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

by Teddy Jones
In a publication of the Association of American Archivists, Laura Schmidt explains, “Archives exist both to preserve historic materials 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in both the types of materials they hold, and the way materials are accessed…Archives can hold both published and unpublished materials, and those materials can be in any format.”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


judy said...

I joined my local archive library (West Valley Genealogical Society in Sun City, Arizona) in July of this year. My current WIP is a short story historical series that revolves around a single Minnesota town. I did grow up there (but obviously not when my story begins in the 1800's) and consequently I am searching for authentic dialogue examples. I have not taken advantage of my membership other than attendance at several orientation lectures. Your article has spurred me to get on site and work with the experienced members there. Thank you for your article and for including the sample questions. They give me a good jumping off place.

Teddy Jones said...

HI Judy, I'm so glad these posts have encouraged you to delve into the fascinating material archives hold. Write on! Teddy