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 Sharpen your writing skills while you learn West Virginia history

These activities give WV us all a new way to dig into in our state history. They help us imagine how our grandparents and great-great grandparents lived and make us realize that real people with real stories lived through every historical time. 

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  A good story set in the past is a combination:  creative writing + research

  • So first, do some research on the way people lived in the time you choose. If possible, talk with somebody who lived then or read written accounts. Online, type “West Virginia coal camps” into a search engine such as Google. Take notes on the sites you visit. Find details that would help you write a scene. 

 

  • Find your cast of characters:  Here’s an exercise you can do with your whole group to help them think through story possibilities from many angles: create a spider diagram. For instance, a “spider diagram” of a logging camp.  

    • First: Draw a circle and write “logging camp 1800s” inside it.  Then draw lines coming off the circle like spider legs. At the end of each leg, write a different category of living beings who might turn up in a logging camp: loggers, bosses, cooks, people who care for the horses, the horses, the camp owners …Who are the possible cast of characters?  They’ll pick some and not use others for their story.

    • Students often think first of people who are physically in the logging camp: But also:

      • Who are possible characters from the past? The people who owned the land and think they got cheated, early settlers, the storekeeper who had trouble getting his goods in and out, native Americans. This opens up a whole new line of thinking.

      • Are there potential characters in the future? Stir your imaginations. Who isn’t born yet? Who might come along later in the story? Grandkids, people who use the boards from the tree. etc.

      • Who might be potential characters who are “somewhere else,” geographically?  For instance, sweethearts at home, a mother or grandfather in another country, a person living in comfort not far away. The owner of the camp and his children...

 

   Here are some starter exercises:

  • Write a two-page scene between two characters at a WV logging camp in the late 1800s. Practice mixing research and creative writing.

    • What research do you need to do? Type “West Virginia logging camps” into Google.

    • Who are the cast of characters at a logging camp?  Do a “spider diagram.”

      • Be sure to include the supporting characters. A cook in the logging camp kitchen is a supporting character.

    • What are they doing? Who likes who? If two characters are fighting, what are they fighting about?

 

  • Look at photos from the time.  “West Virginia History on View,” on the WVU Library’s web site (https://wvhistoryonview.org/?search_field=all_fields&q= ) There are thousands of pictures from West Virginia’s past. Look at the pictures of coal camps and coal miners, or loggers and logging camps, for instance. Pick out three or four pictures that show people who interest you. Download copies of the photos into a file so you can keep looking at them.

    • Try to imagine what the people’s daily lives are like. Sketch out a scene between that person and at least one other person, using details you found in the pictures or your reading. Copy the pictures and paste them into your file.  (Teacher: You may need to show the class how to do this.)

 

  • Similarly, write a scene between two characters in a coal camp in the early 1900s. Get used to mixing historical fact and fiction about a fictional person’s life. More practice.

    • Do some research. Type “West Virginia coal camps” into Google. Take notes on the files you read. Find details that would help you write a scene.

 

  • Now that you’ve practiced with coal and lumber camps, choose another time/place in WV history that interests you.  Imagine a person who lived during that time. Find out as many details as you can about life then and there. See if you can find pictures from that time.

    • Activity 1: Then create your scene, mixing historical details with your character’s imagined story.

    • Activity 2: If it works, write the next scene. What happened in your characters’ lives after the first scene you wrote? Include at least four historical details.

 

  • Start with a place, rather than a time or person. Find pictures of at least three places in West Virginia that interest you. They should be at least 80 years old. Copy and paste the pictures, so you can keep looking at them. Research and find out what happened there and what kind of people were involved, since the beginning. Think what their lives might have been like then. Do a spider diagram and think about who your characters might be and when they passed through that place.

    • Example: Davis Grubb grew up in Moundsville near the state penitentiary. He researched the way prisoners were treated. In Tracks 20 - 23 of his program, he imagines a scary prison guard named Doc Council and a prisoner who has just been set free in the 1940s, after 47 years locked up.

 

  • Listen to Richard Currey's gripping scenes set in the West Virginia mine wars, mixed with his reflections. (Tracks 9 - 12) The main character is a miner who helped beat up some coal company guards.  They are coming to get him, he knows.

    • Activity 1: After you listen, write a paper (or ask yourself) how it affects your understanding of that time to read segments written in the voice of an otherwise anonymous person living through it. (You can find the whole stories in Currey's short story collection, The Wars of Heaven.

    • Activity 2: What details do you think Currey had to gather to write those passages, to be faithful to the times?

  • Write a scene set in wherever you consider to be your home area. Imagine a fictional character (of any age) who lived in your town or rural area during a time when you were not alive.

  • Research: Find some old pictures of the place and time, if you can. Interview somebody who was alive in your home area when you were not. Check with the local public library.

  • Start your scene with at least two paragraphs of description of the town or area at the time, leading into introduction of a character doing something.    

 

  • Interview an older person from your town, asking them to tell stories about things that happened in their own childhood. Take notes. Ask them what chores they did, what they did when they had free time. What did the town look like then? What was their day like? What stories stuck in their mind? Exciting things that happened?

