Blending Your Stories with those of Your Community

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As we know, writing life stories is popular at the moment, recording stories from our past so they are not lost to future generations. We may all think we have nothing special to tell but, from experience, what we find everyday and uneventful, others find fascinating.

Have you ever considered blending your stories with those of your community? Social stories give a reader so much information about the past. Take the hotel in the photo above for example. There are many stories I could tell about this building, from my own family and personal experience back to fascinating things I’ve learned about its history.

All communities have buildings that have been demolished, replaced with more modern constructions. There are also buildings that may be in danger of vanishing some time in the near future. If the stories relating to these buildings are not recorded, part of your community social history is lost.

Why not blend your own stories with those of your community. Start writing them down while you can.

1950s Memories of The Esplanade, Palmerston North, NZ

Place names didn’t mean much to me as a child. The Esplanade was a park we went to on family outings at the weekend. We usually walked there from our home a few blocks away.

In recent times I’ve wondered about it’s name, Victoria Esplanade, to discover it was planned to commemorate the 60th jubilee of Queen Victoria in the late 1900s. Something still didn’t seem right. In my mind an esplanade is something you walk along beside the sea. We’re an inland city, no sea in sight, but we do sit beside a river and, yes, the Esplanade gardens and walkway are situated beside the river.

The Esplanade has changed a lot since my childhood, but is still rather a special place in the city. My first memories are of the paddling pool. One warm summer Sunday my mother wheeled my new baby sister in her cane pram, while I pedalled along beside her on my new red trike delivered by Father Christmas. I still remember the delight of being able to splash to my heart’s content for what seemed like all afternoon as my mother sat and watched, chatting to the other mums.

Sometimes we went to listen to the local brass band playing in the rather grand bandstand, an impressive occasion to me as a child. Once the band had finished we were allowed to play in the bandstand, running around and around until we became quite dizzy.

A few years later, while attending the nearby school, our teacher took us to the Esplanade to study the native birds, listening to their bird song and hopefully snatching fleeting glances of the birds in the trees, those brave enough or curious enough to wonder about the mass of children on the path below.

Not long after that much of the luxurious bush was cut and cleared, but a small patch still remains, making the walk along the river path a pleasant one.

Now, more than 115 years later, we can be thankful for the foresight of the early city fathers who, having arrived from England and finding themselves in a landlocked community, may have missed walking along the esplanades of their seaside towns. By creating and naming this riverside space The Esplanade they could recreate some of the memories of home.

 The Esplanade remains a popular place for outings with both young and old.

 

Writing the Book is Only Part of the Story

I’ve allowed myself three years to write the story of the local swimming pool I frequented as a teenager. I didn’t realize how many new skills I’d need along the way. I’m a writer and this is a story I want to tell. I thought I’d research and write and produce a book. Wrong! The reality is this book is taking me on an amazing learning journey.

My book is a local history one, a social history, the story of the local Municipal Baths from 1917 until closure in 1966.That sounds easy, gathering up information and writing. But there’s more to a book than that, as many of you wiser than me already know. I feel as if I’m undertaking a personal three year on-going education course – and I’m enjoying every minute of it.

Of course, there’s the research. This is new for me and I’m already learning rapidly. The people at my local library are amazing, showing me where to locate information and how to access it. The old newspapers are giving me an insight into community reaction to the building of the baths in their town. The Archives contain lots of valuable data. I’ve been recording my own anecdotal stories and will soon be delving into stories from people who experienced the baths long before I did.

The research will continue for a long time yet. I hadn’t ventured too far into the project when I realized I needed to put this story into context. What was the local community like at the time, especially in the 1920s and 1930s? I’m off to the library and onto the internet, gathering stories of the local community and the swimming world of the time.

All this sounds fine, but the book needs to written in a style appealing to a wide readership. I hope to blend facts with my personal stories. This will involve a different style from  my writing so far. I enrolled in an online Creative Non- fiction writing course and this is proving a wise investment of time and money. I’ve been reading a book about undertaking research. I’m also reading books, both novels and factual, which weave backwards and forwards in time, rather than tell a chronological story. I’m getting a feel for how my book will be written.

