Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From the Way Back Machine by Ellen Hartman

The New York Times has a new Tumblr site called The Lively Morgue.

The Lively Morgue is a glimpse at the millions of photos stored in the picture archives of the Times. Each post includes a picture and a scan of the back which includes various hard to read stamps and scribbles and stuff I'd like to understand.

(Here's the About page for the Tumblr site. It's fascinating.) They're just getting started, but I can tell I'm going to love the site. Old photos really get my imagination pumping. I love to think about the details like the dads in suits in the photo from Bat Day at Yankee Stadium and the size of the mannequins in the photo from the rummage sale. (I just bet those mannequins are shaped differently than the ones in stores now.)

When I see pictures like those, I can't help myself. I automatically start trying to piece the specifics together into some kind of story. So much of life is in the details of our old photos and the little vignettes we hand down from generation to generation.

Here's a story that combines my family history and my husband's.

My husband's family is pictured in an old photo from their hometown newspaper. The entire clan is gathered on the front porch of their home, around 1912. Everyone is lined up across the porch from an older man in a rocking chair right down to a baby held in her big brother's arms. Also the cow.

Yes. The cow.

I was joking with my husband one time about him being from a family who would include their cow in their family portrait for the newspaper. My grandmother said, "At least they had a cow."

Her understanding of that time and place changed my perception of the photo, and also increased my respect for my grandmother who came a long way in life considering she started from a family who didn't even have a cow.

(Additional fact: When my son was little, he was obsessed with that photo which he said pictured "his cousin the bull." Hee.)

What about you? Do you have a story from the "olden days" of your family or town? Do you live in a house with a history? Are you going to add The Lively Morgue to your Tumblr favorites?

P.S. I couldn't lay my hands on the photo of our cousin the bull, but I did pull this one out of my family archives. It's my other grandmother (I'm sure her family didn't own a cow either) with her new husband and her sister. If not for this photo, I wouldn't believe my grandmother had ever worn a dress. The historical record is a good thing!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


"Write what you know." Of course as a novelist I'm often writing scenes that I have never experienced in my life. For example, in my June 2012 book NAVY RULES I have the hero emergency-landing a B-17. I've never landed any plane, much less a WWII bomber. But I have flown in a Navy plane or two, and I've been in an aircraft when it's had an emergency. I've felt the emotions of this situation. Even if I'd never served in the U.S. Navy myself, I know from commercial flights the fear and anxiety that severe turbulence or the smell of electrical fumes can trigger.
For me, honesty in my writing is being true to my characters. It's about not using cliched or transparent literary devices to "get" my reader to laugh or cry.
So it is with life. Living a life of honesty can be tough, especially in light of the constant media barrage of wars, politics, tough economic times. On a more personal level, honesty with family members is often the most difficult. Telling a teen that while they have straight A's you still don't trust them (or their underdeveloped brains) with a questionable group of "friends." Telling your spouse that you love them, and yes, you're happy but need to do something different to "shake things up," even if that something is merely getting a new 'do or tattoo. Telling your parent it's time to move out of the only home they've had for the past fifty years.
Writing and life dovetail for me in ways I never imagined when I started a serious path to publication. I find that as I learn to create and write down characters with more honesty, I'm learning to live that way in my own life, too. It's not easy but the results are worth it. Give me an old-fashioned homemade cookie over a stale, "pretty," store-bought, over-frosted concoction any day.
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