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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.

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1 Comment»

[…] 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 […]


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