My Project

Three or four weeks ago, once I was satisfied that I’d completed enough of my long overdue “winter projects” around the farm, I finally got serious about working on a new writing project.

My idea was to write a history of this community in 1918, with the hope of publishing it in 2018.

Our memories of the past dim quickly, and that is only natural I suppose. Current events demand our attention and their importance is magnified by their immediacy. The past is, after all, past.

My hope was to draw some attention to life one hundred years ago, if for no better reason, to shine some light on the path we walked to get where we now stand.

I spent a few days in the library, reading the local newspaper from 1918.

There were some fascinating things occurring in 1918. The U.S. was preparing to enter the deadliest war in human history and, as if that wasn’t enough, the world was on the eve of the deadliest pandemic in human history. Here in the U.S. the states were in the process of ratifying constitutional amendments granting women the right to vote, and prohibiting the use of alcohol. As a result of the coldest winter in recorded history, and the demands of war, there was a severe coal shortage, leading the federal government to order all American businesses to close for five consecutive days in January. There were food shortages too. In January the President called on Americans to have two “meatless” days per week and at least one meatless meal per day. Meanwhile, the Great Migration of southern black folks was underway as they moved north for high-paying factory jobs. Virginia was debating whether to require compulsory education of children, with our local paper complaining that to do so would be “a hardship on the people” and a denial of the right of self government. Evangelist Billy Sunday was drawing huge enthusiastic crowds around the country. And so on. These were just some of the headlines in the first month of the year.

I never got around to reading the rest of the news from 1918. This story from January 4 stopped me in my tracks.

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For a while I plodded on, but the story kept coming back to haunt me. I started dreaming about it at night.

I wondered if that story should be my writing project. Who were these people? What happened to them? Maybe that’s what I should research. Maybe that’s the story I should be telling.

I ran down a few fruitless rabbit holes searching for them, then something unexpected happened.

The story started coming to me. And then it came pouring out. I started dictating voice memos as the details emerged, sometimes in the middle of the night, and now I have hundreds of them. I’ve been typing it out a little each day, but my fingers can’t keep up. Still, they’re trying. I have about 25,000 words now and I reckon the story is about 1/3 told.

It’s not the “real” story, of course. I don’t know what happened to the actual Mrs. Scruggs or her children. But there is a story, a family and a set of lives that I am trying to capture, and in a bizarre way they seem real to me.

It’s strange. I don’t feel like I’m inventing the story. I genuinely feel like it was already there and I’m just writing it down. Those of you who write fiction are probably thinking, “Well of course. How did you think it happened?” But this is new to me. And exciting.

I don’t know if this story will ever be published or not. But it has become my writing project.

 

 

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49 comments on “My Project

  1. Excellent. Sometimes, a story takes hold of one’s mind and won’t let go. Keep writing.

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  2. Ed says:

    I’ve got two notebooks full of research about some old newspaper articles I ran across while looking for something else. I figured there was a book worthy of each one but just haven’t ever been able to write it. I hope someday my plug gets uncorked and the words will come flooding out. It’s funny how life works that way sometimes.

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    • Bill says:

      Ah yes, el Diablo Blanco. I spent a lot of time with him this year and was close to just ditching the idea of trying to write anything. When I was thinking about whether and what to write, one of the things I thought about was a novel. But I quickly rejected that option, because I had no story in mind. Funny how that changed. I hope you’ll get inspired to take on those notebooks soon.

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  3. valbjerke says:

    Your post brought to mind the story of the ‘British Home Children’ – a rather ‘swept under the rug’ part of Canadian history that many people don’t know about. Between 1860 through to about 1948, approx 100,000 children were sent to Canada (and other countries) to be indentured as farm labor until they were 18. These children were in theory orphans, but most were not – they were simply unable to be cared for and victims of hard times. It was a miserable existence for these children, some survived, many did not – it is estimated that as many as ten percent of our population are descendent of these children.
    Amazing – how the governments of the day thought this a solution to a problem.

