Monday afternoon on my way home from work at the Columbia Daily Tribune I stopped at the nearest grocer to pick up a few items. I hadn’t planned on buying a card. It was one of those “Pages of Time” booklets; the ones that have nostalgic news from the year you were born. In the last few days I’ve poured over reference books at My Favorite Non-Home/Non-Church/Non-Work Place in Columbia — the Columbia Public Library — and checked out some books and DVDs simply to get “in touch” with daily life in 1944-45 in the U.S.A., and more specifically Natchez, Miss.
But when I stumbled onto the display rack of greeting cards and “Pages of Time” booklets, there it was: “Your Special Year: 1945.”
I think I might have squealed like a little school girl.
When I checked out, the checker scanned the little booklet and asked — oh, you knew she’d ask, didn’t you? — “Are you getting this for someone special?” Instead of simply saying, “Yes,” and hoping she wouldn’t ask, “Who?,” I answered, “No. It’s for me.”
Then I added: “Long story. At least I hope it will be.” She just looked at me and blinked, unaware that the phrase “at least I hope it will be” was a clue — foreshadowing, if you will — of what the purchase would help produce: “Dixieland,” my project for National Novel Writing Month 2012.
Here’s a sampling of some other resource material that I’ve consulted or continue to consult: “Natchez,” by Harnett T. Kane; “Since You Went Away: World War II letters from American women on the home front”; “Coming of Age in Mississippi,” by Anne Moody; “The Girls That Went Away,” by Ann Fessler (you might recall that one of the “Dixieland” characters is named Doris Fessler); and correspondence with an elderly woman who was “incarcerated” — her words — at the King’s Daughters Maternity Home in Natchez, and with someone from the historical society down there in Dixie; and a couple of DVDs on the war that give insight into life on the home front.
And for my listening pleasure, to put me in the moment of the era, I checked out the CD “Your Hit Parade: 1944.” Any of these names ring a bell? Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, The Andrews Sisters, Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra. Duke Ellington, Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians. Dick Haymes and Helen Forrest, “It Had To Be You.”
And I’m going to give away a secret that extends from “Dixieland” into “Chasing The Devil,” the second part of this trilogy that doesn’t occur until 1990. The reason that Edna Mae Ferguson celebrates Christmas in July … well, you’ll have to wait to read “Dixieland.” Her husband, Alvie, is a POW and Edna Mae has fled to Kentucky when Christmas 1944 rolls around. And speaking of Christmas, Bing Crosby’s “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” was recorded in 1943; “White Christmas” was recorded in 1942.
Imagine my characters hearing those songs on Dec. 24, 1944 — Alvie in a POW camp, Edna Mae away from home in the hills of central Kentucky. Oh, yes, the theme music for the creation of “Dixieland” is most appropriate.
So here’s a final reminder to myself and all other aspiring WriMos. As we plot, scheme, write and flow from scene to scene, these three things are essential — absolutely vital — to making sure that what we write is something that will connect with readers:
– Conflict. My outline and character sketches have the word CONFLICT somewhat randomly inserted, in ALL CAPS, as a constant reminder that without conflict, rising tension and a story arc that incorporates lots of conflict and tension, I might as well be writing a grocery list.
– Hopes, dreams, wants and fears. What do my characters want? What are their dreams? Ooh: What do they FEAR the most? (Being alone? Not measuring up to a demanding parent/teacher/friend?) What makes them hold out hope for … Racial equality? A lover’s reunion? Forgiveness?
– Breadcrumbs. As a reader, I want to feel like I’m part of a character’s voyage of discovery, and I can follow breadcrumbs that will lead me to AHA!, I saw that coming, and other breadcrumbs that … sort of … trail off — but not to the extent that I feel insulted by the writer, especially when I see the main source of the seemingly irrelevant crumbs in the climactic scene. As the writer, I need to deliberately drop breadcrumbs without making it look deliberate.
Twenty-four hours from the big start. Thirty-one days from saying, “I did it.”