Monday, August 19, 2019

Marian Beaman on Memoir and Writing About Family

In March, 2016, I had the pleasure of meeting Marian Beaman on a writing retreat in Chincoteague, Virginia. We immediately hit it off, so I was thrilled when some time later Marian contacted me and asked if I would provide a developmental edit for her memoir, a coming of age story of growing up Mennonite. As I began reading, I felt transported by her beautiful, lyrical descriptions of a bygone time and place. Pennsylvania Mennonite country is not far from where I grew up and my grandparents, largely of German descent, appreciated country life, cold cuts for Sunday supper, the value of attending church. Even now, when I drive through Lancaster County, where Marian's story is set, I feel a certain kinship with the landscape and its way of life. Marian wrote of her family with respect and humor, but also with an eye toward how they had molded her character and forged her determination to become her own woman. Out of this came Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl, available to the reading public on Sept. 14.

Marian will be guest author on Sept. 21 at our Women's Writing Circle where she will join us in read around, and give a presentation on her new book and her journey as a writer. A book signing follows. Please welcome Marian to the Circle.

Picture a Scene

I grew up Mennonite in the 1950s in a rural area near Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania, halfway between Lancaster and Harrisburg, the capital. My parents, sisters, brother, and I lived in a white, green-shuttered house along the street at the top of a hill; my Grandma Longenecker and Aunt Ruthie lived a half mile away at the bottom of the hill in a Victorian house surrounded by an acre of woods. I volleyed between two houses, one close to the village of Rheems, where I went to school. Each of my family homes provided me with two ways of living to choose from.Bossler Mennonite Church was at the center of our social life as this collage of my family reveals.

My Cast of Characters

Mother Ruth was a traditional Mennonite homemaker. My grandmother Fannie, a fancy woman, became plain after she married my grandfather Henry. They were round in some ways, including the girth that amply filled their aprons. They both taught me the home arts, my mother showing me how to make a caped dress and skirts for school; my grandmother, how to make potpie, sauerkraut, and knot a comfort to warm the needy.

My Aunt Ruthie, who lived with my Grandma, could fit the title “feminist” because of her unconventional Mennonite life. I describe her in my memoir: “Aunt Ruthie had a heart-shaped hairline and hazel eyes. Two thin lines formed lips that did not suggest laxness. As sharp and as versatile as a Swiss army knife, she sported a watch with a crocodile-skin strap around her wrist.” She never married, and the few men she did date never came up to her standards. The only Longenecker woman with a drivers’ license, a master’s degree, and a movie camera, she had an impressive resumé: principal of Rheems Elementary School, tax collector for West Donegal Township, bookkeeper for the church and my dad’s business, and “mother” to many Vietnamese refugees in her own home.

Ruthie “the Cheater,” my teacher for the first four grades, tipped the scales in my favor on two occasions: She improved my artwork, so I’d win a prize at the Elizabethtown Art Show. Later, she gave me an edge during the weekly spelling bee, pointing to the word reconciliation (on the sly) in the dictionary. I was her favorite niece.

Memoir: Not a Walk through a Mennonite Meadow

My father, my most complex character, required me to dig deep to examine motivations for his behavior and my reaction to his treatment. I had an adversarial relationship with my father. I was his foe. He beat me and locked me in the cellar as punishment for being mouthy. As memoirist, I knew I had to tell the truth for my story to be authentic. Nevertheless, I went through phases as I struggled to describe my relationship with my him: I moved from resisting the revelation of family secrets to full disclosure:

1. I’ll leave out the bad parts. Many readers like a “clean” read, no bad language, abuse, or torrid sex scenes.

2. “But your story won’t be authentic,” an inner voice chided.

3. I read other memoirs as I wrote my own; I noticed that other writers didn’t have to go on a rant to tell their stories, even the ugly parts.

4. As time progressed, I summoned the courage to reveal secrets. Fortunately, a fellow blogger and memoirist invited me to a retreat in her vacation home in Virginia. I wrote a draft of the most emotionally wrenching chapter in the presence of five other sympathetic writers who cheered me on.

5. Later, one editor observed, “Your dad wasn’t all bad. Show some happy times with him.” To balance the harsh tone, I inserted some pleasant memories.

