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Archive diving: Third of five tips for writing a historical novel

Inspired by an interview with Nicole d’ Entremont about her WWI novel “A Generation of Leaves,” Peaks Island Press is offering five tips to get you writing your historical novel. The first three of five tips are:
Tip #1 listen to family stories for inspiration;
Tip #2: visit historic sites;
Tip #3: dare yourself to go archive diving.

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Nicole points to her uncle’s signature on his attestation papers

First, let’s start with what archives are not. They are not “containers of brute facts” (as anthropologist Renato Renaldo would say). If they were passive containers of information, then I might not recommend them. Instead, archives are like spiders, spinning webs between remains of the past and those of us who inhabit the present. Beware of archive diving, though, because a faded document or a tattered photograph could seize your muse and lure you and your story somewhere you wouldn’t expect. That is precisely the point. Historical resources shape our perception of the past. Just be prepared for that adventure.

For Nicole d’ Entremont, archival research included exploring the Library and Archives of Canada in Ottawa to gain access to military records. Among the treasures she uncovered were her Uncle Leo’s attestation papers that he signed upon volunteering to go to war (pictured above).

To be able to touch his signature–it drew me into that precise moment when he committed himself to something that led to his death at a very young age. The young men going off to war in 1914 thought the war would be over in 6 months.

Nicole also located her uncle’s university transcript and could see his grades. It helped her appreciate the life he left behind, the life he lost.

The grades affected me more deeply than I thought they would.  Here was a young man from a poor French- Acadian fishing village–going to a University from 1909-1911.  Here were his grades in my hands (and good ones at that) inscribed in the whispery ink scratchings of  a long dead professor. What dreams did that young man have?  Why did he leave school in 1911?  All of that took me on another quest.

Nicole and I agree that our perception of the past is shaped much more intimately when we do our own “archive diving.” Some of my favorite archives are listed below. Dive in.

American Memory Project, Library of Congress

Maine Folklife Center

Maine Memory Network

Maine State Archives

New York Times

University of Southern Maine Archives

Stay tuned for the next in the five tips for writing a historical novel — Tip #4: Sort through secondary sources.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Tip #4 on writing a historical novel: Sort through secondary sources

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Some of Nicole’s favorite WWI sources

The first three of five tips on writing a historical novel focused on primary sources – Tip #1 family stories (oral history), Tip #2 historic sites,  and Tip #3 archives. This article encourages you to sort through and mine valuable secondary sources. If you write a historical novel using secondary sources alone, recognize that you’re reading through the lens of how another author has selected, organized, and interpreted primary sources. You would be a step removed from rich, authentic sources. However, secondary sources still have great value. As a cultural historian, I offer this distinction between the two:

Primary source -A surviving record of past events created during the time period under study by someone who participated in, witnessed, or commented upon the historic events, such as photographs, diaries, artifacts, or oral history.

Secondary source -Books, articles, essays, and lectures, often created using primary sources, that describe and interpret a time period after events have taken place.

In the case of island author Nicole d’Entremont, secondary sources – particularly Peter Englund‘s “The Beauty and the Sorrow: An intimate history of WWI”- complemented her use of primary sources in writing “A Generation of Leaves.” 

Swedish historian and journalist Englund describes his book as “a work of anti-history,” in other words, not a book that strings together noteworthy events, but “a book about what it was like.” Nicole explained to me how it influenced her:

“The Beauty and the Sorrow” features 20 people of several nationalities who were caught up in World War I. A young German girl. A Scottish woman. An Italian trooper. Forget the dates. It’s the people. This is their story. It’s not about the generals. I read this book twice. As a “non-historian,” I had doubts about how I was approaching the subject, but Englund, a noted historian himself and university teacher of WWI history, gave me confidence that I could follow my novelist’s inclination without fearing the wrath of historical rectitude.

I wrap up the 5 tips on writing a historical novel with the next article: Tip #5: Can we understand the past?

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Jim Hayman: Looking back at the island

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Full moon hovers over ferry and loading ramp

What makes an island community gasp, collectively? When an islander sells their dream house or cottage and becomes — cough — a mainlander. Author Jim Hayman has made that plunge (pardon the pun), but, in his parting, he shares what it’s like to weed some 1000 books out of his family’s library and transport them across the harbor by ferry. Read his post, “A Moving Experience,” published on the Maine Crime Writers site, one of the author resources listed here at Peaks Island Press.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Visiting Historic Sites: Nicole d’Entremont and 5 tips for writing a historical novel

If you plan to write a historical novel, then also plan on fueling your writer’s imagination with a number of historical sources. Following an interview with Nicole d’Entremont, Peaks Island Press decided to offer five tips to get you going on your historical novel. In case you missed it, Tip #1 was Listen to family stories.

