Digging Deeper

I’ve just finished a section of my new book. It tells the story of my father’s experience at the Groton School and I’m calling it SLACK AND WITHOUT FORM, a phrase lifted from one of the Headmaster’s reports to my grandparents about their son’s lackluster academic performance.   Most of this essay is based on letters between my father and his parents as well as the correspondence between the Rector Endicott Peabody, the head of Groton and my grandfather.  To my surprise, my grandfather did everything he could to support and defend his son during his troubled years away at school.

When I dug a little deeper into my grandfather’s life, I discovered that in the space of five years, (1888-1893) he lost his four-year-old brother, his mother, his father and two of his sisters, all of whom succumbed to different diseases ranging from diphtheria to typhoid to Bright’s Disease.  By 1900 when the  census taker came to the house in Middletown, Connecticut to record its occupants, the family of nine had been reduced to four; the one remaining sister and her three younger brothers.

No wonder my grandfather was so supportive of his own sons.  He’d had no parent to stand by him.

Writing fiction taught me all I know about what motivates a character and it certainly helped me in this search.  There was a reason that my grandfather, unlike so many other men of his time, rushed to his child’s defense whether he was flunking Latin or flailing about awkwardly on the baseball diamond.  I found what I was looking for by ordering death certificates and perusing genealogical websites.

However, without the experience of creating a character for a novel, I’m not sure I would have known what to look for or even why I was looking.