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A Peek into the Archive

Just the other day I came home from an antiques shop and showed a treasure—-slightly dusty—-to my husband. It was a pre–printed postcard dated 1948 and sent by a local power company. The text on the back announced that the county had standardized road names and a uniform house–numbering system, and could the resident please use their official address as typed on the front in all communications? Handwritten in pencil was a helpful note to the resident: “For trouble nights & holidays” they should call Consumers Power at the following five–digit number.

Needless to say, my husband wasn’t as impressed as I was by this crooked little postcard. “Who saves things like that?” he asked. Implicit in the question, I knew, was, “Who wants things like that?” Well, I always answer, historical novelists do.

Finds like that little postcard hold so much for the novelist. The printed message, of course. The one–cent postage stamp, perhaps. The handwriting and the use of pencil instead of pen. The neat, spare address (no zip code yet). The rubber stamp across the front inviting the recipient to buy U.S. bonds. These tiny details help us writers to bring a time and place to life on the page.

When researching modern history, these ephemeral treasures are easy to find. Those who spend their days in past centuries—-whether historians or novelists—-seek primary sources and original documents. Twentieth–century historians often have it easier than those who explore earlier eras. Not only do we research a period when mass media and mass communication were both cheap and plentiful, but the distance between then and now is obviously shorter. To reach into the past, we don’t have far to go.

The things that people save and tuck away in attic boxes often find their way to archives or local historical societies. Letters. Journals. Photos. High school yearbooks. The stories in these are usually right on the surface, ready for a novelist and her “what ifs.” I’ve had many a fun evening (for serious) with a high school yearbook and a census, seeing how a moment in time played out over the years. Did Floyd find success after four years in the school literary club? Did “Most Likely to Succeed” Helen go to college like she planned? Research + imagination = a story waiting to be written.

But my favorites are the little scraps of paper that people usually throw away. Magazines. Road maps. Bus tickets. Restaurant menus. Programs from commencements, football games, school plays. Coupons. Junk mail. They give unexpected and rich details about the era, about the culture, and about the people who held on to them through the years. From these ephemeral fragments of the past, I can piece together entire books.

Woman Enters Left was built from and ultimately pays homage to ephemera. I love to explore characters through their own words and to let them tell their stories directly to the reader. Much of Florrie and Ethel’s story is told through the diaries, grocery lists, and screenplay excerpts that they write. But the other fictional documents in the novel, they all evolved directly from the cards and clippings scattered over my research table.

In bringing Woman Enters Left and its world to life, I relied on many different kinds of sources. I plotted out Florrie and Ethel’s 1926 road trip with the help of National Old Trails Road maps and guidebooks, Automobile Blue Books, ads and articles from early travel magazines, Model T repair manuals, travel diaries, and photos of intrepid women on the road. They drove on roads little more than muddy tracks in some places and in cars needing near–constant patches and repairs, yet they weren’t deterred. In all of the photos, these bob–haired, trouser–wearing women are exuberant.

For Louise’s trip in 1952, I used things like gas station road maps, motel postcards, diner menus, and scenic attraction brochures to recreate the now–iconic Route 66. I drew on photo archives of Los Angeles in the 1950s, news articles and interviews about Hollywood’s blacklisting, and fashion magazines full of midcentury women’s fashions. Oh, the hats!
Much of my research centered on the Radium Girls. I read through articles in medical journals on the symptoms of radium poisoning, through court proceedings on the many suits brought against the radium corporations by former dial painters, and through dramatic and sympathetic newspaper columns. By looking at the Radium Girls’ story from different angles, I was able to see them as not only patients and victims, but as fighters. Like the fearless women behind the wheels of their Model Ts, the Radium Girls refused to back down in the face of adversity.

So I decided to bring those documents (fictionally speaking, of course) into my book. Just as Florrie and Ethel had told their story of love and adventure through their own words, I let history tell the story of the Radium Girls through fictionalized medical reports, court documents, news articles, financial statements, and to tie it all together, as I’m wont to do, letters. They bring, I hope, more information, an extra touch of realism, and a stronger historical voice to the book.

Those things—-the clippings, the articles, the maps and brochures, the magazines, pamphlets, and newspapers—-they all hold pieces of history. They all offer glimpses of lives long ago. Like the postcard from the power company I brought home the other day, with its stamps and postmarks and penciled message, they let us sense, for a moment, people from the past. The people who read them, touched them, wrote on them, talked about them, pasted them in scrapbooks, tucked them in glove compartments, held on to them through the years. We can almost see their ghostly fingerprints.

So to answer my husband’s unspoken question, about who wants these yellowed pages, these crumbling squares of cardboard, these things saved from the wastepaper basket, I say: We do. Those of us who delve into history want those old letters in attic boxes and those marked–up road maps lost in desk drawers. To us, they are invaluable. Yes, they’re expendable and ephemeral, fleeting and fragile. But they’ve held together through all of those years to provide us with a time machine of sorts. These little bits of paper, put together, create the pages of an entire book.

Questions and Topics for Discussion

1. Discuss how each of the three women are changed by their experiences on the road. To what extent does the act of traveling itself inspire these changes?

2. Which of the three women did you most identify with, and why?

3. Louise goes by many names throughout the book, including Louise, Anna Louisa, A.L., Al, Ann, Lou, Lulu, and Anna. Pick some specific examples and discuss what you think that particular name might mean for her. Why does she allow herself to be known by so many different names? In the end, do you think one is most true to who she is, or are they all a part of her?

4. Discuss the theme of bravery throughout the novel. What are some acts of bravery the characters must make, and how are they affected by these choices?

5. Consider Louise’s decision to leave Arnie behind while she goes on her trip. Is this decision justified? Would you have done the same thing in her place?

6. Florrie and Ethel live in a world that is almost exclusively feminine, limited mostly to the two of them. Louise, on the other hand, is surrounded by men, to the point where she feels she doesn’t really know how to talk to women. Compare and contrast the circumstances of the three women’s lives: Why do you believe the one is so predominantly female, while the other is predominately male?

7. The author uses many different devices to tell the story—-there is the third person narrative of Louise’s life, Ethel’s household account, Florrie’s journal, letters, news clips, and the When She Was King screenplay. Why do you think she chose each of those methods of storytelling? How does each change how you experience the story, and how you relate to the characters?

8. Louise tells Duane on page 68: “You’ve been through a war. But when you have to choose which battles at home are worth it, you have no idea which way to point your rifle.” What do you think she means by this, and how does it apply not only to Duane’s marriage, but also her own, and the one between Ethel and Carl? How do these characters decide which battles are worth it?

9. Food plays a big role in the novel, from Ethel’s careful tally of not only what they eat but how much it costs, to Louise’s appetite for hamburgers, to the chicken croquette recipe Florrie kept her entire life. What do the characters’ attitudes toward these meals tell us about their lives? How does the treatment of food function as both a symbol of domesticity and an expression of freedom?

10. In the end, Louise tells Arnie this is “only Act Two.” What do you imagine comes next for them?

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