6. Thus, my story now illustrates a dawning awareness: What could have been a terrible rant about being physically abused turned into an acceptance of the past and recognition of my father’s limitations. Then came forgiveness, and appreciation for his gifts to me: a curious mind, love for music, and interest in politics and family history.

Two chapters about the abuse appear in my book, “The Whipping,” and “Dungeon in Hell.” But then I added some detail to show my father as three-dimensional, a round character.

I ended the chapter entitled “The Whipping” with this:

“I would love to have memories of his holding me on his lap, wrapping his arms around me, and telling me he loved me, no matter what I had done. Flashes of pleasant times do remain, though. Daddy took walks on Sunday afternoon, often in the meadow along Foreman Road, close to our home. A few times, I went with him, pausing as he sprawled out on the glossy grass, staring at the sky, sometimes falling asleep. Then I observed tufts of wild red clover interspersed between the blades and a butterfly dipping down for nectar. Once he took me deep-sea fishing with men and women from the church. We had a huge haul of bass, and he brought home his share, scales shed and ready for the pan.”

Then I wrote this ending to the chapter entitled "Music Tames my Dad":

“My love of music, a gift from my father, certainly has not canceled out the lasting effects of his abuse or erased it from my memory. With the passage of time, I have moved from the disgust I felt as a girl eventually toward tolerance and now a measure of understanding of my father and his appreciation of music. Recalling my dad’s love for music taps on my heart and mind like a tuning fork. Thus, melodies in both major and minor keys have become a tool for expressing my own emotions — and a direct link to the softer side of my dad and to my heavenly Father.”

How do you show the lighter side of a dark character?


Marian Longenecker Beaman is a former professor at Florida State College in Jacksonville, Florida. Her memoir, Mennonite Daughter: The Story of a Plain Girl, records the charms and challenges of Mennonite girlhood in mid-twentieth century Pennsylvania. The writer’s formative years coincided with the decade before which the Lancaster Conference of the Mennonite Church experienced major change, especially regarding dress code for women.

Such is the backdrop for the story of one Mennonite girl who benefited from a sheltered life with boundaries, but who bucked church tradition along with coming to terms with an adversarial relationship with her father. She shares her story to preserve these memories, the bitter with the sweet, and to leave a legacy for future generations.

One of Marian’s stories, “Gutsy in Ukraine,” was published in My Gutsy Story Anthology by Sonia Marsh, September 2014. Another story, "Making Love Edible", appeared in the Food and Faith issue of The Mennonite, September 2016. The Jacksonville Arts and Antiques magazine published a personal profile in the December 2018 issue. Her memoir will be featured in the National Association of Memoir Writers’ Virtual Book Club, 2020.

The author writes weekly on her Plain and Fancy blog: She lives with her artist husband, Cliff, in Jacksonville, Florida, where her children and grandchildren also reside.

Find Marian here:

Monday, August 12, 2019

Finding Community in Blogging

Whether blogging for fun or business, becoming an authority in your field, or educating others, one thing is clear...blogging is a way to find community.

Ever since I opened my Blogger account a decade ago to begin introducing the public to my memoir-in-progress, Again in a Heartbeat, I have loved blogging. A social medium, blogging has led to innumerable connections and meeting new people, some of whom are now friends and fellow authors I admire and whose blogs I look forward to reading.

Creating a popular blog was the subject of our August Women’s Writing Circle workshop
. The enthusiasm and interest in blogging―our conference room was packed―attests to a medium that allows the writer to reach an audience of her choosing, her own "container", so to speak, of creativity and purpose. This is publishing at its most enjoyable and attainable. You don’t have to be a polished writer, nor do you need to invest a lot of money, if your budget is tight. All that is required...a passion for your subject.

Once you start blogging, you draw others with like interests, passions and goals. The key is to create a compelling blog that your audience looks forward to reading.

Here’s what I’ve learned over the years.

Make sure that your blog’s title speaks to the audience you hope to reach. I chose Women’s Writing Circle with the subhead―a place to share our stories. This fit nicely into my memoir journey, but also my interest in creative writing and publishing and offering a group empowering woman to find voice through writing.

Learn how to write a compelling headline that is eye-catching and goes to the heart of the body of your blog post. For example: On Writing Book Discussion Questions , one of my most popular posts over the years, educates and informs on that topic.

