Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Discoveries/The History of Chappaquiddick

I am in the midst of creating a new story set in a very old place. Cape Poge is a strip of barrier beach on the sometimes an island/sometimes not of Chappaquiddick. As some of you know, I spend part of my summer in this isolated corner off the New England coast and I have finally decided to write about it.

Last summer I found a book in the house where we stay--a beautiful, thick, cream-colored volume filled with photographs and memories and geology. It is a priceless history, compiled with both passion and precision by the Chappaquiddick Island Association, and a window into the lives of families who have lived there for hundreds of years. Finding the book reminded me of a visit I made many years ago to the library in the city where I had grown up and where my immigrant grandparents had settled. The library had a local history collection, a locked room filled with the minutiae of daily life in the city's past. I had to make an appointment to use the room--an excursion that I fit into one of my trips back to the states. I was researching the time period in which my first novel, Dancing on Sunday Afternoons, was set. I'm not sure what I expected to find--dry tomes and dusty maps, perhaps. But what that room--wooden-panelled, windowless--revealed to me that day was a treasure.

There were file drawers filled with original documents organized by family--mine included. There was microfiche of a century of the city's newspaper, The Daily Argus. There were photographs of the neighborhoods in which my characters lived. I mined that material to create a sense of place and time that was essential to my story.

Discovering the Chappaquiddick history in the cottage was a similar treasure. Descriptions of meals created from what grew in the garden or came from the sea; childhood games; even the evolution of the ferry service that connects Chappy to Edgartown--all will find their way into my story to give it texture and particularity.

What are your sources for the details that shape your characters' lives?

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