Monday, January 18, 2010

Historical Soundbites

For Christmas, a good friend of mine gave me poster of quotations. I have a love-hate relationship with quotations.

On the hate side, I usually feel their wisdom is too glib. No situation in this complex, confusing world can be solved, or even made much better, with a few perfectly arranged words.

I also hate the lack of context. Regardless of the name under them, they all seem to exist only in the ether. But someone did say them, and that person had something definite on his or her mind at the time. For the same reason, I hate political soundbites, which are ripped from context and hurled at us during campaigns, in an effort to show the speaker in a negative light.
Probably my lifetime of being exposed to political ads is what has made me a bit suspicious of every quotation I meet.

Still, I said this was a love-hate relationship.

When I was doing Civil War research for my novel BY BLOOD POSSESSED, I read diaries and letters of the time. The historical voices of these documents gave life and authenticity to the voices I gave my characters. This helped me write period-sounding dialogue and narrative and, more importantly helped me fill the heads of my characters with period thoughts and motives.

Yet as I read, every once in a while, I was stuck by certain sentences or paragraphs that seemed to strike at the heart of the story I was writing. I began keeping a list of these quotes, at first only as a guide for myself, to keep me focused on the themes and mood of the novel.

As I got into the writing of the book and realized I'd need a way to separate the historic and present-day chapters, I hit on the idea of beginning each historic chapter with one of these quotes. I'd seen this done in other books--sometimes I had enjoyed reading quotes tacked onto chapters, sometimes I didn't. I now see that the quotes I enjoy are usually vitally linked to the story in some way, whereas the other quotes seem to be added as an afterthought--maybe simply to show off the research of the author.

I can look back now and understand what those quotes had in common. All expressed the horrors of the Civil War in a different way, many without intention. The blood-soaked violets from the battlefield that General McAllister sent home to his wife as a "relic to be prized," the picture and personal letter "out of a dead Yankees knapsack" that a Georgia soldier sent his sister as a "trophie"--these seem repulsive now (or they ought to), but at the time the writers of these words saw nothing wrong with war. They gloried in it, making it more horrible. On the other hand you had men like Lt. Colonel Horace Porter, who wrote,

"It seemed as though Christian men had turned to fiends, and hell itself had usurped the place of earth."

In HANG MY HEAD AND CRY and POISON TO PURGE MELANCHOLY, I continued the practice of starting the historical chapters with quotes. A nice way to center myself, and to tie the books together.

Historical soundbites are very small windows--as if we're looking at the past through a funnel. Still, some can have a larger truth, beyond the context. All good quotations do. The wisdom of the words won't solve all life's problems, but they might make us think. And thinking is never a bad thing.

My favorite quote from my new poster?

"If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other."
--- Mother Teresa

And after that, I shouldn't even need to say


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