To prepare for writing the Neighbors Across the River Trilogy, I listened to the stories my grandfather, Frank Whiting, recorded with the help of my uncle and aunt. After reminiscing for several hours, he said he knew Pancho Villa well. My heart rate picked up. I already knew grandpa was acquainted with the famous Mexican, but I needed details. Just when I thought Grandpa might explain why his dislike for Villa, I heard someone rap on the front door and the recorder switched off. Rats! They went on to other topics when the recording resumed.
Since I write stories based on historical events, I am very grateful to those who left records of what they saw and experienced. However, details always get omitted no matter how thorough the account, and I’m left reading between the lines to find the missing information. An obvious constraint in is a lack of time. The writer might have deemed some facts obvious or too personal. Then there’s the recorder’s purpose to consider. A person might want to emphasize certain aspects of an event and minimize others. Maybe they wanted to portray themselves in the best light possible or cast someone as a villain.
A current project of mine is crafting a story about the founding of the Mormon colonies, and I’ve turned to the journal of my great-great-grandfather, Jesse N. Smith. He played a key role in purchasing colony land. Unfortunately, unless Jesse-N was summarizing a sermon or discussing Church business, his journal is as dry as the desert and seldom contains more than facts. For example, when he learned of his wife’s death, he only quoted the information in the letter!
Despite his journal’s dearth of emotion, I can make educated guesses to fill in the gaps. After reading the pertinent entries many times, I ask myself questions. Why did Jesse-N decide this was important to remember? What precipitated an event he noted? What did he omit from his journal? Can I tell why? All of this takes time, but eventually the underlying story comes into focus.