Tip #2: Visit historic sites

In Nicole’s case, visiting a historic site relevant to her novel meant traveling to one of the most gruesome battlefields of the First World War, often known as Flanders Fields in Belgium. This was the blood-soaked Flemish countryside captured by the lines of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae’s poem,  “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow, Between the crosses row on row…” When Nicole and I sat down together, she shared the role that visiting this notorious site played in writing her WWI novel, A Generation of Leaves. She said, “In order to write the book I wanted to write, I had to go to Belgium and walk where my young uncle had walked.  I wanted to go deeper than just book research and that was the way to do it.” Let’s listen to why Nicole feels that way.

Visiting the trenches at Ypres

“Two years ago, I went and connected with a battlefield tour organization — Flanders Battlefield Tours — in Ypres, Belgium. My guide, Jacques Ryckebosch, took me to a section of trench in Sanctuary Wood where many Canadian soldiers had been killed.  What I didn’t know was that Jacques had told the museum staff there that I was a relative of a soldier who fell at Sanctuary Wood. I was standing in the trench and I suddenly heard the sound of bagpipes coming from the forest nearby. I asked him what that music was. He told me that they were playing for my Uncle Leo. I understood fully then that it’s not ‘the past’ for them. It’s ‘the present.’

One of the hardest things about this book project was reading about the staggering numbers and the conditions of the warfare. There were 20 million people killed in the First World War. How do you grasp that? But seeing one of the most notorious places on the Western Front helped put me in touch with my uncle [who is the basis for the character Léonce]. When I went to the Flemish countryside and saw the soil, I learned that it’s very distinctive; it turns into a viscous mud when it rains. I could then imagine crouching in the confined space of the trench wallowing, wallowing in the mud. Then I went to the Menin Gate in Ypres. My uncle’s name is among the 55,000 names on that gate. They are the names of the soldiers who fought nearby and whose bodies were never recovered.”

Menin Gate became the place where Nicole’s book ends. The character, Léonce, only survived the trenches a few months, so Nicole has other characters carry readers through the chaos to the end of the war.

View from within 80-foot high Menin Gate

Visiting the trenches and Menin Gate not only influenced her writing process, but they are shaping her book event plans, too. Through her research and travel, Nicole learned that every night at 8 PM for nearly 90 years, since 1927, Menin Gate shuts down to traffic; everything stops to allow for the playing of taps. It’s an extraordinary living tribute. Next year, in 2014, numerous events will commemorate the centennial of the start of WWI and Nicole plans to travel to Belgium to participate. Through her novel, Nicole will bear witness to “the war as not past, but present.”

Stay tuned for the next in the five tips for writing a historical novelTip #3: Archive Diving.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine. If you haven’t already, you may subscribe in the upper right corner at http://www.peaksislandpress.com.

Nicole d’Entremont on family stories and 5 tips for writing an historical novel

Nicole d'Entremont

Nicole d’Entremont

Stories. Family stories. The ones spoken across dinner tables and at bedsides. These have the power to send us on journeys of mind, body, and heart. While my father’s WWII stories of the Arctic, propelled me to write about Greenland, “one little scrap of a story” sent Peaks Island author Nicole d’Entremont on a five-year journey to write what is perhaps the first historical novel to portray the Acadian experience in the First World War. While sharing her writing process, five tips for writing a historical novel emerged.

Tip #1: Listen to family stories

Alongside her pot-bellied woodstove, Nicole and I took refuge from the Polar Vortex and talked about “A Generation of Leaves,” her newest novel that follows her Uncle Leo from the tiny Acadian fishing village of Pubnico, Nova Scotia into the trenches of World War I.

Nicole: “I never knew my Uncle Leo. He enlisted to fight in World War I when he was 21 years old. My father told me one little scrap of a story about Uncle Leo, and that story had been passed down to him by my grandmother. My grandmother, Monique Adèle, was a devout Catholic and a formidable woman. She sent my father down to the train station every week to pick up the paper from Halifax and bring it back to the village. It was Monique Adèle’s job to read the newspaper for the names of those who had fallen on the Front. One evening, Monique Adèle went out to the woodpile and she saw her son, Leo, dressed in his uniform, standing there looking at her. He was smiling. She blinked. He was gone. She knew then that she would never see him again. Months later, his name appeared in the newspaper on the list of those missing in action. Eventually, he was

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Author Nicole d’Entremont with parents, brother, and grandmother Monique Adele

listed as killed in action. His body was never found.

I have been returning to the little village of Pubnico every summer since 1964 and that story of Monique Adèle’s experience at the woodpile always stayed with me. I wanted to understand the Acadian experience of World War I. How did families feel fighting for a nation that had expelled them in the 1700s? There is not much written about that.

My grandmother was like the prow of a ship. I remember being afraid of her. She died at the age of 90 when I was 17. But stories about her remained.”

Listening to these family stories inspired Nicole to learn more. For years, she spoke with villagers in Pubnico, gathered more oral history, and defined the characters in her novel. Like her grandmother, the character, Adèle, has 11 kids and she’s “the boss of the village and the matriarch of the family.” She becomes a central figure in “A Generation of Leaves.” Nicole’s Uncle Leo becomes the Acadian soldier, Léonce, who survives but a few months in the trenches.