After you’ve selected your headline, go right into the body of your post with a compelling first paragraph. The first paragraph draws the reader into the topic and makes them want to keep reading.

Other things I’ve learned:

  • Keep your audience in mind.
  • Incorporate relevant links into your post.
  • Add labels that enhance SEO or search engine optimization. For example, writing in community is a label I often use, as well as Women's Writing Circle. It has paid off. Anyone who types in women’s writing circle on Google will first be directed to my site. 
  • Use attractive photographs that enhance the subject of your blog post. 

At the workshop, we talked about Blogger vs. WordPress. Reams have been written on these two platforms, the pros and cons of each, but in a nutshell: Blogger is a cheap platform with an intuitive, user-friendly design and your content is owned by Google; WordPress is more expensive and as one writer said, a bit of a “time suck” and labor intensive, while offering numerous plugins and other bells and whistles and you own the content.

During our workshop, which included writing our own blogs, I was impressed with the various projects and ideas our writers brought to the morning session: blogs on practical advice; marketing artwork; exploring the journey of doing things alone...a blog that allows students to find their voice through writing.

Writing our own blog posts

Clare Novak explaining how WordPress works
For me, blogging has been a gift. I've met new people with like-minded interests. It offers me the platform and incentive to blog a book by memorializing blog posts―those memoir moments and life story vignettes and lessons about the craft of writing―I am incorporating into A Woman Alone: Lessons from the Writing Life.

Blogging has assisted me in the craft of writing by forcing a deadline every Monday morning, although sometimes I don’t make it. But that’s okay. Blogging should be fun and not a drag, while keeping in mind that it requires an investment in time. I love the medium and the reach it gives my work, the community surrounding it, the commenters who take the time to stop by and offer insights, whether here or on Facebook. The guest bloggers who share their books and their stories. As one woman who came to our workshop said, “It is very stimulating for me to have community around developing my voice, setting the goal of publishing.”

Do you have a blog? Are you thinking of starting one? What do you enjoy about blogging? What are the challenges? Feel free to link to your blog in our comment section.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Aging and Exploration Along the Writer's Way

This has been a week of swimming, reading a light, entertaining novel, and helping another writer craft a narrative arc for her memoir. Working with a new writer and listening intently to her story, I help her focus on that all-important question―What is my story about?  A question both complex and interesting, she says. Ever since I asked her to sum up her story in two or three sentences, she has not stopped grappling with it, thinking about it, she tells me.

As we age and journey through the many phases of our life, the question―What is my story about?―becomes no less interesting, no less complex, no less necessary to ponder.

As we slow down, contemplate and reflect, writing allows us the opportunity to sort through the turmoil of events and people in our lives. It offers “agency” or action to make the unbearable, bearable—healthy changes that include relaxation and reflection. As we write, journal, share our stories, we view ourselves with more compassion or empathy—and this is probably more important—view others that way.

Working creatively with another writer was a welcome respite from Wednesday when I watched the Mueller hearing. I managed to get through most of it, although as it dragged on, I dreaded how a seventy-four-year-old man, a decorated Marine and Vietnam War hero, could be put through his paces like that and ultimately deemed a doddering old fool by the media and much of the Republican Party. 

The doddering and old was bad enough. Worse, watching Robert Mueller testify, it seemed that integrity and honor have long been swept into the dustbin of our country's consciousness. A person, no matter how old, who asks that a question be repeated or reframed so he can give a cogent, honest and accurate answer should be respected―not ridiculed. But we live in a country salivating for showmanship, not substance. Of fake news, not truth. We live in a country where growing old is toxic. Several major newspapers and news outlets used that hearing to write about age…about those hard of hearing, those who are “tired” and need to go away, quietly and gracefully. 

Aging is a theme in my new memoir, A Woman Alone, and integral to my own question: What is my story about?

An excerpt:

Everywhere I turn, some nameless hand is pushing the panic button—the ubiquitous warning to seniors—watch out! Scam artists are everywhere! I recoil at the articles detailing in excruciating detail how grandparents are being defrauded…appalled at the television ads hawking “find a place for Mom,” as if being older means you’re an invalid and your kids have to stow you away in a retirement home where playing bingo is a useful pastime. I cringe from unrelenting pharmaceutical marketing—living with diabetes, chronic migraines, COPD, chemo treatment. Ask your doctor to write a prescription! Try Trulicity!

