AI rendering of Maggie Keville on a Chicago street

Mad in Pursuit Notebook

How to Spin History into a Good Family Yarn

Aug. 23, 2023. Subscribe to get my newsletterI’d been blogging about my grandmother and her family for more than fifteen years. And believe me, I patted myself on the back plenty of times for spinning the raw fiber of facts into a good family yarn.

But when I decided to weave all those yarns into a big family biography, I had to make a crucial decision: what was the book’s point of view (POV)? 

Was I an omniscient narrator telling the story from my 21st-century perspective? No, I didn’t want to be the narrator. I was not omniscient. I did not want to tell you their story, but to have them tell me their story. I wanted a subjective perspective, but not mine. I wanted an experience that deepened the facts. I’d already done the tiny compilations. Now for a shimmering revelation.

So should I tell everything from my grandmother’s limited point of view? She herself didn’t witness many of the significant family turning points. I didn’t want KITTY’S PEOPLE to be her telling second-hand stories. Wasn’t the project tricky enough already? I wanted a straightforward narrative with a minimum of flashbacks. The chronology–what came first, what followed–was important to me. I wanted to see my ancestors living their lives, not reflecting upon them.

Somehow, I began writing the story in present tense. Present tense is now. It allows the action to unreel before your eyes like a movie.

Writing in the present tense led me to what I now know as “deep third-person” POV.

Deep third-person POV is a strange little hybrid. A mix of limited third and first person, it plunges readers directly into the lived experience of the point-of-view character, using the third-person he/she pronouns while writing with the immediacy and intimacy of first person.

It’s often seen as a relatively new point of view, within the last 40 years or so, and is wildly popular in the current market, likely because consumers of story and entertainment are used to being fully immersed in story worlds, thanks to first-person video games, reality TV, and of course starring in their own everyday dramas on social media. [Is Deep Third an Actual POV? by Tiffany Yates Martin, July 13, 2023.]

In KITTY’S PEOPLE the POV moves from character to character–largely Maggie and Moses at the outset, then mostly Kitty’s. They know only their personal experience, what their contemporaries tell them, and what they read in the newspaper. Walking in their footsteps became the experience I longed for. It demanded more research: How did a person reach a doctor before telephones? How was diabetes or epilepsy managed in the early twentieth century? How did someone learn about a looming pandemic? How did an urban grocery store operate in 1915?

“How the hell?” became my daily question.

Not knowing “deep third-person” was a thing, I didn’t see all the tip sheets and implemented it imperfectly.

I love nonfiction books that tell a story, but break up the action with more thorough reporting on key details (see The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean or the book I’m reading now The Unfit Heiress by Audrey Clare Farley).

But KITTY’S PEOPLE is immersive. I never leave the relentless steel tracks of the chronology for a ramble about, say, the rise of Irish gangs in St. Louis politics or the role of midwives in the illegal abortion business. All the exposition comes from chatty characters or the discussion of contemporary newspaper stories.

Here’s a passage from the opening chapter, told from the POV of Moses Flanagan, a cable car conductor and nineteenth-century techno-optimist. It is one of the first conversations with his future wife Maggie Keville.

"Why so fearful of my luxurious coach?” He has cultivated a stageactor’s voice to cut through the whine of the wheels and roar of the wind.

“I’m no fool,” she says with a brogue from the west of Ireland. “This monstrosity could kill me in the blink of an eye.”

Moses throws his head back in laughter. “Oh my, that would be a pity. But did you know that the Jackson Park trolley is one of the great feats of American ingenuity? Did you know that these lovely cars are pulled along by miles of underground cable? That they are operated from a labyrinth of gears and clutches at the Fifty-Fifth Street power plant? What kind of imagination dreams up projects so monumental? What kind of engineering brings those dreams to life, every belt and cotter pin in its place?”

“But you hear stories every day,” she retorts. “Trains and trolleys crushing people out of the blue.”

“So much blather, Miss Keville. Not fashionable anymore to talk about the number of folks trampled by horses every day.”

Mr. McManus, hunched next to Miss Keville, grunts and says, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Praise be.”

You can see I had fun seeing the world through 1885 eyes. As a booklover, what are your thoughts on POV? Do you like immersive history or do you prefer to pull the camera back here and there for a modern perspective on the subject?

Till next time


FOLLOW me on my Facebook page, share this post to your friends, and....

Subscribe to my newsletter. Don't miss any of the fun!

* indicates required

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.