Has anyone ever read old newspapers? A lot of libraries or historical societies have them. For my novel I started reading the old newspapers from Hancock, Wisconsin, the town where the story takes place. Small towns have such personal stories in their papers–they chronicle illness, trips, and unusual activities. Some of my favorite highlights include:
“Miss Beatrich Bugh came up from Montello Saturday evening for a visit with her parents here.”
“Dr. Sartell arrived home Tuesday from Oshkosh where he had been receiving further treatment for his injured leg. While he is some better it will probably be several weeks before he will be able to resume his practice.”
“Two of the autos ordered by E.B. Jones arrived here Friday, and through the kindness of Mr. Jones many people in the village have since experienced the pleasure and comfort of a swift ride in these good-looking machines.”
I based this part of my story on a section in the paper in 1908 that described a strange boy coming into town and getting sent away to an asylum.
“Edward was in the village when the boy came into town. He started throwing rocks into the already destroyed windows of the store, laughing gleefully at the sound. The boy had a gauntness to his body that only emphasized a ghostly aura. His hair almost reached his shoulders, a silvery blonde. Not a citizen stepped forward to claim him as their kin or identify him by name. Edward’s mother pulled her son closer to her, shaking her head in the boy’s direction.
“He is either mad or up to mischief, neither of which you should see.”
She walked Edward home under the safety of her arm, tapping his head down if he dared to spy on the scene. One of the neighbor children, a sly boy named Michael with cat-like yellowing eyes, arrived in the yard and Edward followed him back into town. They watched as Marshall Lee grabbed the wandering boy by the arm (Edward winced to himself seeing the bulky and sweating Lee forcing his weight against the slip of a boy). Freddie Moor cheered from the sanctuary of a nearby stoop while his sister Ida crossed her arms, a few stray red hairs blowing into her ruddy face to mercifully block her view, if only temporarily. Edward watched Freddie’s pastel blue eyes unblinking at the scene–he had seen Freddie in the same daze as he sliced into the bellies of fish still wobbling with life. Declining Michael’s offer to follow the car along the road as it escorted the boy out of town, Edward sat among the Indian mounds close to home for an hour, hugging his legs to his body. It had been too easy to push the boy to the dirt and haul him into a car awaiting judgement by those who did not know him. No one spoke up to defend the child (and that was what he ultimately was, a child no more than a few years older than himself)–not his mother the savior, not Freddie Moor who had done much more damage to all the buildings in downtown Hancock, not Marshall Lee who in his childhood had started a fire that did not stop until it took with it half the downtown. The next day, the Hancock News dramatized the incident and informed the readers that the man had been sent to Oshkosh, to the insane asylum. Edward did not like the way they portrayed Marshall Lee as the keeper of the peace–it made as much sense to him as praising the knights who burst through the church in Canterbury, burying swords in a praying Becket’s head.”