Here's an upbeat way to think about growing old, I tell myself. With an eye toward exploration, aging is "gold" for the writer.  It offers the gift of travel, another theme in my new memoir. When I worked as a reporter and had two sons to raise, I never had the time or the funds to travel.  So...What is my story about? It is about exploration―inward and outward.

Taking a walk with Lily and going for a swim can rehydrate, wash away the weariness. I am also reading. Books are a great diversion and now it is Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood which explores the feminine psyche. Set in Northumberland, England, the story reminds me that I was lucky enough to be there last summer, so close to the Scottish border, where I wandered crumbling castles and moors covered in purple and pink foxglove. 

No matter how young or old, finish your memoir or novel, I think on this morning. Find the answer to those burning questions which you long to answer. We have written here on Women’s Writing Circle how to achieve that; drafting timelines, mastering takeaways, excavating those caves we fear to enter which hold the treasures we seek.

The hours fly by as I write this on a sunburst July morning. How lucky I am—how lucky we are as writers, no matter our age—to explore along the writer's way.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Remembering Martha and Mary Along the Writer's Way

Many of us are familiar with the story of Martha and Mary, two sisters who hosted Jesus in the village of Bethany (Luke 10:38-42). Martha bustles about the kitchen preparing a meal, slaving over a hot oven. Mary sits in the living room at the feet of her master, captivated by his every word. Finally, an exasperated Martha storms out of the kitchen and demands of Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?”

Exhausted from a long journey which he knows is leading toward his death, Jesus has sought out two friends for solace and rest. Jesus needs a friend to listen. Mary understands this as he pours out what was probably his hopes, his dreams, his doubts. He responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

While the “lazy” one gets the praise, the woman in the kitchen suffers the master’s rebuke. At the same time, Jesus confronts Martha. Meal preparation, he reminds her, does not offer the sustenance of life that he, the Christ, is.

The Martha/Mary story is a favorite in Bible study. It opens a dialogue about temperament and priorities. Who are you? Martha or Mary? Are you distracted by minutiae or focused on meaning?

In the ten years since I started the Women’s Writing Circle, I have lost count of how many women have bemoaned that due to the distractions and commitments at home and in daily life, she must miss our writing circle. She asks when the next meeting is. When I tell her, the response sometimes...she won’t make that meeting either due to a prior commitment―her life is “too busy for writing.”

“But I want to write,” she insists. “I just can’t find the time.”

I have been there. The phone rings, cutting into my writing time. The bills wait to be opened and paid; a friend or family member unexpectedly drops by and needs a listening ear when I had other plans.

As we all know—churches and households—could not survive without the Marthas of the world. We do the cooking, the childrearing, the altar guild, the meals for fellowship, often working a fulltime job, too. This is noble and good. Yet, when does the busyness stop? When do we let go of the quest for perfection, of not having to be in control all the time? When do we trust ourselves that it is time to slow down, to contemplate in solitude and stillness what really matters?

In Mary’s case, being in the presence of Christ was the "good portion." In our own lives, it may be the realization that to devote a morning to ourselves could be a turning point toward a healthier, happier life... help sustain us from feeling overwhelmed.
With Dr. Asha George-Guiser

It is this being tied to mundane tasks that comes between the woman and her creative life.

It's been a long time since I thought about the Martha/Mary story. I thank Episcopal priest and therapist, The Rev. Dr. Asha George-Guiser, who this past Sunday, taught our Bible study on this topic at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Honey Brook, PA. Her reflections and teaching helped reacquaint me with the two sisters—and with myself. Questions she asked us to ponder:

Do I live in the tyranny of the urgent?

Do I look down on the 'Marys' of the world who seem far less driven and less efficient than me?

Am I unable to do one thing at a time, including 15-30 minutes in a day with God and his Word without multi-tasking, or my mind going over my tasks?

Is duty (I must, should, ought) not desire (free choice) my driver?