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    • Bill says:

      Here in the States we had the “orphan trains.” Basically they’d gather up the homeless children on the streets of places like NYC, then drive them out into the heartland, giving them away to families.

      The English did that in the 18th century, but they’d ship the street children off to the colonies as “indentured servants” (thus the origin of the word “kidnapping”). Ah, the good ole days.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Farmgirl says:

    Bill, that is so exciting! I have long waited for the universal circuit board to tell me a story that I can record. I cannot wait to read yours!

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  5. Laurie Graves says:

    Wow! What a story! And,oh,the good old days before social services,which some people like to revile. My own grandmother, who became a single mother when my mother was eight, suffered because of the lack of social services in Maine. Fortunately, my grandmother was able to scrape by, and my mother was never put up for adoption.This story touches my heart.

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  6. So exciting when that happens! What a great story. My grandmothers half sister was “leant out” to a richer family who could afford her. But she still maintained ties to her real family and came home on occasion. Guess it was a good way to make sure she was ok.
    Winter is a good time to write

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    • Bill says:

      My great-grandmother was given to a more affluent (childless) family to raise. She called them Ma and Pa, but kept her birth surname and stayed close to her biological family. In our family she is described as “adopted” but there was never any formal adoption. When her foster/adoptive parents died, they left their estate to her, including the farm I’m living on today.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. avwalters says:

    Yes, this is how it happens. First a wisp of a thought, then and inkling. If you let it take root, the characters become people (then friends or family) and you are compelled to continue. If not you, then who? Any failure to complete the project would leave these characters without resolution and in obscurity. So, of course, you must keep writing. All that stuff that comes before, the research and newspaper clips, it becomes your backdrop. It’s the stuff that draws you, the writer, into a different place and time. Fiction is compelling, in part, because it’s the only vehicle to really tell the truth.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Thanks for this great comment. I’m really glad you weighed in. I tossed out and re-wrote a scene a few days ago, not because it was badly written (though it was) but because it didn’t do justice to the characters. I felt that I owed them something better than that.

      I love your comment that fiction is “the only vehicle to really tell the truth.” That has seemed very true to me, for reasons and in ways I will wait to say more about when I’m done.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        As an American kid, growing up in Canada (in the late sixties AND just across the river from Detroit), I took some heat from my school mates. Americans, they’d announce, are racists. Not like Canadians.

        But I witnessed the “good Canadians” treating their French counterparts very badly and Indigenous Canadians–even worse. It filled the head of this little kid–and it burbled up forty years later when the Oka Crisis in Quebec hit the news. Out of that came The Gift of Guylaine Claire.

        Who knows where these things come from–a newspaper clipping, a few lyrics from a song that won’t go away, old family stories–but they contains their own truths, distilled through time and experience.

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      • sdorman says:

        looking forward to hearing those ways and reasons, Bill.

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  8. When inspiration arrives, let it in!

    I’m glad the characters brought to life by Rose Scruggs are being written. Separating, even “giving away” kids wasn’t all that uncommon in our not-so-long-ago history. In fact, I know two less drastic but still startling examples in my own family.

    My husband’s grandmother died when her daughters were little girls. It doesn’t appear their father considered raising them by himself. He sent them off with two different relatives right after their mother’s funeral. They don’t remember seeing each other for several years. They didn’t return home until he’d remarried.

    My grandfather died when his three children were all under the age of eight. He had life insurance, but this was at the height of the Depression and access to the payout was lost (or more likely, stalled) when their rural Ohio bank failed. My father was five years old at the time. He remembers his mother standing on the bank steps with the three of them, pounding on the locked door, wailing that her babies would starve. His mother had a teaching degree but her health was very poor and she told them, one day not long after they lost their father, that she might not be able to keep them. She and the children had to go live on their paternal grandfather’s farm where they were treated harshly, little more than unpaid laborers. He and his older sister remember consciously making as little noise as possible and never eating much so that they wouldn’t be considered trouble, terrified their mother might die from the next coughing fit or that she’d decide she couldn’t afford to feed them one more day.

