The art of letter writing is becoming a talent of the past. Correspondences between family and friends is now replaced by emails and Skype and instant messaging. How will this impact future generations when they want to understand the world we live in today? Our world no longer values cursive writing or a man’s signature marking his word or contract. Our younger generations do not know how to properly sign their names because they are not being taught cursive writing in school. All of these skills are lost to the computer age.
Letters and diaries give researchers a first hand account about lives past. Personal ideas and reflections of life as one experiences it. Thoughts and feelings scribbled onto now aged yellowed fragile paper. As technology propels us forward, paper gives way to intangible clouds. Are we losing a valuable link to answer questions future generation will ask about us?
Letter writing and diary keeping is an art. It is a space where someone can record their thoughts and feelings about their lives, hopes and worries. Ideas written in personalized handwriting, printed or cursive. The creative squiggles of cursive writing decorates the page with personality and wit. These personal accounts allow the reader to understand “life as usual” and intimate details about love and devotion. It is all about life as someone experiences it.
The diaries of Tillie Pierce Alleman and Salome Meyers Stewart discuss life before during and after the Civil war at Gettysburg. Learning intimate details about these women’s lives brought Gettysburg and its people to life. These accounts helped me create characters who would have seamlessly fit into Gettysburg during that time. Letters from the southern point of view, from Richard Henry Watkins to his wife Mary revealed his devotion to his family and home. Richard wrote about the farm and business dealings before talking about personal issues to Mary. Through these first hand accounts, I understood how they saw the war. Richard treated the war as an inconvenience, while Tillie and Salome expressed fear and worry about how their lives may change. Reading their words helped me understand the events through their eyes.
Hand written letters are becoming a lost art. How will future researchers understand history through our eyes? Will these records exist for future researchers to understand our lives as we see it or will it be gone forever?
The Ties of the Past: The Gettysburg Diaries of Salome Meyer Stewart, 1854-1922
At Gettysburg or What a Girl Saw and Heard of the Battle: A True Narrative by Tillie Pierce Alleman
Send Me an Old Pair of Boots & Kiss my Little Girls – The Civil War Letters of Richard and Mary Watkins 1861-1865 Jeff Toalson, editor
Richard and Mary Watkins 1890
While researching the historical background for The Cause: Love & War, my goal was to move away from the history books and uncover true tales of the time period as told by the ones who lived it. I found a wealth of information in diaries, letters and oral histories. These histories allowed me to see “life as usual” for a common person as pivotal historical events unfolded.
I use these histories to understand people’s personalities through their thoughts and written words. Reading these words set my creative mind to work. Using these stories as a springboard for character development and story line I began to weave my own tale. Their words taught me dialects, phrasing and vocabulary. Mimicking these historical elements created a believable storyline.
While writing this historic specific story, I found it difficult to “stay in the period” while present day flowed around me. Historical novelists must keep vigilant watch to prevent modern phrases slipping into the storyline. It takes mindset and concentration.
Diaries and journals add realism to the storyline. My goal is to create a reality within the pages. I want the reader to think they live within the pages alongside my characters. I believe this transformation only happens by listening to the past. I dug deeper to uncovering a set of oral histories about slavery in the South. I excitedly found documentation about slave life different from the horrors we read about in textbooks. Slave owners who treated their slaves as people. Another oral history talked about a slave owner hosting a marriage of a black couple at their home. The afternoon said to be a joyous occasion. Not all white slave owners mistreated their slaves. This point often overshadowed by the blatant atrocities seen in movies and book.
The ladies of Gettysburg had an incredible talent for writing everything down. Sallie Meyers, Sarah Broadhead and Tillie Pierce bring the war to our doorstep as it arrived at theirs. I am sure some of these women never intended their words to be published. Their views about their lives help us to understand their experiences in a time we can only read about today.
Each aspect of The Cause: Love & War was touched by some letter diary or oral report, I read. Using various elements of these letters personalized the book and made it unique. The Prescott family’s views toward slavery came directly from the oral histories I read. The letters between Emilie and Thaddeus were written in the same spirit as many lovers, husband and wives. Emilie’s journal entries, helped her express herself, in a voice she was not allowed in Victorian times as many journals written by young women allowed them to express emotions they weren’t allowed to show to anyone else. These therapeutic memoirs open a new world of history for us today.
If the history bug bites, you may want to consider delving into books about collections of letters and diaries about people like you and me.