Kindergarten and 1st Grade on December 14.

This is the book I read to our Kindergarten classes this week. We practiced “W” words from the story – winter, warm, wood, and whoa. Then they made gingerbread houses in their classrooms and carried them home, carefully, balloon-like, in oversized plastic bags.
Kindergarteners are very small. They are five or six years old. Some are quiet and shy. Many are rambunctious. Most are not quite sure how to handle the whole school thing.

farmerBy this mid-point in the school year, they can write their name, they know the alphabet, and they are practicing word recognition. Each week, at least at my school, they focus on two letters. This week was J and W. Farmer Boy does not have very many J words. And the week before Winter Break (a W word!) they made gingerbread houses, gluing pieces together with thick white frosting and incredible time and patience from their classroom teachers.

I also read this book to our first grade students. These classes are a little more aware. They know how school works. They can check out two books from the library instead of one. They know their letters, alphabet and corresponding phonics. What we focused on was “Then and Now.” We compared the clothing, the chores, the daily life of Almanzo to theirs. Little girls were shocked that they would have had to wear a dress every day. The boys weren’t too impressed by Almanzo’s vest and woodshed chores, but everyone liked that he didn’t have to go to school on his birthday.

These first graders went home with self-colored animal masks, a focus on science in their classrooms. The winter break celebrations will start next week. I can’t help but think the first graders in Connecticut were also waiting for the week before winter break, dutifully completing their class assignments before the excitement of the holidays took over on the following Monday.

I’m guessing this is similar to most Kindergarten and first grade classes across our country, and in Connecticut. Kindergarten diligently repeat letters and sounds so that they soon know the difference between the W of Winter and the O in Once. ¬†First graders tackle the more complex task of past and present comparisons. Little Santa Claus hats appear on buttons and headbands. Each day in the classroom is a new activity leading up to the winter break. The build up to Christmas, Santa Claus, and Hanukkah begins its trajectory – the gingerbread house make it so.

Saloons, Cockfighting, and Covering Your …Research.

Grandpa’s been at it again.

“A young man, of Irish descent, recently committed a piece of roguery near this place…for which he was summarily dealt with…he was lodged in jail.” (The Statesman, 2/2/1871)

The place he was near?

“Two doors north of the Catholic Church, as if to give dignity to the institution, a new liquor saloon has recently been opened…to which…is attached a cockpit, in which several fights have already taken place…” (The Statesman, January 6, 1870)

I can’t verify my Irish immigrant ancestors in Westchester County New York did these things, but I’m willing to bet he had a rooster or two in the cockfighting ring, that he tasted a whiskey or two. Or three. In any case, I will attribute many of these escapades to my great-great grandfather once the manuscript is underway. The joy of fiction!

I spent several hours researching primary source documents. The kind librarians at the local history library were able to do some inter-library loan work.

I scrolled through several years of the Statesman, which later became the Yonkers Statesman on microfilm (does anyone else get nauseous while using that machine?) I’m sorry to say that when I sat down to begin, I looked for a search button. I had to snap my mind back to the fact that microfilm machines do not have keyword search tools. They have a knob to turn the reel. And focus functions. And, nowadays, a print function.

Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M
http://www.flickr.com/photos/29072716@N04/3920937438

Within history is a story. Within every day, every life, there is a story. Searching through news nearly 140 years old gave me the opportunity to see what life was like then. What did people do for entertainment? What was the social class structure like? What was life like for Irish Catholics during the various waves of immigration? How did cockfighting become a pastime?

I don’t think a novelist has to be a historian – but a writer does have to do research. A writer should be able to answer the questions in order to create a detailed world in which their characters will live. In the case of historical fiction, that world has to be accurate.

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