Category Archives: Jo Virden

What Will You Write About Next?

 

One of the most frequently asked questions after I published my novel was, “What will you write about next?” I hated that question, because I had no idea what I would write next. I have always grappled with what genre I fit into. Am I a historical fiction writer or a nonfiction writer? Just what am I? Nothing ever felt quite right until recently, when I discovered something called a Personal Historian. Suddenly, I had a name for what it is I love to do and an answer to that annoying question.

My first published book was a biography. That was a delightful experience, but it didn’t lead to other opportunities as I had hoped it would. My second published book was a novel, something I never thought I would do, but the impetus behind writing it dealt with what attracted me to writing in the first place. I love to listen to, read about, and delve into people’s recollections about their lives.

I think my interest in other people’s lives probably came about because I grew up in a very small town in Nebraska where everybody knew, and took some delight in knowing, everyone else’s business. Okay, I’ll say the word; gossip; we took pleasure in gossiping.

As I grew up and moved away from that isolated environment, I learned that spreading gossip shows a certain lack of character, and I gradually gave it up. I found it much more enjoyable to hear people’s stories directly from the person instead of hearing a distorted secondhand rendition through the gossip chain. That interest has only increased over the years and so, when I learned that listening to people reminisce about their lives and helping them document their legacy  was an actual profession, I was hooked!

As a personal historian, I am not only allowed to sit for hours and hear every detail of a person’s life, I am expected to do it. It’s part of the job. I listen, record, transcribe and write the narrative so that it can be shared with future generations.

When I began to explore the many venues used to help someone recall their personal history, my excitement only multiplied. I have been a scrapbook enthusiast for years. Imagine my delight when I learned that telling someone’s story may involve an expansion of a photo album to include family history. So, I get to write and put photo albums together? I must be dreaming! Or, perhaps it’s as simple as videotaping a conversation and adding photos to the video to enhance the experience. Either way, I end up getting to do things I am passionate about.

Over the next few months, I will be writing in more depth about what a personal historian does, the various methods used to write personal histories and a DIY version of writing your memoir or biography.

Now, when someone asks me, “What will you write about next?” I can confidently tell them, I may very well be writing about them.

 

Journaling. Healing.Moving On.

On September 7th of last year my husband, Bill, collapsed on the side of a mountain road with what would later be diagnosed as a ruptured brain aneurysm. On September 9th our daughter, Pam, and I made the gut-wrenching decision to discontinue all life-support and two hours later my beloved was gone.

Five months have passed since my life was turned upside-down and inside-out. During that time I have not written on my blog. I chose today to start writing again, because February 21st is Bill’s birthday. He would have been 70 years old today. It seemed a perfect time to begin again. After all, there would never have been a blog or a novel had it not been for his constant support, guidance, direction and yes, sometimes, his nagging voice pushing me forward.

It’s not that I haven’t written anything since his death, it’s just not writing that is for public consumption. It’s journaling for my eyes only, for the purpose of working through my grief, because that’s what writers do. We write when our hearts are broken, we write when great joy fills our days, we write no matter what life throws at us. We grapple with life’s events, work our way through them, by writing.

So, I have a very short and simple message for today. I encourage you to try your hand at journaling. It’s a cathartic healing exercise which doesn’t require proper grammar or spelling or any sort of logical progression of thought. It’s just your mind moving a pen in your hand across a piece of paper and releasing thoughts and emotions onto the page. Try writing three or four pages without stopping. You’ll be amazed at what comes pouring out.

Although I am committed to writing on my blog on a more regular basis, there may be a shift in focus as I work my way through this journey of grief and healing. Stay tuned.

 

Gems Amongst the “Precious Junk”

We moved my mother out of her home of fifty years in 2003. What followed was a two-year marathon effort to sort all of her precious junk into piles of things to keep, things to give away and things to throw away. We will be forever indebted to our oldest brother, Terry, for volunteering to take on this monumental task. My other two brothers and I would show up on designated weekends to go through things we might want to keep. That, in short, is how I ended up with five boxes of assorted items which included the letters upon which My Darling Dorothy is based.

