If you write any sort of historical fiction, delving into journals of the time period is essential.
I love reading diaries. Not the ‘I have a secret crush’ teen diary but historical ones. As a writer, the insights I gain while reading personal diaries is a gold mine. These people didn’t write the diaries with a goal toward publication. Some dealt with a situation through journaling. Anne Frank; The Diary of a Young Girl is an example of that. Others wrote them for their children and grandchildren. The entries were spontaneous, full of emotions and commentaries of their day to day lives.
My husband’s great aunt wrote a diary from 1940-42. She and her sister kept house for their bachelor brother who was working in the oil fields of Southern Illinois. They lived in a huge tent with a wooden floor. Ruth journaled about what they fix for dinner, sewing projects and my husband’s parents who lived in a neighboring tent. They’d get a ride into town once a week to do their “trading.” She wrote that she paid a few cents more for a quart of milk. “It was worth it. Jersey cows give more cream.” Then on D-Day, when Pearl Harbor was bombed she made no reference. Instead, she continued to speak about those things near and dear. Her journal gave me a glimpse into life in Southern Illinois in a time before I was born. And a deeper understanding of my mother-in-law who also talked about doing her “trading in town”. Such a fun journal to read.
I am presently reading some diaries written by William Huff. He may be related to my husband, Charley, through the Huff branch that moved to Texas. He printed the diaries from the internet back in the 90s when the web was young. The diaries were found among his descendant’s thing. The yellowed pages passed from generation to generation. William Huff traveled from Texas to California in 1949. The details of the geology of the area and his observations of his fellow-travelers are fascinating. He was a journalist who’d been outfitted by a businessman who wanted to know if a gold rush venture would be of value. Unlike others who struck out on this journey, his family was well-cared for while he was gone. There was only one woman among the travelers on his wagon train, Mrs. Dixon. William spent several paragraphs praising women for their ability to keep men civilized. He also talked about European immigrants in his group. I was surprised to hear a Prussian immigrant carried only a sword for protection.
The idea of a story set on a wagon train is why I’m reading this. I am noodling with this setting for a future novel.
How diaries influenced my debut novel
When I was writing Secret & Charades I read journals and diaries of women in the West. They talked about the food they prepared and the chores they did. Some spoke about more private things. Some had traveled west; others had pursued a new path such as being a doctor. The things they shared helped me add realism to my stories.
I cried when I read the account of a woman who opened her door one morning to find her dead brother on the porch. She spoke of her numbness and pain.
I’d read historical diaries even if I never used the content in a book. They remind me of all the sacrifices of those who shaped our country.
Do you use personal accounts in your research, or have you read an ancestor’s diary? I’ve maintained journals in years past, how about you?