Family stories and village oral history helped Nicole portray both how the war tore many families apart and how it also pulled the village more tightly together. But those stories were just a beginning in her writing process. Keep an eye out for the second of the five tips for writing a historical novel: Tip #2: Visiting historic sites.

Feed your muse: plenty of inspiration awaits in Maine

Explore the Maine Literary Map

Explore the Maine Literary Map

My last post spoke of new beginnings in our literary lives and I’m clinging to that spirit with this piece on New Year inspiration. Since many of the online resources on Peaks Island Press’ Maine Author Resources page had evaporated into cyberspace, I have freshened it up. So feed your muse and meander through resources listed there, for example, the Literary Map of Maine.

Consider how one of the many pinpoints on the Maine map features a four-foot tall porcupine:

Hugh Pine
Janwillem Van de Wetering (1931-2008)

And if you drive the Sorry road often enough, you will see Hugh Pine too.
He still wears his red hat, and he still walks upright, so chances are you
won’t know he is a porcupine and not a little old man with white whiskers
and a long coat.

This 1st title in a series of children’s early readers stars Hugh Pine, a four-foot
tall porcupine, a lovable old codger, and a sage of Sorry Bay. Hugh has many
amusing adventures while looking for the meaning of life. The Dutch born
author was world famous for his adult mystery thrillers and lived in Surry, Maine.

A porcupine who dresses as a man to safely cross the road

A porcupine who dresses as a man to safely cross the road

Doesn’t that inspire you to either read more about Hugh Pine, create your own character, or drive to Surry, Maine?  By the way, Surry’s municipal website provides a helpful tip on how to deter bears from your backyard during their mating season by hanging peanut butter-smeared tinfoil on your electric fence. Really. I don’t think I could make that up.

Alternatively, visit the Maine Crime Writers’ blog and feed your paranoia as you shove blocks of wood into your hungry woodstove:
“There’s a malevolence to a Maine winter, too, the lethal edge of bitter cold and icy water. Go down in the snow on a sub-zero night–injured, drunk, disoriented–and there’s a good chance you won’t get up. Go down in a snowstorm and there’s a good chance you won’t be found, not before April.”
So walking porcupines and death-by-snowbank lurk in the resources that I have assembled for you. Go forth and seize the new year with a sense of literary adventure.

Book Love: An island tradition welcomes babies

Mira Ptacin and Theo on Peaks Island

Mira Ptacin and Theo on Peaks Island

New Year is a time for sweeping gestures that clear off the surfaces of our lives, clarifying what we could have done, if only our daily habits hadn’t hijacked our best intentions. In that new year spirit, I share this story of Book Love, a beautiful tradition that welcomes babies to Peaks Island. This is a story that I’ve been meaning to write for many, many months. Enter island author, Mira Pitacin (and her little Theo), to whom I’m grateful for helping me share this tradition.

Many Peaks Islanders have met Mira, a creative nonfiction and children’s book author whose essays have appeared in everything from New York Magazine to Epiphany Literary Magazine. A graduate of the MFA program in nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College in 2009, Mira currently teaches writing at another of her alma mater, the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.

Mira writes of her transition to Peaks Island in one of her recent articles, “Is a Baby a Luxury?” (published in Guernica: A Magazine of Art & Politics): “One morning in October, ten weeks after moving to Maine, I woke up feeling awfully nauseous. A chemical stick revealed that the life of our little family was about to change. We were overjoyed. But not insured.” The heartbreak, joys, and angst of the journey to motherhood and the economics of health insurance and child-rearing are among the life-stuff that Mira bravely charts for her readers.

This past summer, when Mira and her husband, Andrew, welcomed baby Theo into their lives, they experienced a beloved tradition maintained by the Friends of the Peaks Island Branch of the Portland Public Library. In the midst of those bleary first few weeks of sleeplessness and new routines, Mira heard a knock at her door. I’ll let her tell the rest:

“I was about 15 days a mom, sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, scared, hormonal, overstuffed with visitors. I was on the verge of a meltdown (not really but somewhat) when there was a knock on the door and a totally unexpected guest bearing a gift–a tiny little bag with tiny little books for my tiny little human. I felt so much love in that moment, and so much support from the Peaks Island community, and also felt that from them towards my son. That’s when I bear-hugged the deliverer of the bag and possibly held on longer and more tightly than she’d expected. But she’s a mom and I think she could remember how I must’ve felt. Anyway, the whole experience was one of the best and most poignant ones from the first memories of being a new mom. Powerful stuff.”

The “unexpected guest” a.k.a. library book angel was island resident, Kathryn Moxhay, a member of the library Friends group that shares this book love, celebrating new readers one birth at a time.

Peaks Island Press offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a vibrant, literary community perched on Peaks Island, two miles off the coast of the beautiful and award-winning city of Portland, Maine.

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