John Briggs Books

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Writing Someone Else’s Idea

It’s no secret my favorite thing to read and write is history. It was my favorite subject in school and remains my favorite casual read to this day. I can dive into a history book like a bag full of comfort food.

I mean, after all, that’s why I’m thrilled to be writing middle-grade biographies for Atombank Books. In fact, we had a meeting just this week to toss around names to write about. They throw out a few, I throw out a few, and we see which ones we like. But the final choice is always mine. I simply say, “Now that’s someone I would love to write about!” And then I do.

So when I was approached a few months ago to write a short piece of historical fiction for the Chapman Museum in Glens Falls, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but I’ve read plenty of it, and when it’s well done, it’s compelling. Besides, this project was only 250 words. It sounded like fun.

Two weeks ago they sent me two photos to choose from. Not exactly as many choices as I have at Atombank, but both photos spoke to me. How to choose one to write about?

I started making furious notes, scribbling snips and clips as they came to me, skipping any historical research until I had a voice, something that captured not just the essence of the photo but the time period when it was taken. And that’s when I knew which photo to choose, a picture of a construction site in roughly 1902. I had a hook for the piece. I just didn’t know if it would be acceptable to the museum.

You see, along with the two photos, the project coordinator sent me a writing sample of what they were looking for. It’s as bright and cheery as the author who composed it. My idea was not so Pollyannish. It wasn’t Bell Jar dark, but since I knew that one writer had already been excused from the project for being too dark, I was cautious. I had to walk a line here.

After completing my research on the construction project in question (I’ll have more on this when the exhibit is up), I wrote and edited the piece in two days. Done. And while it wasn’t as bleak as I initially feared, I couldn’t avoid or deny one historical truth — most people of that era didn’t believe in preserving nature, they believed in conquering it. I left that notion in because it is historically accurate.

The piece received a positive reception, though I don’t know yet if it will make it into the final exhibit. The coordinator said it made her smile because I really did work in the terms and phrases of the era.

So I’m glad I took this writing assignment. I had creative freedom in everything but the limited subject matter, yet I found that by sticking to my principles, the piece ended up being not only true to the period, but to me. So let that be a lesson to you. Your editor may want changes, but the final vision of any writing assignment has to be yours or you’ll really hate what you produce (and so will your readers!).

The exhibit is set to debut at The Chapman Museum on October 5th. I’ll keep you posted!


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This entry was posted on August 1, 2014 by in History, Writing and tagged .


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