I’m now six months into my project. My writing skills are improving, I’m getting more skilled at research and I’m becoming e of a social and local historian. Who said writing a book was easy? But I can tell you from personal experience, learning as you go is lots of fun.

A few Beers Shared with a Circus Star

In the 1950s my Dad liked to stop off at one of the local pubs for a beer on his way home from work. Pubs closed at 6 o’clock in those days, so there wasn’t any problem of having too much to drink or coming home too late for dinner. What he did at the pub didn’t interest me, until he came home filled with the story of having a beer with one of the circus stars.

The circus train trundled into town once a year, bringing with it all the excitement of the big top. The train ran through the centre town, arriving late afternoon. And it always stopped a few hundred metres from the railway station, quite close to the Grand Hotel. A small entourage left the train at that point, workers keen to throw back a few drinks before they started setting up for the next day. The group on its way to the hotel included one very excited fellow, one circus star who looked forward to throwing back his beer more than any of the others.

Dad arrived home that day at the usual time, quite animated and with a story to tell. We thought he’d had a few too many at first, but no, while the beers may have helped in the telling, his story focussed on who he’d been drinking with – one rather hairy, beer drinking orang-utan.

Now remember, those were the days when no one considered the rights and wrongs of animals working in circuses. And this old orang-utan loved his beer. No doubt he’d have refused to perform without it.

When the train rolled to a halt, the orang-utan’s work mates pulled out a pram, one of those old cane ones, and he leapt in, ready for the short ride to the pub. He clapped and waved his hairy arms in anticipation. He knew why the train had stopped and where he could swill back his nightly allowance.

No doubt this stunt was an arrangement between the hotel owners and the circus, as the event always attracted quite a few locals eager to share a drink and a few stories. Dad certainly enjoyed telling his story of the night he drank with an orang-utan for many years to come.

At the circus the next day we enjoyed all the acts, laughing at the clowns and oohing over the trapeze artists. But the highlight was the beer drinking orang-utan. It was our Dad’s drinking mate we’d come to see. After all, once you’ve shared a few drinks with a friend he almost becomes one of the family.

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Writing Prompted by the Words of Others

Last night I sat down to write, having not written for almost a week. My writing brain took fright at being expected to think, to come up with something, to produce some writing. The blank page stared up at me, like all good blank pages do, chastising me for my neglect.

Something had to be done, so I wrote the following at the top of the page. “Open the book I’m reading at a random page. Choose ONE SENTENCE from the page and write it down. Then keep writing for ten minutes.”

The book I grabbed was “To the River” by Olivia Laing, the story of the River Ouse in Sussex in England. The first page I randomly opened contained a historical story of no help at all. I tried again. Still no sentence appealed. The third attempt offered several gems and I chose the following:

‘And there was the Ouse, all of a tumble, the sun skating off it in panes of light.’

A vision immediately came to me of the swimming pool I spent so many years of my teenage life in, the pool my latest writing project is telling the story of. I noted the time – after all I needed to write for ten minutes – and started writing with ease, describing the atmosphere on the night of an important swim meet, with the lights beaming down on the water and the darkened sky above the outdoor pool. I wrote for about 20 minutes.

My short piece of writing wasn’t brilliant, but the pool at night wasn’t something I’d thought about including as part of my work in progress. I made a few reflective notes to myself at the bottom on how to make improvements, turned off the light and went to sleep.

A few hours later – as often is the case with writers – I awoke, my brain having processed my scribbling while I slept. There was nothing to do but turn on the light and write down the wonderful ideas drifting through my brain. I jotted down a few interesting words, a couple of possible metaphors and a few more surprising images I recalled. That was it, lights out and back to sleep until morning.

The prompt of a random sentence from another’s writing hadn’t occurred to me before. Although the book I read spoke of a river and my book is about a swimming pool, the water and reflection of the light gave me enough similarities to get started. I’ll certainly use the words of others as a prompt again if my writing is shy about revealing itself to me.

