the time, from primary sources.

Continuum of Actions Seeking Authentic Character Voices for Historical Fiction
I                                                                                                                                                         I
Search for word or phrases; use like seasoning       Read/listen/view about the period                               Read/listen/view from the period
Effort
Potential benefit for character voice

As effort increases along the continuum, likely location of and type of the writer’s source material changes. For example, the research needed to expend the least effort can be accomplished using Internet search engines. The writer accesses sources compiled by others about the historical period, mainly seeking words and phrases commonly used in the character’s time and location.

Near the center of the continuum, requiring more effort from the writer, sources typically include materials held by libraries and museums such as exhibits, movies or documentaries, music, and print resources available on site or online. The breadth of material reviewed is widened. The materials have been compiled and/or produced about the time and place the character inhabits.

The opposite end of the continuum depicts searching for not only secondary sources such as articles, books, and visual presentations produced during the period, but also primary source materials such as diaries, letters, and other personal writings; recordings of recollections by people living in the period; and other items produced during the time. The writer is likely to find those treasures in archives.

Please read the second part of this article tomorrow.


Teddy Jones lives and writes in West Texas. Her first novel, Halfwide was published in September, 2012 and her second, from MidTown Publishing, Jackson’s Pond, Texas in 2013. Well Tended, her third, also from MidTown, will be released in December, 2014. Her short fiction has been published in 94 Creations, RealSouth Magazine, and Persimmon Tree and was short-listed for finalist in the Faulkner-Wisdom competition in 2011, 2012, and 2013, and named finalist in 2014. Jackson’s Pond, Texas was a finalist for the 2014 Willa Award in contemporary fiction. She holds the MFA in Creative Writing from Spalding University.  Find more on Teddy Jones at www.tjoneswrites.com.