Monday, July 09, 2012

Vintage Valentines and the Way I Work

By in large, a part of who I am is in what I chose to write about. I’m the kid you knew who loved the library. I’m fascinated by the past, especially what may at first seem like the intangible past. When I stumble across a detail or fact that I feel is essential in one of my historical fiction works, I want to possess it and I want to understand it thoroughly, as if I am the character, without question or doubt.

Take vintage Valentines for example.

My current work in progress pivots around Valentine’s Day in the 1920-1930s.  Most of the knowledge I get when I interview for a historical piece is second-hand accounts or, often-times, hearsay. I value every interpretation of history that I can get, but to get into my characters’ heads, I have to really understand—more!

So what’s a writer to do?

First, I research online. I remember scrolling through reels of micro-finch during my undergrad, but lucky, many pieces of history can now be found online. (Local colleges and universities still hold the “key” when it comes to their archives! Recordings done via the WPA or other grant-funded opportunities are incredible treasures!)

Another online resource I use is ebay. I don’t limit myself to the US either. Adding a “” after “ebay” of the web address often opens up the search in amazing ways.

I’ve also used the National Archives time and again. They have photographs and sound recordings as well as documents that help to set the scene or tone of your story.

Research in general isn’t a new concept. Most writers I know are avid fact-finders.

But when my research leaves me with bigger questions and that unsatisfied feeling, I take to the streets. I go on what Julia Cameron, writer of The Artists’ Way, would call an Artist’s Date.  I don’t set my sights high and narrow my vision. I go out, hoping that what I need at the moment to get me through a stumbling block in my writing or to help a character “play” in their environment, finds its way to me.

It may be to a park, a museum, a walk through the woods, or even shopping. Getting out, away from the “search” has proved to be my way through when I’ve become neurotic over the little things.

That’s what happened with the Valentines. I wasn’t really looking for them, but they found me.

Vintage valentines are all over the internet. (I have many of them “pinned” on a board on my Pinterest page.) Some of the Victorian era cards pop open. My mother has many of these matted and displayed in her house. But I needed something else.

About a month ago, when I was on one of my “writer’s retreats”, I decided to wander through a local antique store that I had always brushed aside. In the past, I had found this particular store had too much ‘70s and not enough of what I really considered “antique”.

But the cards found me.

The curator of this particular booth had bundled Zip-lock baggies of cards, prints, postcards and coloring books together in a random collection and stuck them all in a wicker basket under a bench on the floor. Thank goodness I have a habit of looking on the ground for pennies! The first bag I grabbed held the gold mine I needed.

What is it about these cards that make them different than the ones I found online? I’m not completely sure, but I’d bet it has a lot to do with the physical connection. They smell, they have a texture, there is a fading message and signature that almost has a life of its own.

They aren’t exactly the cards I pictured when I wrote the Valentine’s Day scene, but they are the cards that took me there to write it.