Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
It’s been a month since I posted anything because I’ve been working on my novel. I finished another five chapters: 42 pages, 12,735 words. I’ve now completed drafts of two of my three narrative threads: Adèle and Jeannette. And I also have drafts of five of probably fifteen chapters of the third thread: Emma–she’s the one in the amazing hat.
This is another shift in the source of my research material. Discovering Adèle began with the painting. Through what I like to call Facebook for Dead People (aka Ancestry.com) I met distant relatives who’ve provided incredible troves of inspirational information. Supplemented with hours of diligent internet trolling, this has yielded fascinating stories. And stories tend to get my imagination going.
Shifting from Adèle to Jeannette, the archives of the NY Times and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle opened up a whole new world: Brooklyn politics from 1905-1935. Adèle’s oldest son, Charles was an important Republican in Brooklyn. His wife Jeannette was active in the fight for women’s suffrage, a diligent supporter of the Brooklyn Industrial School for the Blind and, during the Depression, the Salvation Army. In 1934, she was appointed Brooklyn Borough Secretary in the first Borough Council Fusion Administration–when the Democrats finally broke with Tammany Hall. Even more notable: she was the first woman ever to represent a Brooklyn Borough President at the Five-Borough Aldermanic Meetings in Manhattan.
Census reports and passenger ship lists gave many other clues about what my characters were doing so long ago.
Now I’ve returned to original source material for this final phase, which includes most of the five chapters I just wrote about Jeannette, plus additional ones–yet to come–about Emma–which will bring me to Christmas, 1945.
Yes, I hope to find an agent and have this book published. Whether that happens or not, I’ve had a wonderful journey through history.
I found Norwood newspaper archives, which helped me elaborate the court transcripts that my new-found cousin provided. I appreciate the approach to mental health espoused by St. Lawrence County, NY and the State Hospital–where Adèle spent her final years– on the banks of the St. Lawrence River.
I’ve learned more about artists Joseph Seymour Guy (who painted Adèle’s portrait) and Celia Beaux and the development of genre painting in late 19th-early 20th cen. American art.
I’d read of Tammany Hall; so it was fun to discover that political infighting in King’s County, NY in the early 20th cen. involved Adèle’s son, Charles F[rederick] Murphy, a Republican, who had almost the same name as the powerful Tammany Hall boss, Charles F[rancis] Murphy. This confused many people, leading to frequent comments in the newspapers.
I learned that the first US military fortifications established in a foreign country (remember the Monroe Doctrine?) were Coast Artillery Anti-Aircraft Batteries built in Panama right after WWI to protect the strategically vital Panama Canal–my grandfather was involved.
I urge anyone who reads this to dig into that stash of old letters and papers that your mother or father or grandmother, grandfather… gave you. Read the documents and then start googling: people’s names, events, places and dates, organizations. Even if you don’t decide to write a novel, you’ll gain a more intimate knowledge of history and your family’s place in it.