I just returned from New York, where I was doing research for Driven, my historical novel based on my grandmother’s experiences as a Red Cross ambulance driver during WWI. My sister Margery was my travel buddy, and it was thrilling to experience this together – as we searched for evidence of our grandmother’s past.
I must underscore that Driven is a novel, so my protagonist, while fashioned after my grandmother, has a few tricks of her own – things I am uncertain my grandmother experienced or even found interesting…but I do! Such is the freedom of novel writing.
I went to New York to “feel” the location and atmosphere. To jot notes and descriptions. To experience the people. I went too, with a secret hope that other characters would emerge onto the page, wanting to be part of the story. Women from different backgrounds, not just the inner circle of Manhattan’s social elite. And they did!
My sister and I walked where my grandmother used to linger: Central Park, The Met, The New York City Library, the ballet, the Colony Club (a women-only social club started by suffragettes). And let’s not forget Camp Totten, the old army base – now a city park, where she went to boot camp, way out at the edge of Queens, so remote many New Yorkers had no idea it was there – which made for a tense taxi experience!
As the temperatures plummeted, we searched for many other addresses – places connected to my protagonist’ s/grandmother’s suffragette/ballet/motor corps/spiritualist interests. Some appeared just as they were, such as her home, where the doorman knew the exact apartment she owned and took us up there in the fancy elevator with the shiny brass buttons. I wanted to hug him, but we stood at her door, taking in the energy of that place, the home of a beloved woman who died before she had the chance to tell us her stories.
Some places we investigated stood regal in their art deco beauty such as the building in Brooklyn which housed the WWI National League for Women’s Service, where our grandmother was trained. It had been transformed into a Chipotle’s fast food restaurant sometime in the last few years. Anger rose in my face at this diminishment. I wanted to yell at somebody, but we dined there anyway, just to get inside the building. What had I thought would happen – that my grandmother would wave us in as she prepared boxes of supplies for the troops?
Worse was the attempt to locate the WWI Motor Corps building in Manhattan, but at least I have an old photo of that one. We paced up and down the streets in search of it, certain we had missed it somehow – until we discovered that the empty lot we kept passing by was indeed where it had once stood. It had been leveled a month before. I hated myself in that moment. Why hadn’t I come earlier? Peering at the vacant lot, with debris littered about, I felt the loss of that structure as if it had been an old friend.
And yet I gained plenty – a reverence for what grandma/my protagonist lived through, and memories with my sister that I’ll never forget. I just hope I can do this story justice – to shine a light into the life of a feisty, troubled suffragette who shirked her status and longed to do something extraordinary.
What Else is Happening?
1: The Bay Area Book Festival was a blast earlier this month– and our “Writing the Hard Stuff” panel was truly a highlight. Thank you, Susan Burrowes, Francine Falk-Allen, and Brooke Warner for agreeing to be part of it all. We made quite a splash! A big thanks to those of you who came to the festival too – your faces in the audience made all the difference.
2: Boot Language won a gold medal at the Indie Book Awards this week in the category of Memoir: Overcoming Adversity/Tragedy.
When blew me away. It transformed when I do things.
Drawing on a rich trove of research from psychology, biology, and economics, Dan Pink reveals how best to live, work, and succeed. How can we use the hidden patterns of the day to build the ideal schedule for ourselves? Why do certain breaks dramatically improve student test scores? How can we turn a stumbling beginning into a fresh start? Why should we avoid going to the hospital in the afternoon? Why is singing in time with other people as good for you as exercise? And what is the ideal time to quit a job, switch careers, or get married?
In When, Pink distills cutting-edge research and data on timing and synthesizes them into a fascinating, readable narrative packed with compelling stories and practical takeaways that give readers compelling insights into how we can live richer, more engaged lives. Read it!
Vanya is the award-winning author of Boot Language. She’s spent decades teaching writing as well as mentoring educators in the oldest, continuously used schoolhouse in California. Her essays have appeared in a dozen literary journals and anthologies. Find out more about Vanya at www.vanyaerickson.com.