Nothing in any of the five boxes was organized by any stretch of the imagination. As I mentioned in the novel there were multiple greetings cards from the 1940s mixed with greeting cards from the 1990s along with letters, funeral notices, graduation announcements and grocery lists that stretched the entire eight decades of her life. At first, as you might imagine, this was quite frustrating, but then, something happened. I slowly changed my agenda from wanting to organize my mother’s collection to searching for little gems that might exist within the chaos. A sense of real excitement would envelop me when one of those gems emerged. The letters were, by far, the largest gem I uncovered, but the photos I have included with this blog post are examples of other nuggets that appeared as time passed.

My father’s Army discharge papers provided the necessary dates of his entrance and discharge as well as all the battles in which he participated. This allowed me to connect his letters with what was actually going on in his life at the time and “read between the lines,” when he said things like, “You or anybody else has no  idea what we’re going through over here.”

The insignias were especially intriguing and provided many hours of enjoyment, researching their meaning online. The olive green insignia with the “T” in the middle left no doubt that he was part of the 36th Infantry Division, and the wildcat led me to the 636th Tank Destroyer Batallion. Reading their history further enhanced my understanding of where he was at any given time and what might be going on in his life.

Next time I’ll share more photos which were never dated and seldom had any identification. It didn’t matter. They kindled my imagination and led me down many paths which culminated in the creation of My Darling Dorothy.

Click below for more information about the division and the battalion associated with the insignias in the photographs.

36th Infantry Division:

http://www.texasmilitaryforcesmuseum.org/texas.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/36th_Infantry_Division_%28United_States%29

636th Tank Destroyer Battalion:

http://tankdestroyer.net/

Reviews vs. Ratings: Be Careful What You Ask For

When I wrote My Darling Dorothy, I chose words with great care. Unfortunately, I didn’t transfer that care into the marketing aspect of this project.

For the past two months, I have been soliciting reviews of My Darling Dorothy with little success. It turns out that, for most people, the word “review” evokes a great deal of fear and trepidation. Visions of having to write a 300-500 word professional assessment complete with a summary of the story, a description and assessment of character development, story flow, and what you did and did not like about the book with quotes from the book to support your statements are conjured up in the mind of the person beings asked to do the review.

I realized, after some deep thought on the subject, that a better word to describe what I am asking for is “rating.” Amazon and Goodreads both allow readers to rate books with one to five stars depending upon how well they did or did not like the book. Adding a few words regarding why they gave the novel that particular number of stars completes my request. The key phrase is, “a few words,” not a full professional review.

Another area of trepidation a friend recently shared with me is the intimidation they felt regarding putting their name on their opinion. Amazon and Goodreads take care of that issue by allowing you to use your first name only, your initials or, if you desire complete anonymity, you can choose to be referred to as “An Amazon/Goodreads Customer.”

One last area I have uncovered that prevents people from writing a review is that they fear being honest. They don’t want to hurt the author’s feelings, so they figure doing no review is better than giving the novel a bad review. It turns out that this isn’t true. The mantra amongst all book-marketing professionals has been, in my experience, “reviews sell books.” Readers choose novels to read based on a variety of ratings, not just four and five-star ratings. As a matter of fact, it begins to look suspicious when a novel receives no 1-3 star ratings. Our mothers were right; you can’t please all the people all the time. It is only fair, however, especially when giving a low rating, that a few sentences are included regarding why that rating was given.

Accepting low ratings was not an easy thing for me to embrace. I would much rather people kept those opinions to themselves. Who wouldn’t? On the other hand, if low ratings outweigh high ratings, it is a clear message to me that I have some work to do. In the end, I value honesty over false praise.

The bottom line remains that I am looking for honest ratings/reviews posted on Amazon and/or Goodreads in an effort to sell more copies of My Darling Dorothy. If you haven’t read it yet, you are in luck. Click on the website listed below and you can download a free copy of this wonderful story.

https://storycartel.com/books/my-darling-dorothy

 

Writing Dialogue

A frequently asked question at book club gatherings is, “How do you write dialogue?” The quick answer is that I don’t write dialogue, the scene dictates the conversation and the words flow.