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    • Bill says:

      On my great-great grandfather’s marriage certificate, he identified his parents as “unknown.” My great-grandmother’s family gave her to a more affluent childless couple to raise, and that is how this farm came into our family. I can think of two other elderly people in our small community who were taken in and raised by families other than the one they were born into (and treated the same as the other children). I have letters my grandmother (a proud woman) wrote during the Depression, pleading for more time to pay farm debts because literally none of their crops had sold that year–there were no buyers.

      We do ourselves an injustice if we forget stories like those and like yours.

      Liked by 1 person

      • avwalters says:

        For those who bother to know the family stories, these things are not uncommon. During the depression, my grandmother was sent away to live with her aunt–all the way to Seattle. There was no food to feed her. I wondered how that played out in her life–she was the only one sent away–the boys stayed home. Perhaps the fact that her aunt could find her work in a restaurant was the deciding factor, and she could send money home–just a nickel or dime, now and then, but it could make a difference for the family. But just how does a thirteen year old adjust to such an exile?

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  9. Dearest Bill,
    Oh, that newspaper clipping is very emotional and it does stir ones emotions and curiosity at a very high level I would say.
    Guess you have written a very good story so far!
    Hugs,
    Mariette

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    • Bill says:

      Thanks Mariette. It’s a good story, but whether it’s well-written is another matter. 🙂

      There are some clues embedded in the newspaper story that gave me a pretty good idea of what was happening. And once I realized where the woman lived, the story just took off from there. It’s been an interesting ride so far!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hey Bill, Thanks for undertaking this project. Too soon many of us, buried below in the sludge of the current religious and political debacles and tragedies, forget our historical memory, even retired literature/history teachers such as myself.

    The era 1917-1919 was one of the worst of times. I don’t think there was any best of times then.

    Please, hurry and finish your intriguing story! Seriously, I would like to read it.
    (I’m a fiction writer, too, of novels and short stories.)

    Have you seen Chuck Fager’s short story posted today? Another deeply moving short story back in the past, “Esther & the Heathens: A Quaker Valentine Romance.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Thanks for the encouragement and thanks for directing me to the story. I enjoyed how he incorporated the Quaker history and customs into the story. I’m trying to do that in mine too, albeit without Quakers.

      History is my first love. This is turning out to be a good way to write about local history, in the context of some actual (even if fictional) lives. I’m tempted to say more about my story (knowing that some of the elements would interest you) but I’m going to resist. I don’t intend to say anything further about it until it’s done. We’ll see if I can manage that. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. This is very interesting Bill and I think you were meant to write this story. I think someday you will find out what happened in this family. Please keep us up to date when you do.

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  12. How interesting. Hope you get their story written to share.

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  13. NebraskaDave says:

    Bill, I can tell that you are excited about the writing project. I’ve never tackled writing a book but when the inspiration comes over me, I just have to write it out. Once it’s out the over whelming desire to write about it is gone. Perhaps my writing abilities are just in the infancy. It does sound like an interesting story. Good luck with finishing up the book.

    I started reading “Pillars of the Earth” that you recommended. Wow, that’s a really thick book with small print. I suspect it will me a couple months to get through that story. I’ve always been fascinated with Monks and the life they lived. So far the story line has been able to hold my interest longer than most books. I’ve been reading about 8 or 10 pages every night. Nebraska has a monastery not too far from my home. I was part of a church retreat there a few years back. I suspect it’s been there quite awhile because on a morning walk, I stumbled across the Monastery grave yard with graves dating back into the 1800s. I didn’t actually see the Monastery where the Monks lived. My church group staid at a very modern retreat center managed by the Monks. No media access, no TV available, and no city traffic noise.. Very basic rooms were available for our use. It was a different and interesting experience.

    Have a great book writing day.

