Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Guest Post: Carol Fisher Saller on Details from a Diary: Mining a Family Treasure for Fiction

By Carol Fisher Saller
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations 

I never meant to write historical fiction—mostly out of laziness (all that research!), but also because of the responsibility.

Since it’s fiction, we expect to take liberties with the facts. But how much liberty is too much? At what point does stretching the facts become a disservice to history, and to young readers?

Plus, from reading hundreds of slush-pile manuscripts when I was an editor at Cricket Books, I knew how difficult it is to integrate historical facts into a story gracefully. Less successful attempts sound like Google personified:

Aunt Zelda asks, “Have you spoken with Florence Kelley, the woman who worked with Jane Addams at Hull House and was the first female chief factory inspector in Chicago?”

“How could I?” replies Matilda. “You know she moved to New York in 1899.”

But something unexpected happened that changed my mind: after my father died, his wife sent me a diary that Dad had written when he was a farm boy in Ellisville, Illinois, during World War II. I’d never even known it existed.

It was a five-year diary, with room to write four short lines a day, and Dad did just that from 1944 when he was 12, to 1948 when he was 16. 

(The green arrow in the photo points to Dad. The blue arrow is my Grama. I’m pretty sure that what looks like her hat is actually on the head of someone standing behind her.)

Reading the diary, I found snippets filled with possibilities:

“Today we typed to music. If I could keep up, I’d type 16 words.”

“This afternoon we dug four little foxes out of the hill at Merl’s. Brought them home and put them in silo pit.”

“This morning Harold come over in a B-24. He circled 5 times. . . . We saw guns & insignia.”

Click to read larger image.
I was so inspired I ended up writing Eddie’s War, a middle-grade novel about (you guessed it) an Illinois farm boy during World War II.

Anyone who’s read my book will recognize the origins of vignettes in those quotes from the diary.

But the Eddie of my novel is not my father. And Eddie’s big brother Thomas, who goes off to fly a bomber in the Pacific, is not my uncle Harold. The diary was only a starting point.

I didn’t know my father when he was a boy. I never knew my uncle. Stinky, Gabe, Grampa Rob, Grama Lucy—all are from my imagination.

In fact, much more than plot, the diary was a resource for background and stage business: “We went over in the calf pasture and cut some mullen.”

I don’t even know what mullen is—but I know that in June 1944 teenagers were cutting it in a calf pasture, so when I needed some farm work for Eddie to do in June 1944, there it was:

Most of the time
it didn’t seem real.
Then one day in the calf pasture cutting mullen
it hit me again
and wouldn’t turn loose—
wave after wave, right to the gut.
I heaved up my breakfast
and started to cry.


I promise you I also consulted many books and online resources in researching Eddie’s War (namelos, 2011). But the kind of history I found in Dad’s diary brought more color and authenticity to the prose than anything else I found.

Whether I would have chosen to write historical fiction without it—or ever will again—who knows?

Cynsational Notes

Find more about Eddie’s War, including discussion questions and links to online history resources.

Eddie's War was named one of Kirkus Reviews's Best Children's Books of 2011.

6 comments:

Gwenyth Swain said...

Carol Fisher Saller's observation that primary sources, like her father's diary, provide good "stage business" is very apt. It's the little things--turns of phrase, slang words, and current obsessions (now forgotten to time)--that a writer can take from a contemporary source and use in historical fiction to large effect.

Shannon Wiersbitzky said...

Love this book! And how wonderful that the author got to know her father in such a unique way after finding his childhood diaries.

Alex said...

I read and reviewed this book and thought it was wonderful. It gives such an interesting look at the home front in WW II.

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

You're right, Gwenyth. It's also those details that often are so challenging to track down, especially the further back you go in time.

Me, too, Shannon, and yes, what a gift! That diary is priceless as a window into the man and a piece of family history.

Thanks so much for the recommendation, Alex! Glad you enjoyed the novel.

Sheila said...

This novel goes beyond "historical" because it's so beautifully written. Carol used the WWII, small town setting to tell a timeless, universal story about a boy becoming a man.

I wish my parents had kept diaries!

Cynthia Leitich Smith said...

Wonderful, Sheila! I love that the story speaks through and across the ages.

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