Historical Research, Storytelling, Mayflower Pilgrims

It’s not even what I write about. Yes, I write historical fiction, but I’m usually fixated on either 1800’s America or 1200’s European-type fantasy world. Three years ago, when PTO President Pam contacted me because she saw on my website that I did storytelling, I agreed to storytell the Mayflower Pilgrim survival tale to her kindergarteners. Of course, I needed a costume, so bought the basic black shirt and long skirt, and then hand-sewed the white parts, just to see how long it may have taken a 1600’s woman to do the same. (Twenty-seven hours, BTW.) I’ve presented the Pilgrim bit to eighteen classes, and have enough information, with props, to keep 5-year-olds entertained for more than an hour, although it’s usually for either twenty- or thirty-minute time periods.

I show-and-tell props. Talk food. Stress the no-electricity bit. And I have four volunteers help me with a Pilgrim skit. Yep. All done in twenty minutes.

I also don’t keep the uglies back, like the fact that when they were starving that first winter, the Mayflower Pilgrims found sand mounds nearby with baskets of buried corn, and took them for themselves. (They later “paid” the Indians for it, but part of me cringes at that. What would you accept as pay back for someone taking your winter supply of food which you’d planted, weeded and watered for months, and then harvested and stored into baskets you’d made by hand?)

There’s also the fact that about half of the passengers and crew of the Mayflower died that first winter.

And what about twice-kidnapped Squanto, forced into European slavery, once escaped, once set free? Since he knew how to speak English from his years of captivity in England, he was the perfect translator for the lost Pilgrims who’d intended to land and live at the already established English colony of Jamestown. Squanto taught them how to plant corn the Indian way, and how to communicate with the people, how to survive.

After the successful harvest the following fall, when the Pilgrims invited their Indian friends for a meal to celebrate, they didn’t realize that ninety men would walk two days to come. Normally, just a handful of Indians checked in on the newcomers. The Thanksgiving Natives ended up, after their two-day walk to the invitation, having to build their own shelters, and even shoot four deer, to provide enough food for the feast. Oh, and there’s also the fact that the four adult English women did all the cooking.

BTW, John Bradford did not list turkey or potatoes in that first shared Thanksgiving at Plymouth, nor marshmallow-topped candied yams. We know they ate venison and corn, of course, as well as duck and shellfish, squash and beans.

What does/will your present Thanksgiving meal look like? Have you invited friends to eat with you who have helped you this past year? Are you thankful to God that you have survived for yet another season?

Wishing each of you food and friends and life at this Thanksgiving remembrance time.

Author Audiences — The Old and the Young

My book, THE TOWN THAT DISAPPEARED, is written at the 4.1 reading level for the 8-12 year old reader. It was published in March, and in those three months of spring, I did seven school visits, including five talks at one of the schools. And then came summer.

Whatever do children’s authors do over the summer? I can think of three things: write, play, and plan. Each includes thinking outside the box.

Because kids are out of school for the summer and because TOWN is a historical fiction, I thought during this kid-lull time that I’d reach out in the other direction — to seniors. I contacted a local assisted living community, and they were thrilled to have me come. As the day of my presentation drew nearer, so did my nervousness. What did I have to share of any worth with older folk? I couldn’t very well use my kids’ presentation. I read over their very lovely promo for my talk and put together a PowerPoint from what they were expecting to hear: Life in the Victorian age along Michigan’s coast. Their ad gave me focus and direction.

Figuring to further distance myself in time from them, I decided to use my 1850’s outfit v.s. my usual 1890’s outfit. Because the space between the chairs was only slip-through-sideways wide and I wore a hoop skirt, I was stuck in the front of the room as people entered. I couldn’t sit during this time, because all the chairs had arm rests. My poor hoop skirt simply would not squeeze in with any delicacy. I vowed I needed to watch “Little Women” just to watch how they sat and where.  My early birds didn’t say a word, only sat, facing forward, staring at me.  I didn’t want to give the early people my whole spheel, so I thought of other facts to share or questions to ask them.

Once I started the PowerPoint presentation, I no longer worried about my talk, my dress, or the audience. I naturally shared 1800’s Michigan with them. At one point I commented that their grandmothers probably wore hoop skirts. Several nodded. I then asked if they ever saw them in the skirts. Oh, what was I thinking! No one in the audience was a child in the 1850’s! They may have remembered photos of them. Besides that blunder, the rest of the talk and the question-answer time went well. I was surprised and delighted with their responses.

One very curious thing happened that afternoon. While talking about doing research for my book and having my 12-year-old main character knit mittens, I shared with them that I didn’t know how to knit mittens, so took a course. When I pulled out my mittens to show them, they applauded and cheered! The curious part about this was that it was the same reaction I received when I showed first graders my mittens. Second graders through middle agers haven’t reacted to my mitten-knittin’ accomplishment, but the very young and the very old applaud and cheer. Perhaps it’s because the little ones are very aware of trying over and over to learn new things and the feeling of success, and the seniors remember the day when their hands could accomplish similar tasks.

I love doing author presentations and talking about history — to both the old and the young (and everyone between, too). Maybe it has nothing to do with the presentations, but instead with the interaction I have with the audiences. It’s being with people that I love. It’s for people that I write and speak. Ah, I feel summer’s now too short. Must think outside the box!