Do I usually experience 'Sunset fatigue' so that by the end of the day, I have no energy for relationships or meaningful conversations with God or others?
Writing is a spiritual endeavor. When we light the candle in our Women's Writing Circle and shut out the distractions of the outside world, we lift both the one who gives and the one who receives. There is a sacredness to sharing our stories with others―and offering them a listening ear.

I like to think I am Mary. I am older now, aware  that setting aside time for solitude, reflection and stillness nourishes me. Yet, I also know that Martha is a part of me, too. She hovers in the wings, waiting to swoop in and make me anxious and distracted from what really matters in my life.

In my work-in-progress memoir, A Woman Alone: Lessons from the Writing Life, I write about a trip I took to Maine.

In the woodsy trails high above the Atlantic, Maine offers solitude and utter stillness. As I walk, I long to quiet my soul. I am exhausted from the endless news cycle, the anxiety that comes with aging and living alone.

“Listen and attend with the ear of your heart,” Saint Benedict said. This is the joy of our writing circle. In one story, in one sentence, we open our hearts to hopefulness in a weary world—a world filled with unexpected joy and new ways of looking at ourselves, and at others, on an ordinary day, if only we take the time.

Are you Martha or Mary? How do you stay focused on your writing and devoting time to yourself? Your comments and thoughts are welcomed.

Monday, July 8, 2019

The Writer's Solitary Life and a Dog Named Lily

The following is an excerpt from A Woman Alone: Lessons From the Writing Life. This piece celebrates the 6th anniversary, today, of when Lily came into my life. The book's publication date will be announced in the fall.

There are many lessons to be learned from a dog. If you want to walk, she is ready. When you step out onto the deck to feel the sun on your face, she is right behind you. As you head to your favorite chair to read, she curls up near you. Her patience, her fortitude, her total commitment and unconditional love offer solace and reflection. The past is not on her mind nor concern as to what the future holds. I sometimes watch her dream, legs moving, listen to her little whimpers…where does her imagination take her? In her dog’s dreamland, she sees herself racing through green fields, the wind at her ears.


“You still looking for a Lab puppy?”

My hand tightens its grip on the phone. Marcia tells me her daughter had been driving past cornfields and farmhouses when she saw a sign, “Lab Puppies” with a number to call. Was I still interested? Did I want her to inquire? Over dinner the week before, as Marcia's black Lab Millie slept at our feet, I tell her how much I miss not having a dog. With a bit of self-deprecating humor, I say, “I’ve always wanted my own Old Yeller.” It is true. Loyalty and unconditional love remedy the life of a woman alone.

A little breathlessly, I say, “Tell them I want a girl.”
Not long after, Marcia calls again. Out of a litter of twelve pups, they have four yellows left…three boys and a girl. Without hesitation I hang up with Marcia and dial the number. A woman on the other end who identifies herself as the wife and mother of the Mennonite family which had bred the pups says, “yes”, one girl.

Serendipity is a strange mistress. She heeds your call on a windswept morning, on a dark night. She is fortune come calling on an ordinary July day.

“But,” the woman says, “we really love her. She is so sweet, so laid back. We’re thinking of keeping her.”

I hold my breath. “I just lost my dog, Lucy, a black Lab.” I wait. Confess. “I’ve wanted a yellow Lab all my life.” 

“Can you come by this evening?” she asks.

I call Alex and Daniel. Will they go with me? It is two days shy of my birthday. “She’s my birthday present to myself,” I say as we get in the car and drive through verdant Pennsylvania farm country. We see the sign: Lab puppies...woods frame a long winding driveway. A streak of black, lithe and free, runs through sun-dappled woods. It is Misty, my puppy's mother.

Alex, Daniel and I arrive at the farmhouse on a hillside looking out toward Lancaster County. She is in a pen enclosure with her brothers. I lean down. Touch her. She nuzzles my hand. The little Mennonite girl stands next to her father. She picks up Lily, holds her close...buries her face in the puppy's tawny coat to hide her tears. Then, gently, carefully, she hands Lily to me. Soulful gold eyes with pale yellow lashes look into mine. She sees my sons and a wag of tail presses against my hand. 


Writing grounds me, gives me a sense of fulfillment about my life, makes being alone an asset, not a detriment. I light a candle in my upstairs den. As I write, I take in its vanilla and butterscotch scent. I write that I have done the things many have only dreamt of, traveling the world. I write of Lily, my companion and Zen-muse-of-sorts, and how much we can learn from a dog.