    Nebraska Dave
    Urban Farmer
    dbentz24@gmail.com

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    • Bill says:

      I think you’ll enjoy Pillars of the Earth. I hope so. I should have warned you that it’s thick. Books like that one really help bring history alive, I think

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  14. thesnowwoman says:

    I hope those poor little children found a home where they were well cared for. I cannot imagine how desperate that mother was to give away her children like that and how horrible and scary for the children. I hope someday you can find out the whole story. Good luck with the book, it sounds like you are really on a roll.

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    • Bill says:

      It’s heartbreaking to think about. Maybe I will search further for them once I’m done. I have a pretty strong feeling that I know what happened to them, and the story I’m telling isn’t that one.

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  15. 4 years old in 1918. 18 years old in 1932. 28 years old in 1942. 38 years old in 1952. That is a lot of history for an adopted boy from rural VA. Did he get the GI bill after the war? Did he farm tobacco? Wow. I am loving this story.

    Farmer John

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bill says:

      Your dates are off by 3 years. The boy was 7 in 1918. Of course that still puts him right in the heart of the history you mention. I’m really tempted to answer your questions, but I’m not going to say anything else about his story yet.

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  16. shoreacres says:

    Everywhere around me, there are people writing and publishing, and it seems so easy. I’ve about decided I’m not a writer at all, and the best thing I can do is — well, something else. Maybe a year of clearing brush would help to clear my mind, too.

    But I’m happy for you, and I was intrigued to see that you started with 1918. That was the year my mother was born, and so many of the things you mentioned shaped her young life. How i wish I’d asked more questions. Even more, how I wish she’d been more willing to talk about the difficulties her family faced. But they were desperately poor, and she wanted to put that behind her once life became easier. I can’t say that I blame her.

    Carry on! You’ve got a fascinating premise, and I know you’ll do well with it.

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    • Bill says:

      I’ve been reading your posts a long time Linda. As I told you years ago, your writing is of such high quality that I feel guilty reading it without having to pay for the privilege. I would guess that if you haven’t written a book, it’s because you don’t want to. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • shoreacres says:

        Not exactly. 🙂

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      • shoreacres says:

        It’s not the writing, it’s figuring out how to turn the words into the object called “book.” It feels insurmountable — which it clearly isn’t. But until I can get my mind around learning even something as basic as Word, and carve out the time to deal with the practicallities, nothing will happen. If I could stop working, or if I closed my blog, there would be time for a book. But i can’t stop working and don’t want to close the blog. So I sit and stew. 🙂

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      • Bill says:

        I had the benefit of a copy editor and a secretary when I wrote my book. I won’t have either now. But I learned a lot so though it will take longer, I know I can do it. My understanding is that self-publishing tools like Amazon’s CreateSpace are very user friendly (they’re also totally free).

        A thought–what if you took one of your blog ideas and imagined it as a series of posts? Every time you do a post, write another one in the “series” but hold onto it. Eventually those unpublished posts would be enough to publish as a book. So you’d still be blogging and still cranking out post-sized bits of writing, while creating the book. In a year or two you’d be done. I know, I know. Easier said than done. 🙂

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  17. Michelle says:

    Fascinating – both your post and many of the comments!

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  18. Ann says:

    Bill…you do stir my writing itch! “They” say everyone has a book in them; I’m not sure I believe that.
    I want to tell my father’s story as fiction so I don’t have to invest a great deal in research due to my eyesight. He was born in 1899 or 1900…a sad time where he lived. His story brought me to tears for years as I pondered what it must be like to be sold at 5 years of age. At 11 years of age six foot tall the men around him supported his effort to reconnect with family but he was rejected again or ran from the circumstances he found. Soon he was hired to look to the skies as blimps were a concern….
    I would love to retire at 72 and write. Oh, yes, I think I would! Or I may very well be day dreaming…but I hope I get to read your story…hooked already!

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    • Bill says:

      I hope you do get the tell that story Ann. It’s a story that ought to be told, I think. Maybe, while you’re waiting for the right time to start writing, you should record it. Good to hear from you. 🙂

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  19. Good for you, Bill, and good luck. Sounds like the story is writing itself. –Curt

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