Writing Real Stuff

Edith here, north of Boston, and packing for Malice Domestic!

We Wickeds are fiction writers. We make stuff up. We are goddesses of our story worlds. Don’t like that guy? Knock him off. Discover the hint of a new romance between two characters? Make it blossom.

ACM

One of my series, the Quaker Midwife Mysteries, is set here in my Massachusetts town of Amesbury, which sits on the New Hampshire border one town in from the coast. So I use a real setting – but the action takes place back in the late 1880s. We have a thriving Amesbury Carriage Museum, which has been focusing in recent years on all of Amesbury’s industrial history.350thsquare

This year is Amesbury’s 350th birthday and the ACM is sponsoring a series of lectures about various aspects of the past.

JohnMayerThe ACM’s dynamic director, John Mayer, asked me this winter if I would give a talk on the lives of Amesbury’s women in the past. I didn’t have to think long to respond, “You know, John, the historical woman I know best is FICTIONAL.” He laughed and assured me that was okay. I gulped and said yes. I really like what John is doing for our town and wanted to contribute. We decided I would focus on the twenty years surrounding 1900. But write about real people instead of made-up ones? I had my work cut out for me.

For a couple of months I’ve been interviewing our town’s elders, sharp-minded women in their late eighties and nineties, plus some of their children. I’ve poured over old diaries of farm women, learned about the lives of more well-known women, heard stories about immigrant families, traced the charitable activities of the wives of the factory and mill owners. Every bit of it was fascinating.

And what hit me in the face again and again? Women are absent from the history books, even the three local histories written by women! The ladies were working behind the scenes just as hard as – or harder than – the men. Their stories deserve to be told, even though they didn’t end up with their names on buildings or in the town reports.

I presented my talk last week to a standing room only crowd.

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I had a slide show, extensive notes, the privilege of seating some of my primary sources in the front row – and more nerves than I’ve had in a while.

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How a mystery author saves front-row seats for her honored guests. Photo by Christine Green

In one of my first slides, I made sure everybody knew I am an amateur historian. That I love delving into the past, but have no professional credentials to back me up other than an award-winning historical mystery series. Nobody seemed to care.

Here are some of the women I interviewed. Clockwise from top left, Betty Goodwin, Jodie Rundlett Perkins, Pam Bailey Johnson Fenner, and Sally Blake Lavery, treasures all.

And here are some the strong, hardworking women from all economic classes I showcased – the women absent from the history books.

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Josephine Blake at left, Jessie Blake at right, whose detailed memoir of her childhood I drew on.

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Mina and Florence Blanchard. Mina became a teacher, Florence a nurse.

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Lydia Crowell Bailey, very much of the well-off class, who nevertheless lost two young children. (Blemishes on the photo, not her skin.)

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Mary Jewell Little, left, and Annie Little Woodsom, far right

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Marie Tremblay, French-Canadian immigrant, and daughter Rosanna. Neither ever spoke English.

The evening was fun. The audience seemed to love it. Our local cable TV filmed it and I’ll post a link in a couple of weeks to the video on the ACM cable channel. And I sold a lot of books afterwards. For now? I’m glad to get back to making stuff up!

Readers: Who are your local or family elders you hear stories from? Which of their and your own stories have you shared with the next generations?