I never get tired of poking into the history of my grandmother’s family, the Flanagans. It is a sprawling saga of heartbreak and scandal, redeemed by the strength and resilience of Catherine (aka Kitty Mom) herself, the sole survivor. Since 2005, I’ve been gathering facts and stringing them together in anecdotes and timelines. Questions I’m now asking myself:
What next? Would Kitty Mom and her family best be served by compiling their stories into a book? How do I go deeper?
Who would read it? A few family members. Maybe a few folks interested in the stories of Irish immigrant families in the midwest. Psychology buffs interested in the roots of resiliency amid adversity?
What would be the scope? From 1880s Chicago to 1940s St. Louis. Waves of immigration, World’s Fair, Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, World War I, Roaring 20s, Great Depression, World War II. Irish families, abortion, street gangs, state of healthcare, orphanages, family secrets, child abuse, syphillis, drunkenness, labor movements.
How can I do this? I’m a decent writer, but a poor historian. I can’t tell it through Kitty Mom’s eyes because I can’t see through her eyes. I can only tell a granddaughter’s story. I can only explore the facts as I know them, right?
Call in the experts
Patricia, a longtime writing cheerleader, Kitty Mom fan, and romance novel reader (by phone): “Oh you have some great love stories! You can’t tell me that a woman with Kitty Mom’s fire wasn’t having forbidden sex with Ewald in the back of [Kitty Mom’s] grocery store.” Oh my God.
Neil Gaiman, writer (via Masterclass, Art of Storytelling): Your ancestors are characters in a story. What do the characters want? The plot is driven by conflict among the characters (as opposed to just shit happening to them). Let your characters live. Your readers have to keep asking: “And then what happened?”
David Mamet, writer/dramatist (via Masterclass, Dramatic Writing and Three Uses of the Knife: on the Nature and Purpose of Drama): The job of drama is entertainment, relieving the audience from the burden of consciousness. Not teaching, not problem-solving. Drama deals with problems of the soul, with the mysteries of human life, not information sharing. Stories must be told from the heart, not the head. They must rise from the unconscious, not the rationalizing brain. Your hero must create her own character on stage. It is her striving to understand, to correctly assess, to choose her battles, to face her own character that inspires us and enriches our lives. And a good writer–an artist–takes the journey with the hero.
I dive in
My experts have delivered me from the burden of footnotes and have allowed me to simply open up to my “characters.” My facts are the armature for telling the tale of what might have happened. I know the paths that the Flanagans walked. I know the ending. So how and why did they choose those paths? How did events and choices lead inevitably to the grandmother I loved?
Much to my surprise, the speculation (and dialogue) has come easy. In 1895, Moses Flanagan was listed in the Chicago City Directory as a “conductor.” He lived on Cottage Grove Avenue. An old photo shows the avenue with cable car tracks. (Insert research.) So that must have been the line Moses worked on. Maggie Keville also lived on Cottage Grove Avenue. So they must have fallen in love on the trolley, right?
Clang, clang, clang went the trolleyTrolley Song, from Meet Me in St. Louis
Ding, ding, ding went the bell
Zing, zing, zing went my heart strings
From the moment I saw him I fell.
You knew that had to be batting around in my unconscious, didn’t you?
Two drafty chapters in, working with Moses and Maggie, I’m having fun. The process combines the jigsaw-puzzle work of family history research with the imagination work of novel-writing. I’m visiting with them, trying to tune in to the bassline that connects us. Some part of them is some part of me. I listen.