The truth is that I have conversations in my head all the time; between my husband and me, a friend and me, or before I retired, my boss and me. I finally learned that the conversations were really my super-ego talking to me about some imagined shortcoming. The super-ego, being the tricky entity that it is, always disguises itself as a person in my life. So, in the case of having an imagined conversation with my boss, he would ask me why I hadn’t finished a report or what I was doing to increase our efficiency. I then had to defend myself and, as embarrassing as this may sound, I could actually work myself into a tizzy, becoming angry and defensive, when in reality the entire event took place in my head and nowhere else!

When I began writing My Darling Dorothy, I found dialogue fairly simple to write. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I had learned the skill from those many years of conversations with my lovely super-ego.

The other method I employ when writing dialogue is to imagine I am watching a movie. In the case of My Darling Dorothy, I imagined scenes from films made in the 1940’s. Watching the characters sweep across the big-screen in my mind is a rather entertaining exercise and provides splendid fodder for dialogue development.

The more challenging skill is learning to balance narrative with dialogue. Sometimes it’s easier to express an idea through dialogue, but sometimes a narrative is more appropriate. I find knowing when to move from dialogue to narrative is easier to do in the editing process than while I am writing the first draft. Reviewing the dialogue as part of the flow of the entire chapter allows me to more clearly determine if it is appropriate. If I decide it isn’t working, I can then either switch to more narrative or, in many cases, delete the scene entirely.

Even in scenes where the dialogue is deleted, I find the exercise of writing the conversation helps clarify what I am trying to accomplish in the scene. I ask myself if it deepens the reader’s understanding of who the character is, or for that matter, does it deepen my understanding of the character?

This has been a brief explanation of my process for writing dialogue. I would welcome hearing from other writers about their technique. In the meantime, I think I’ll go have a glass of wine, close my eyes, and listen to the ongoing conversation/movie in my head that just might lead me to my next project!

 

 

 

AAA and the Planimeter

Drawing on one’s experience and mixing it with necessary research becomes fodder for creative writing. It’s part of what makes writing historical novels so appealing. In this series, entitled “Betcha Didn’t Know,” I will be explaining some of the unknown history (at least for me) that came to light during the writing of My Darling Dorothy. I hope you enjoy learning more about this era as much as I did.

Let’s start this exploration with AAA and the planimeter. The character, Dorothy, in My Darling Dorothy is based on my mother who worked for the AAA in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. Growing up I assumed those initials stood for the American Automobile Association, but back then AAA had two meanings. In my mother’s case the initials stood for the Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Mom always referred to it as “the triple A.”

AAA was the administrative arm of the Agricultural Adjustment Act which was passed in 1933. It was a part of FDR’s New Deal and provided much needed relief to struggling farmers who were some of the hardest hit people during (and even before) the Great Depression.

The idea was to pay farmers to reduce their production of crops such as corn and wheat, and in some cases, to kill off their livestock. By reducing crop surpluses the value of crops would rise, thus improving the farmer’s condition. In order to pay the farmers correctly aerial photography was utilized to map the landscape. The photos were then used to calculate the area of a farmer’s property using a device called a planimeter. According to Wikipedia, “ A planimeter, also known as a platometer, is a measuring instrument used to determine the area of an arbitrary two-dimensional shape.” Using the planimeter allowed the AAA to more accurately measure a farmer’s fallow land and insure he was being correctly paid.

Dorothy and many of her friends worked for the AAA in Beaver City, Nebraska analyzing photos, calculating payments, typing checks and keeping records. The AAA paid well, at least for the times, and my mother made $2.50 per day. She spoke often about how much she enjoyed the job and how much fun it was to have her own money and to spend it on nice clothes. I was intrigued about the interaction among the young women in the office, especially during the war when it became increasingly difficult for some to remain faithful to their husbands. It only made sense that for some, fidelity was extremely difficult. The character Betty describes that sort of challenge.

I was also intrigued by the interaction that must have taken place between the young women and the farmers who may have come to the office to get their money in person. As many writers do, I drew upon my own experience, as a youngster, dealing with farmers in my father’s gas station. The character named Mr. Lundquist is a compilation of some of those encounters.

Mixing imagination with facts is a challenge for all writers, but when we get it right, it makes for interesting and compelling reading. I for one enjoy being entertained while, at the same time, learning new and interesting information about the past.

The Planimeter

planimeter 3