Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Messages From the Past: Part III

Published with permission of the original site This post continues my praise of archives as source material for the fiction writer with details from my experience searching for authentic character voice.

by Teddy Jones

Fortunately, the researcher who studied the Sanctified Sisters extensively, Dr. Sally Kitch, documented the location of the archive mentioned in her work, The Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas. The Center’s website includes a finding guide to the Woman’s Commonwealth Archive detailing accession information, an abstract of the contents, the extent (4 ft. 10 in., the linear shelf space) and the language in which the materials are written. Also included are an historical note from the Handbook of Texas Online, a paragraph describing the scope and contents, restrictions, and the preferred citation. 

Two items on the finding guide prompted me to contact Briscoe archive personnel for further information about restrictions and digital access. I learned that one specified box of materials requires Dr. Kitch’s approval for use in publication, and that no material in the Commonwealth archive was digitized. With that, I had taken another step—identified potentially relevant archives. 

Because of staffing constraints, The Briscoe Center is unable to provide proxy research services. Their website lists of independent proxy researchers who are available to perform research activities at the Center for a fee. I knew the questions about the material that would help me confirm the authenticity of the character’s voice. But without additional information about the specific content of the archive, I wouldn’t know the extent to which I could find the answers. The Briscoe Center is more than four hundred miles from my home. Employing a proxy researcher to survey the contents seemed prudent. 

The researcher promptly reported which materials which were probably most and least useful to my quest. At that point, I made plans to visit the archive and also contracted with the researcher to assist me onsite—I wanted a guide in unfamiliar territory.

We spent two days in the Center. I found much of interest—subpoenas, newspapers from the late 1800s, photos, minutes of a meeting of a group of church elders withdrawing fellowship from a member, many letters, and other material.  I could easily have spent several days peeking into the pieces these lives left behind.

Several hours into my second day at the Briscoe Center, I found the item that proved most useful—a handwritten journal of more than 75 pages, written by the founder of the Woman’s Commonwealth, Mrs. Martha McWhirter. It offered a clear example of the voice of a woman in the same place and time as my fictional character. Photocopies of the journal’s pages, combined with documents I had photographed and notes I made about other items in the archive, filled a four-inch wide ring binder. 

Please check this blog tomorrow for the finale to this 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


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