Personal letters and journals are critical to writing nonfiction historical accounts and historical novels. Plot lines in my novel, Yours in a Hurry, advance through letters shared among the main characters. Readers ask if they are actual letters or fictional. Spoiler alert: Only the one written by Addison the day before his death is an actual letter, which survives because Mr. Davis to whom he wrote it back home shared it with the local newspaper at the time.
Windows to the Past
A current project with the working title Little Diamonds is set in the period immediately following WWI. I needed detailed descriptions of a soldier on the front in France for two of the characters. Although I read extensively and had visited some WWI battlefields during our World War II tour of Europe (see also the categories list at the left for additional WWI stories), I must single out one book, Hell’s Observers, as especially helpful. The well reproduced journal, which I found at an antique show, of William J. Graham of the American Expeditionary Force provided not only the information I needed, but the extensive WWI photograph collection of one of the authors, Bruce A. Jarvis, greatly enhances the story’s locations and characters.
Now I’m reflecting on my father’s WWII letters to my mother, his then-fiancé. It’s so emotional to read ancestors’ words when they were young and had their lives before them. We know how things turned out, but back then the letters were about mundane daily happenings at camp or what was happening back home in Marion, Ohio. I often wonder if that’s on purpose, to take their minds off of the terrible possibilities facing them.
A typical letter from my father provides an example. He is a clerk and driver of materials to Post Exchanges (referred to as a PX) down South at the time. The men in mom and dad’s families were all employed by the railroad, and mom loved writing letters and collecting pens, so he engages her in a discussion of both in this letter from January 1944.
“…In the Jan 15 post magazine there is an article on an army railroad. You should read it. This railroad runs from Camp Polk to Camp Claiborne, La. I go to both camps often and see the railroad. It tells pretty well what these swamps are like. Wild hogs come around the mess kitchens. I’ve seen twenty at a time at ours. They always dig pits for garbage and about every day someone has to help a hog out of the pit they go in for a meal and can’t climb out…
…Yesterday I got an Eversharp pen…Has the solid gold head on it, you’ve seen them. …losing a pen every time I turn around but going to keep track of this one. Maybe. The one of yours has paid for itself a thousand times any way if it does stop now. This pen isn’t as good as the Parker I had. Maybe all right after I use it a while. This pen sells for 10.00 cost 5.50 in the PX. Everything is cheaper. That identification of yours is from the PX even, six dollars but I think it is good silver…”
Later in the war, the topics changed to concerns about how many “points” were needed to get into the queue to go home.
Some veterans published their stories. Poignant examples are memoirs With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge and Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie. Both contributed to the miniseries The Pacific, which has given me insights to the dynamics of the American and Japanese conflict in which my dad participated.
Other children and grandchildren of WWII veterans are following the same journey as me, and some are publishing their letters and journals. If you’d like to see two recent examples, Michele Makros and Kara Martinelli have written books based on their father’s and grandfather’s service, respectively. I met Kara several years ago at an author talk and signing for her book, My Very Dearest Anna: My Grandparents’ Letters From WWII. She encouraged me to do something with my dad’s letters even though most, especially early in the war, are so highly censored that they provide little information other than where he was stationed.
Michele’s recent book, Love Letters from the Marine Wolf, is visually beautiful and includes details of her family’s war time home life in addition to her father’s service as a member of the Army Transportation Corps in WWII. She also met with many of his surviving shipmates and includes their stories as well. Michele introduced me to the Center of American War Letters, where one can download letters and photos that families have submitted.
Did anyone in your family leave a journal or letters that give you insight to their life that you might not have otherwise had? If so, I and other readers would love to hear about them. You can respond on this web page or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle. Her academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry and her current projects, which include a novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and a compilation of her father’s World War 2 letters. She blogs about history and writing and can be reached through the website, https://www.ann-otto.com/ , or at Facebook@Annottoauthor and www.Goodreads.com
I originally wrote academic and professional articles—obviously nonfiction, but had to study the craft of writing fiction for my debut novel, Yours in a Hurry. I’m returning to nonfiction, but with a different purpose: informational biography based on my father’s World War 2 (WW2) letters to his then fiance, later my mother. I want to tell his story in the context of the history and culture of the time including the many locations he visited from the deep American south to the jungles of Burma and the cities and Himalayan region of India.
How does a writer go about planning a project like this?