What about you? What tips do you use when the words refuse to come?

Confessions of a Beginning Researcher

I’m a beginner in this world of serious research with so much yet to learn. I also need to develop a little willpower along the way, curbing my natural curiosity to stray off the path when something catches my eye.

I spent a fun hour in the local library yesterday. It started with one small word in the library’s index file – Morgue. The word jumped at me from the Newspaper Index, not what I’d been searching for, but found anyway.

You see, I’m aware the site of the old Municipal Baths was originally occupied by the first city Morgue. This index discovery warranted further investigation.

I tried not looking impatient as I stood behind two people at the librarian’s desk. My turn came. I handed the librarian the name of the newspaper, the date of publication and the page and column I wanted to read – Manawatu Evening Standard, 4 July 1906, page 3, column 3. Then I confessed I had no idea how to access it.

The librarian unlocked the cabinet of antiquated reels of old newspapers on film and helped me load the film and get started. I concentrated on finding the wanted page, ignoring the many fascinating past headlines distracting me. When I found the article the small print challenged my eye sight.

I had three options, print it off at a small cost, e-mail it to myself or bring in a USB stick and copy it for reading at home. I then realised I had a fourth option. 1906 is one of the papers already available on the NZ Papers Past online. I rushed home, impatient to learn more about the community’s outrage at the existence of the Morgue in their residential area. Even worse, it was behind the Opera House, upsetting theatre goers.

From this small entry I found numerous Letters to the Editor complaining about the Morgue. I lost myself in what had been quite a topic of discontent since the Morgue had been established in 1903. The afternoon slipped by unnoticed as a story developed in my head.

Will I be able to use all this information in my next book? Probably not. The Morgue only warrants a small mention, perhaps one or two sentences as background. Was my afternoon spent in reading all I could find useful? Definitely. I now have the background leading up to why the Ashley Street site was chosen for the baths. I also learned how to do newspaper research at the library.

My concern now is staying focussed on the task in hand. How much time should I spend locating information contributing so few words to the final outcome? I still have so much to learn as I go about my research.

I’d love to hear your comments and any tips relating to your own research projects. I’m a real beginner here.

 

Trees Have Stories Too

How aware are you of the trees in your locality? I confess my knowledge is minimal. Trees grow, they exist for either beautification or to serve a specific purpose and some have existed longer than others.

Two things sparked my recent interest in trees. Firstly, faced with a writing challenge about Trees, I decided to look into the place of trees in the early settlement of my city, a city where trees hold a respected place. Then, a second discovery fed my fascination, a recent newspaper article about an arborist locating and recording details about notable trees in the district that need protecting. Some of these trees go a long way back in time.

With my limited knowledge of the history of my local area, I realise trees played an important part in development here from pre-European settlement days.  The original town site was built in a large clearing on an otherwise forested plain. Early literature, settler journals and local history publications describe the beauty of the forest, the trees and the bird song.

Whenever people choose to live in a previously undeveloped area, they need to build homes and create communities. In order to achieve this back in the late 19th century, trees were felled, houses and business premises were built and the town began to grow. The beautiful forest retreated and the townsfolk lived in a newly cleared environment where mud and dust reigned.

A quick search of an online site, Papers Past, provided fascinating reading. I didn’t expect much when I entered the keyword Trees for one of the local papers from the early 1900s. My astonishment at the wealth of information held me captive for more time than I intended as I located further information.

In the early 1900s, if not earlier, the locals demanded more of the developing town and a group of people formed the Beautification Society, a lobby group to encourage the local Council to plant and grow trees to make the town more appealing. From these early settler endeavours, over a century later our city takes pride in trees contributing to the local environment.

Local history started with a beautiful forest, became cleared and burned off land devoid of trees, back to the formation of a society to plant and beautify the surroundings. For my May writing group challenge I intend further researching the story of the Beautification Society of the past and attempt to record some of its story.

Also read the story of a New Zealand Tree and River, before the arrival of people: Kids Illustrate New Zealand Maori Legend