Historical Archives. Who Knew?

One thing you quickly learn when setting out to write a historical fiction novel: there’s a lot that you just don’t know. Google is great but doesn’t have every detail you need. And even if Google does have the answer, sifting through every website is laborious and time consuming. So, when I needed some information on the University of Wisconsin Madison, I first went to Google. Google led me to the University of Wisconsin Archives. Who knew such a thing existed! (Some people probably did, but I didn’t) The amount of information there was overwhelming and I had no idea how to navigate it. I needed some help. Well, there was a link to email the staff at the archives. Could I email them? Would they be willing to answer a question (or what turned out to be about ten questions)?

YES!! And they were excited to do so. They got me a map of the campus from the time period, an academic calendar for 1967-1968, an article that helped me understand the rules of the dorms. (Girls could be locked out if they stayed out past curfew). So much good stuff.

Think of it like this: my husband loves classic British cars. He loves to talk about them. I am not always a ready audience. If someone out of the blue called him and said, “Please talk to me about classic British cars,” he would be ecstatic.

That was the attitude of the historians at the archives. They got to do research, dig up some facts, and share their love of history with some random person. This random person is forever grateful.

Here’s the building where the magic happens:

Another Inspirational Lady

Last week, I talked about how my mom indirectly provided me with inspiration for a key detail in THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. This week, I’d like to talk about another lady who has crept into a short story, a whole screenplay I wrote in college, and then found her way in this book too.

My maternal grandma, Lisetta Scaramella, née Alo, (I don’t like the word “grandmother” for some reason. It sounds too formal) was born in southern Italy in 1915 and came to America when she was 17 years old to reunite with her husband, my grandpa, and start a new life across the ocean. She died in 2004 at the age of 89. I wish I could properly imitate how she talked. It wasn’t a stereotypical Italian accent. She cut the consonants off the end of words. My mom told me she liked the name Gregory for my brother, but my grandma couldn’t say it. For those curious, my brother’s name is Chris.

Any time an Italian food is described in something I write, it comes from personal experience and observation. I was fortunate to live around the corner from my grandma. Many Saturday afternoons involved a phone call with my aunt on the other end, telling me, “Gram made sauce.” That was an invitation to come over, fill a bowl, and dip chunks of Italian bread in tomato sauce that had been simmering since the early morning. I am proud to say that on Christmas Eve, in honor and in memory of my grandma, I make sauce and meatballs, and that’s our dinner. It will never be as good as hers but I don’t expect it to be.

There’s a scene with Anthony’s grandma in THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS. Every description and character trait is rooted in fact. I wonder what my grandma would make of the fact that I published two books when she could barely read or write because when and where she was born, that wasn’t something girls really got to do.

She might not have been able to read a book, but she’s in this one.

B/W Photo credit: Tonya Brescia 2001
Other photo: selfie before cell phones 1999? Maybe? Love her expression in this one. Classic Gram!

Tomatoes, Lettuce, and Pickles Only

Inevitably, an author will get asked if something that happens in a book or if a character is real. In the case of THE WAR ON ALL FRONTS, I can safely say none of it is autobiographical having never been a gay young adult in the late 60’s. However little snippets of my life found their way into the story. Here’s a preview of something pretty special in the book:

Anthony and Sam’s main way of communication is letters but I found out that soldiers were often expected to read their letters aloud to one another.How could these boys express their feelings for one another and how much they miss each other if they couldn’t write that? They would have to use some sort of code. I had to think of a buzz word that had special meaning for them. I made a list of possibilities but don’t remember any of them because they weren’t any good.

Without knowing my secret code, I wrote the first chapter where Sam eats dinner with Anthony’s family (as he often does) right before Anthony leaves for Basic. I read somewhere that soldiers often wanted condiments in care packages because it made their rations taste better. This made me think of my Italian mom who DOES NOT like any condiment. Ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, none of them. I always thought this was an Italian thing but learned my aunts did not share in this hatred. I could hear my mom’s shock and disdain for this request and decided Anthony’s Italian mom would also scorn condiments. It was supposed to be something funny to break up the tension of Anthony’s last meal at home.

As a joke, in his first letter to Sam, Anthony tells him to send ketchup. And a lightbulb went off. That’s it! Ketchup! They would declare their feelings for each other through condiments. It was funny. It was original (I think). And it felt natural.

So many times a minor piece of research turned into something that proved vital to the book. Combine condiment care packages with my mom’s hate for them and I had my secret code. Sure, my mom’s hostility towards ketchup made for some intense childhood visits to Burger King but it provided me with such an important thread in this book.

Two Hippies and a Soldier

I was going to do a longer list of secondary characters and share some fun stuff about them but then I realized that would give away some things that I’d like to stay a surprise, so here’s a few that I can tell you about without spoiling anything:

Suzy

Freshman at the University of Wisconsin
British Literature major
From Ithaca, NY
Sam’s lab partner in Biology
Belongs to Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)

Gloria

Suzy’s friend
Gets on Sam’s nerves A LOT
Is on academic probation

Eddie Capstone

From Lexington Kentucky
Twenty years old
Meets Anthony at Basic Training
Called Capper by his fellow soldiers
Has a girlfriend named Lorraine

Sam and Anthony’s Favorite Songs

Sam and Anthony might love each other but not always one another’s taste in music. If they have some coins burning a hole in their pockets, what songs would they choose to play on the jukebox? Many authors have a playlist that served as background music while writing a book, these are the ones that were on repeat in my head while writing The War on All Fronts.

Sam’s Favorites:

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” by The Rolling Stoness

“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by the Beatles

“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane

“Hello, I Love You” by The Doors

“Break on Through (to the Other Side)” by The Doors

Anthony’s Favorites:

“God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys

“Sloop John B” by The Beach Boys

“Turn! Turn! Turn!” by The Byrds

“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by the Beatles

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals

YouTube: Beyond Cat Videos

I would love to ask a historical fiction writer what researching was like before the internet. For my latest book, The War on All Fronts, I made many a trip to the library, conducted interviews, and became good friends with the people at the University of Wisconsin Madison Archives. But Google was my go to when it came to figuring out what day of the week Christmas was on in 1967 or finding out when the Slurpee was invented. YouTube became my best pal when it came to primary sources.

When reading about personal accounts about enduring boot camp in the 1960’s didn’t give me the details I needed, YouTube came to my rescue with a video made during that time that was over a half hour of drills and life on base. When I found out the Walter Cronkite gave a report about the Tet Offensive in January, 1968 that changed many a perspective about the war, YouTube had footage of the broadcast. It also had clips from a PBS special in which Vietnam veterans discussed PTSD, protesters in Grant Park at the 1968 Democratic National Convention recounted their experience, and of course, songs of the sixties.

It’s still a great place to go for music videos, movie clips, and cat videos but YouTube can be a goldmine of information for the historical fiction writer too. Those poor people who conducted research so long ago had no videos of people tripping to distract them, though. I bet they got a ton of work done.