First find a resource to guide you. I found that Elizabeth Lyon’s well organized A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction covers every topic necessary. I’m planning the following steps, possibly not in this order, and sometimes backtracking along the way.
Doing the Work
Wiktionary now defines the ‘yellow brick road’ of Wizard of Oz fame as a proverbial path to a Promised Land of one's hopes and dreams. The prospect of starting on a ‘yellow brick road’ toward this finished product is both exhilarating and overwhelming. I’m not a full-time writer. But the love of history and sharing these stories to introduce readers to a less familiar era is worth the effort.
Ann Otto writes fiction based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kindle. Her academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry and her current projects, which include a novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and a compilation of her father’s World War 2 letters. She blogs about history and writing and can be reached through the website, https://www.ann-otto.com/ , or at Facebook@Annottoauthor and www.Goodreads.com.
Have you ever been reading, writing, or had an experience and then soon after see or read something that exactly relates to that experience? That’s the case when I read Matthew Ferrence’s new book Appalachia North (West Virginia University Press, 2019).
Recent posts on this website described my interest at finding the cultural differences between northern and southern Appalachia and the importance of descriptions of location or place to a novel. Ferrence discusses both topics in his memoir based in part on previously published essays about his leaving and later returning to his Pennsylvania Appalachian roots.
He writes about the culture of northern Appalachia, the Appalachian Regional Commission zone located above the Mason-Dixon line, a region he describes as a space not totally Appalachian, but not quite “regular” American either.
It’s About the Geology
Ferrence also reflects on another topic that repeats in Appalachian studies. The sense of the region’s past and future are always connected to water—rivers, streams, creeks. The dominant landscape relies on the acts of erosion from water carving out plateaus to look mountainous. The geology of northern Appalachia is that of forces that lead streams into creeks, small rivers, and the Ohio River. The Little Cities of Black Diamonds (LCBD) is often described as in the Hocking River Valley, reflecting the importance of that river in the ecosystem. The region of narrow valleys and high hills with creeks and runs rushing from steep watersheds was originally covered by continental glaciers.
Traveling the backroads of the Little Cities, looking at a detailed map, or studying the history, it’s clear that many of the locations picked for coal mining and clay production were selected because the valley was created by that manner of water erosion.
The LCBD lie to the north and east of the Hocking River, centered on the valleys of Sunday Creek to the west and Monday Creek to the west. It’s said they are named for the days on which early settlers discovered them. These creeks and their tributaries drain watershed laying between six hundred and fifty and one thousand feet high, creating narrow valleys unsuitable for agriculture.
Directions are often given based on locations of tributaries. One states, “The depot is left of the turn in the road at the creek crossing.” An early photo of this spot shows a small wooden one-lane bridge over a small creek for local traffic. Another is the direction to a mine, on Little Bailey Run, a run being a small, but quickly flowing stream.
Sometimes the creeks and rivers aren’t friendly. Because of the topography, floods can be brutal in southeast Ohio. Collecting old photos and postcards of badly damaged buildings and rails after a flood’s rampage was a hobby during the Little Cities’ boom period.
Bridge to Memories
Perhaps my fondest memory of a creek in the region was one that my father pointed out on his last trip. He couldn’t believe that the little rickety wooden swing bridge—a little over a foot wide and about two yards long over the creek—was still there sixty-five years later. I pointed out to him that it probably wasn’t the same rickety bridge, but I was also in awe of the fact that he found it along this isolated dirt road so many years later, and that evidently youngsters were still using it to visit their friends across the creek as he did after school many days.
This proves to me that the past is not only connected to the future, as Ferrence notes, but also to the present in unique and memorable ways.
Information for this article was also obtained from Little Cities of Black Diamonds by Jeffrey T. Darbee and Nancy A. Recchie (Images of America, Arcadia Publishing, 2009).
Next time: The Color Line in Little Cities of Black Diamonds
Ann Otto writes based on factual as well as oral history. Her debut novel, Yours in a Hurry, about Ohioans relocating to California in the 1910’s, is available on-line at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle, and at locations listed on her website at www.ann-otto.com. Ann’s academic background is in history, English, and behavioral science, and she has published in academic and professional journals. She enjoys speaking with groups about all things history, writing, and the events, locations, and characters from Yours in a Hurry. She is currently working on her next novel about Ohio’s Appalachia in the 1920’s and prepared for future works by blogging about a recent World War 2 European tour. She can be reached through the website, or on Facebook @Annottoauthor or www.Goodreads.com.