Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Writing Across Genres

Stories have been bubbling in my brain for decades. Like honey in a bee hive, they leak out, but not in consistent forms.

I began writing plays and screenplays, with the occasional short story. After a few years of doing this, with a demanding day job, I decided that screenplay production was a pipe dream. I liked my stories, but they probably weren't cutting edge enough to get Hollywood's attention. What was I thinking?

That left books, which had been friends since my Mother first read me Robert Louis Stevenson's Child's Garden of Verses. True, these were poems, but they told stories will brilliant pictures.

After two years writing what could be classified as a calm thriller (not exactly a marketable genre), I learned that I liked problem resolution too much to write books with constant, severe threats to the main characters. (Or, write good ones.) That discovery led to writing mysteries that focused more on the characters. It took years to write the first two books, but I was comfortable with what are called traditional or cozy mysteries.

Guess what aspects of my books are often complimented? The dialogue. Hmm.

I think a lot, often looking for common denominators within complex problems. That's probably why my day jobs usually involved analytical reviews of programs. Now, I think about why people argue so much about differences when humans are mostly alike. I can't fix that other than to contribute to equinimity by trying to treat everyone alike. But, I can write about it.

Common Ground is a play in one act, with four scenes. Three very different couples sit in three kitchens discussing plans to relocate. Some people are pleased, others don't want change, and one wants to ignore a very big problem. The first three scenes lead to a picnic, which includes the couples' adult children, some of whom are puzzled at their parents' choices. And amused. Since I've been writing mysteries for years, there has to be a twist at the end. That makes the story hard to describe -- giving away the ending would cut down on reader enjoyment.

Readers? People watch plays. Yes, but potential theater groups read the scripts first. I love the script format. When I lived in the Washington DC area, I would go to a library in the Kennedy Center to read scripts of plays I'd seen. I wanted to figure out how the writers built the story.

The Common Ground ebook is formatted to be read, and the paperback (out in a few days) is in traditional script format. The play can be produced royalty-free, the only cost to schools or theater groups being that of the scripts, which are not expensive.

Perhaps I'll get emails saying to stick to books, but that idea doesn't bother me. Common Ground is a fun story with snappy dialogue. With an ending that will bring a smile, I hope to lessen our differences.
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Check out Elaine's web page, look at online classes, or sign up for her newsletter.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Why Write about Family History?

Some of us know a lot about where our families came from and what our great-grandparents did to keep food on the table during the Great Depression. Others have a Great Aunt Minnie wants to tell stories about what her parents did when the shoe factory in Massachusetts closed or the Ford plant in Detroit laid off one thousand people. But, we're busy, so we may nod politely or make sure the holiday eggnog is in a different room so we don't have to listen.

Her stories would be a lot to miss.

Growing up, I heard about my father's family of nine siblings and his mother's indomitable spirit as a widow whose youngest was an infant. Spread across the country, the nine of them stayed in regular touch in the days of snail mail, and periodically even the far-flung families met at an aunt's farm in Mount Vernon, Missouri. I knew which uncle was in which branch of the service during World War II, and was happy that my mother went from Kansas to DC to work during the war. If not, she would not have roomed with my father's sister and met my dad.

Built on Orr land, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church
I thought I knew a lot. I knew next to nothing. In the early 1990s, business trips took me to the Midwest, so I (who, with my sister, stayed home with our mom who had MS rather than take trips to Missouri in our teens) spent time with elderly aunts and uncles in Mount Vernon. The stories about how my dad refused to go to school at age six, beating his mother home three days in a row, were funny. Even better was learning why my ancestors ended up in the state in the 1830s and what they did to build a church community and town.

A group of extended family has met annually since 1937, the 100th anniversary of the first arrival of Paul Orr and Isabelle Boyd's descendants in southwest Missouri. The initial families had gone to Pennsylvania, Indiana, and Missouri. Several forward-thinking ancestors (Lettie Hickman Wilkes, assisted by Jessie Stemmons and Harold Campbell) had compiled stories and a list of known descendants in 1954. That year marked the 100th anniversary of the church the Missouri family helped found, Ozark Prairie Presbyterian Church.

Several of the family stalwarts were quite elderly, and within a short time of attending
Family tree roll-out. We add new births annually.
reunions, I was secretary-historian of the OrrReunion Association of Mount Vernon. With the job came a lot of articles, letters, and photos that predecessors, such as Eleanor Coffield of Carthage and Mary Frances (Orr) Schnake, had stored.

Since I knew nothing (and have more than an inclination toward OCD), it became important to sort and organize the materials and identify people in--literally--one hundred years of photos. It would not have been possible without the keen memory of Mary Isabel (Hill) Matteson and encouragement from a cousin's daughter, Kathy Seneker Fairchild, who had already written much about local Missouri history. Just this year, we received decades of files from the late Mary Beth (Hickman) Barger. In many families, a carload of photos and files would end up in the local landfill. Because of the Orr Reunion, her daughter, Barbara, had a place to take them. The sorting will take a while, but we'll all be enriched.

Why name all these people? Why not get to this article's purpose of why writing about family history is important? Because you can't write about it now unless earlier generations have collected the stories. Sure, you can look at Census data or find wills in county courthouses. You'll learn ancestors' occupations and assets, but not a lot more.

Family history is significant because you know how your family fits into a country's history. Why did so many Orrs go from Missouri to Oklahoma in the late 1800s? Because land was available -- largely to white people, at the expense of Native Americans. We also know that William J. Orr and wife Ella Cochran moved across the Oologah River at Sander's Ford. Ella was a teacher and taught the officers' children at Fort Gibson. She took her own children there to teach. Plus, several people married Native Americans, so now the Irish Orrs are kin to this nation's earliest settlers.

Writing about family history lets others link to their ancestors. While I've prepared (with much input, especially from Mary Ann Vincent, a Shirley descendant) a book on the Orr family of Aghadowey, Northern Ireland, and the U.S., it's the postings on Ancestry.com that reach the most people. I look at who downloads the material and can often tell where they live -- they are all over the North American map, some are from Australia, a few are from Ireland. There have been many notes from people saying that a photo that made its way from reunion files to the Internet has given them the first image of ancestors. More important, relatives who never heard of the Orr Reunion of Mount Vernon have learned of us and attended.

At past reunions, I've given talks on the family's immigration patterns, the many who operated grist mills, and the extent to which members worked in coal mines in the east and strip mines in the Midwest. This year, the project is military history. Longtime secretary Grace Shepherd compiled an Honor Roll of the fifty-seven men who served during World War II in U.S. or U.K. branches of the military. Some ancestors served as early as the Civil War, others were in World War I, Korea, or Vietnam, and some still serve. We also have at least one who performed service during World War II as a conscientious objector.

We'll seek input from the hundreds of relatives we know, and perhaps find more to ask. We'll also look for the roles women played in the past. Some were in the Red Cross or worked at munitions plants. My own mother (H. Rita Rooney Orr) worked as a 'spotter' one night a week at Andrews AFB near DC. The women who did this were looking for enemy planes that might attack Washington.

There is always more to write. It is getting harder to store the material. So we don't lose it, we're scanning a lot. Who knows, maybe a library will find us sufficiently interesting to keep some of it. It's probably time to look for one.
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Check out Elaine's web page, look at online classes, or sign up for her newsletter.