Walking her twice a day is good for body and spirit. In movement there is a new bounce to the step, energy to appreciate the extraordinary in every ordinary day. I love watching Lily―she finds interest and pleasure in the smallest blade of grass, which she smells intently, her tail arched, one pale yellow paw poised like a ballerina’s above the ground. She is a graceful creature, but she can be overly energetic too. This is her personality, a big dog with a docile heart...a dog who leaps with joy on my sons when they come to visit, then settles down with contentment when surrounded by her family. To appreciate life as she sees it—we should all be so lucky .

How about you? Has the love for a special pet inspired your writing? 

Monday, July 1, 2019

Summertime Sets the Stage For A Woman Alone

Languorous July days are balm to the writer’s edgy soul. July offers her loving touch in morning breezes and sunlit skies. While taking Lily on her morning walk―early morning before anyone is out except for one lone jogger―I feel summer setting the stage to write. The wind whispers and lifts the humidity that has laid her heavy hand on our little corner of the world here in southeastern Pennsylvania.

Summer embraces a writing life, if we let her. Organizations and schools take a break or move to a lighter schedule and so this is a time for contemplation and reflection―the heart of writing.

This summer I'm working on A Woman Alone: Lessons from the Writing Life. I ponder whether the title embodies the essence of what I’m trying to say. Does the book offer something to my readers, traumatized by loss, inspired by aging, committed to pursuing their passion?

I was born in July, a lazy, hot month when friends and families disappeared for the shore or the mountains. As a little girl, July meant birthdays alone with Mother and Dad. As a widow, it meant birthdays without John, the crafter of dreams, the wordsmith of loving birthday messages.

Alone, a writing friend said, has many meanings. There is living alone, there can be deep aloneness even when living with someone, there is alone, as in the joy of solace and reflection...there is a woman alone honoring her wisdom and insights.

I drive through countryside, past corn and soy fields and farms with stone silos. My destination―a coffeeshop on a winding street tucked along the French Creek where water rushes over massive boulders from some antediluvian period. These moments are what the writer lives for, making sure the creative pen is not stilled by the distractions, the losses, the grief of a weeping world.

I order a cup of Columbian coffee, pour in a generous amount of cream―a treat since I switched to black decaf months ago. I turn off my cell phone and open a worn copy of Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With the Wolves. The crone. The witch. The Mother of Us All. I read it years ago, just out of college, a time when I toyed with becoming a psychologist. She writes:

“The only trust required is to know that when there is one ending there will be another beginning.” 

A world filled with the heartbroken, the tightrope walker, but also the "leaper of chasms", as Estes says.

At church on Sunday, I walk the labyrinth, made out of white chalk markings on a grassy field next to the cemetery where a small American flag flutters in the breeze. Several of us had the same idea on this sultry, summer morning. A woman stops walking, greets me and gives me a hug. “Thanks for walking the labyrinth with us,” she says.

It’s good being a part of a church community. It’s good being a part of any community with like-minded souls. As I follow the circular pathways of the labyrinth, I breathe deeply―in and out―mindful of the beauty of this summer day. Life isn’t always the way I wanted it to be―so many losses―but dwelling on that depletes my energy. I walk past the gray and white tombstones. The ghosts are everywhere. So is the coo of the mourning dove―the sunlight on day lilies reaching toward the sky.

What is your writing life like in summer? What techniques can you share to make summer a time of creativity and renewal?

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Fact vs Fiction: A Novelist Draws From Family

It's with great pleasure I welcome author Madeline Sharples back to our Women's Writing Circle. In this guest post, she talks about using facts and stories unearthed in her own family biographies to form a framework for her just-released novel, Papa's Shoes. A work of historical fiction, the story revolves around a Polish shoemaker and his family settling in small-town America. You can read more about the book here. Madeline's first post for the Women's Writing Circle, "A 20-Year Journey to Memoir" can be read here.


Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction?
By Madeline Sharples
Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction?
By Madeline Sharples
Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction?
By Madeline Sharples
I’ve just completed a work
Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel,
Papa’s Shoes
, Considered Historical Fiction

Fact vs Fiction: Why Is My Novel, Papa's Shoes, Considered Historical Fiction? by Madeline Sharples

The characters in Papa's Shoes are fictional though they were inspired by real people in my family. However, the period of time when they lived and locations where they lived are derived from real historical data. So, in my mind, there is a very fine line between fact and fiction―it is definitely not one or the other.

With that I think I’ve complied to some rules of historical fiction that I’ve recently read: “Historical fiction is a literary genre that reconstructs past events in fictional stories. Common characteristics of this writing genre are the inclusion of historical events or historical people, invented scenes and dialogue, as well as authentic and believable details, characters made up of real or imaginary individuals, and depictions of fictional characters in documented historical situations”

For example, in my novel one of the characters, Ira Schuman, was inspired by my grandfather, a shoemaker, on my father’s side who emigrated from Poland in the early 1900s. He and his wife lost three of their four boys to a simple illness, had another child―girl―to make up for their dead sons, and settled in a small-town downstate Illinois called Danville. The immigration story, where they settled, and the makeup of their family are true. However, their daily life as depicted in the book is totally made up. There was no way for me to know whether or not they had a good marriage, what they talked about, what they ate, how they adjusted to living in America, who their friends were. In the book, I decided that Ira would have a long-time affair that he lied about all the time. My grandfather didn’t do that, at least as far as I know.

The same goes for many other characters in the book. They were inspired by real characters, but their daily comings and goings in Papa’s Shoes are entirely and audaciously fictionalized.

I first became interested in writing Papa’s Shoes, while my husband was writing our family history. He derived that history from personal interviews with older family members and written material by others. I was particularly intrigued with what my aunt―my father’s sister―wrote when she was in her eighties about her life as a young girl. She wrote a whole page describing her friendship―as she called it―with a young gentile teacher named Merrill Faulk. He would pick her up at her family home and take her to school plays and concerts and then out for a bite afterward. She also wrote that her brother (my father) objected so strongly that he got the family to move to Chicago to get her away from this man who was not marriage material for an Orthodox Jewish young woman. And that she still even remembered his name and could describe his looks and the way he dressed after 64 years made me think she must have still carried a torch for him. While in real life she met and married a nice Jewish man, had two children, and lived the rest of her life in Chicago, I decided to write this book and get her together with her true love.

But as usual I made some changes. To be politically correct for our times I turned the teacher into a student at a local college who directed her in her senior class play. I also sent her off to Chicago to live on her own in a women’s boarding house with the aim of giving her more freedom from her family.

Besides using some of the material written by my relatives and what I knew about my family history, I did other research. I had two wonderful picture books with photos of the old shtetl life, and I developed scenes from then―for example, I described a photo of children pumping water out of huge old pump situated in the shtetl square, a photo of a crowd of wagons parked at the Farmer’s Market, and a photo of a shoemaker working while hunched over a fairly low table with all his equipment on it. I also used the internet to research the history of World War I, the flapper era and its interesting language, the style of clothing for the time I wrote about, and what the Polish shtetl, Danville Illinois, landing at Ellis Island, and other locations looked like. For one scene I described of the Art Institute in Chicago at length―a place I’ve been to many times.

Another resource was a wonderful book that my mother gave my husband, Bob, when we first got married called, The Joy of Yiddish. It was my guide to the Yiddish words I used in Papa’s Shoes and in the glossary of these words that appears at the end of the book.

Juggling fact and fiction made writing Papa’s Shoes quite a challenge. And as much as I’ve sorted it out for you here, I’m sure you’ll ask yourselves many times as you read, Was that true? Was that true? I hope you’ll let me know.

Madeline Sharples
worked as a technical writer, grant writer, and proposal process manager and began writing poetry, essays, and creative non-fiction when her oldest son, Paul, was diagnosed as manic depressive. She has continued writing as a way to heal since his death by suicide in 1999. Her memoir, Leaving the Hall Light On, is about living with her son’s bipolar disorder and surviving his suicide. Madeline also co-edited Volumes 1 and 2 of The Great American Poetry Show, a poetry anthology. She writes regularly for Naturally Savvy, and occasionally for PsychAlive, Open to Hope, and Journeys Through Grief, as well as The Huffington Post. Papa's Shoes is her first novel.

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