Spring 2020. The world stood still as COVID-19 raged. My mother had just died. Z and I were isolated in our cabin, having our food and wine delivered and hoping the Great Lakes storms wouldn’t knock out our internet.
It was time to take on a plague project.
Just then, I received an alert from newspapers.com: a tiny article had surfaced mentioning my great-grandfather Moses Flanagan. The legal notice announced that he was suing his second wife for abandonment. It gave dates. Little chunks of history fell into place.
With my mother’s spirit hovering (I’d like to think), I dug into my research. The seed of an idea took root. I needed to write a book about my grandmother’s star-crossed family. I needed to tell the whole story of our “Kitty Mom” and the intertwining lives of her big Irish family.
Two years and 320 pages later, I finished. Kitty’s People was my masterpiece, my personal best, blending everything I knew about writing novelistic scenes and dialogue with deep research into the lives of midwestern immigrant families in the Gilded Age and on into the Great Depression.
It wasn’t easy. My husband has dementia. Midway through the process, he fell and broke his back. With the world still in full PPE, I suffered with him through surgery, five weeks of rehab, and ongoing disability. But looking back, I can identify the psychic caffeine that kept my old brain writing and revising.
I loved the stories. For years I wrote blog-based anecdotes about Kitty Mom’s family. Stories about her beloved mother, dead too soon. Her ill-fated siblings. How she met my grandfather — then lost him. The grocery store. My mother catching on fire. I had grown up with these tales, the paradoxical DNA of my dear Kitty Mom’s exuberance and generosity.
I needed to see the whole picture. I had the Flanagan family anecdotes down pat. But for every dramatic incident, I wondered what else was happening. Where was my grandmother when her kid brother was gunned down in Chicago? Or when the sister she adored was dying of a botched abortion? Or when the Spanish Flu raged? Now, by writing a saga, I could see how all the stories fit together. Among all the tragedies, I found the roots of Kitty’s resilience.
I had to share. Finding facts to back up the family lore gave me many ah-ha moments and heartwrenching insights into the Flanagan family. I couldn’t keep these to myself. I had to engage others in my saga. I had to finish the book.
I enjoyed the challenge. I wanted to write a factual biography but also an intimate through-the-eyes-of narrative. I wanted scenes! I wanted dialogue! How does a non-historian create a colorful yet truthful narrative without comprehensive knowledge? Could I rely on circumstantial evidence, logic, and intuition to weave invisible patches across the holes in the fabric of Kitty’s story? There had to be a way.
At the outset, I took on the challenge of writing in the present tense, using deep third-person point of view (without knowing it was a thing). I found my muse in Norman Mailer, of all people. He introduced me to the rightness of the creative nonfiction methods used in his true-life novels like The Executioner’s Song.*
I was exhilarated. For two years, I got to walk in the footsteps of my ambitious but beleaguered people. I heard their piano-playing, smelled their peach cobblers, and read their newspapers. For two years, I worked in their grocery business through the 1918 pandemic lockdowns, World War I shortages, the Roaring Twenties, and the Great Depression. Along with them, I visited the St. Louis World’s Fair, heard the first World Series broadcast on the radio (Cardinals vs. Yankees), and celebrated the victory of Franklin D. Roosevelt. I felt the heat of their passions. I felt the chill of their defeats. No psychic could have put me more in touch with my ancestors than this writing project did.
I invited discipline. Getting through my plague project wasn’t all about the mystic wonder of traveling back in time. I set my alarm for 5 a.m. every day, so I could get in some hours of focused writing/revising before Z woke up.
Starting in 1885, I worked chronologically, focused on an event or two every week, aiming to finish deep into the twentieth century. On Mondays, I panicked, afraid I had nothing. Then I’d dig into my research, read the St. Louis newspapers for that week in history, and surface a gem or two that got me going. On Fridays at 3 p.m., my friend Pat would call from Florida. I read her my week’s work over a glass of wine or two. If I choked up during the reading, I knew I had truly tuned into my family’s hearts.
The weekends brought my transition zone between the tumult of, say, 1907 and the big decisions of 1910.
When I stopped at 1934, I took a deep breath and spun myself back to 1885. Revisions followed the same pattern.
The pacing of the first chapter — setting up the romance between Maggie Keville and Moses Flanagan — told me I was in for long journey. Kitty’s People became my epic.
*Norman Mailer, The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing (NY: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2004)
If you’re interested in knowing a bit more about my process, the Preface of KITTY’S PEOPLE is posted here.
Are you a writer? Have you tackled an epic project? If not a great saga, maybe a series? I’m dying to know more about you!
Till next time!
Aug. 9, 2023 (revised Sept 24, 2023)
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Books from Mad in Pursuit and Susan Barrett Price: KITTY'S PEOPLE: the Irish Family Saga about the Rise of a Generous Woman (2022)| HEADLONG: Over the Edge in Pakistan and China (2018) | THE SUDDEN SILENCE: A Tale of Suspense and Found Treasure (2015) | TRIBE OF THE BREAKAWAY BEADS: Book of Exits and Fresh Starts (2011) | PASSION AND PERIL ON THE SILK ROAD: A Thriller in Pakistan and China (2008). Available at Amazon.