    • Activity: Write up something they told you as if it were a picture book for kids. Include historical details (stores, ways people got around, how they dressed, etc.).

      • Tip:  Good children’s picture books have big pictures. So there’s not a lot of room for writing. The text of many picture books would be about two or three notebook pages, handwritten.

      • If you like your story, try reading it to some small children. Draw pictures if you like. Or ask the children to draw pictures.

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Using historical photos

Historical photos  give you details you couldn’t find any other way. In several exercises, there’s a suggestion that you look at photos of the time. Here are some ways to find them

           Use the writers’ stories of growing up in West Virginia as a creative writing springboard

                                            Choose one of the following six writers and choose from the writing activities.

 

  • 1. Irene McKinney grew up on a rural WV farm in Barbour County in the 1930s and 40s, when family farms. were common in West Virginia. She rambled the hills, spent hours in trees with books, picked sacks full of berries, took care of animals, hauled coal and water and slept in a house without heat. Her family was part a mountain farm culture, where neighbors knew each other and helped each other get the hay in or shuck corn or pull wagons out of ditches, etc. (Track 26).  “I loved my life,” Irene said. She also said it’s very hard today to tell young people today why it was wonderful, especially young people who have never lived in a rural area or in the mountains. This activity helps you look at that life.

    • Irene Activity: Write an imagined story about those 48 hours that starts with “I dreamed I lived on Irene McKinney’s family farm.” To get ready for it, first listen to Irene’s program. Tracks 2, 12-13, 16 and 26 are especially relevant.  Then do some internet research on Appalachian family farms.  Good sources include: http://129.71.204.160/history/journal_wvh/wvh51-4.html and  https://www.farmaid.org/blog/west-virginia-farmers-growing-together/  

      • Use details you learn from all sources, including Irene. You can make up what people say to you in the dream and what you do. In the dream, people act as if they know you. What were your interactions with people? With animals? What are your chores? Did you go wandering over the farm? What did you find hard? Did the family help (or get help) from a neighbor while you were there? What did you think when you woke up?

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    • 2. Maggie Anderson lived in a New York City apartment with her West Virginia Mom and Dad in her early years, while her dad taught school in the city (Tracks 4 – 7).They grew tomatoes on the fire escape. They had no TV, so little Maggie pretended a stool was a TV. Maggie’s Mom took her to the city parks, and she learned to love plants and the out of doors.  Every summer, they drove to Preston County, West Virginia to visit their families. (Track XX) After her Mom died, she and her Dad moved back to live with relatives in Rowlesburg. It was a big difference, and Maggie loved it! (Tracks 7 and 9).

      • Maggie activity: Write a children’s story about young Maggie, using the information she gives you in Tracks 4 - 9. Write it with three parts: First, her life in NYC as a little girl, visiting parks, the stool game, eating vegetables from the fire escape, trips to WV. Then her mother died. Then, she and her dad moved back to West Virginia to Rowlesburg.

        • Read/listen to what Maggie said about her life in New York in tracks 4 – 7.  Write a first part that gives us glimpses of her life in New York City. The text of children’s picture books is sparse, so choose special details. Remember, a picture tells a lot.

        • The second part, about her mom’s death, can be as short or as long as you feel it should be. It can be one page, with a picture.

        • For the third part, write a few paragraphs that tell what she did after she and her dad moved back to Rowlesburg (Track 9). Tell some fun things she did with her cousins. 

        • While you write your first draft, stick to what Maggie said. If you decide to change details, give your character another name.

        • Decide if you want to tell that Maggie grew up to be a poet. If so, plant little clues as you go along so we’re not at all surprised.

        • Draw or paint pictures to go with your story, if you like. Or simply put (picture here) in the text and page numbers that let readers know how much text goes on each page.

  • 3. Sandra Belton grew up in a segregated Beckley neighborhood, filled with children, black and white. The black kids and white kids did not play together, she said.  Her story tells young readers about that time (Tracks 3-4, 12, 14, 16-18, 20)

    • Activity 1: Listen to Sandra’s program. As you do, take notes on a downloaded transcript. Then write a paper to answer both of these questions. Write as if you were telling a friend about her. Where was she welcome and where could she not go? How did her experiences with segregation affect her as a writer? Mention details from her life in Beckley and at least two passages from her writing, as reprinted in her program.

    • Activity 2: Research the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, in the United States Sandra Belton grew up before that movement. How might her life have been different if she had grown up today?

    • Creative writing: Write the beginning of a fictional story in which Sandra (or a character of your invention) falls through a time warp and wakes up on a Beckley street in a time when she is welcome at the pool, on the bus, etc. You will have to give us a glimpse of her 1950s life, then show us a couple of scenes in which she is puzzled by what she encounters and sees after she falls through the time warp.

  • 4. Denise Giardina grew up in the 1950s in Black Wolf, a McDowell County coal camp. Her grandparents came to West Virginia from Italy. In Tracks 6-8, she tells about her life in the coal camp.  In Track 9,, she fondly remembers her grandparents, in detail.

    • Activity 1: Coal camp. Using details Denise supplies and details you find in other resources about coal camp life, write an opening scene for a story about a child living in a coal camp. For more details, type “coal camp life” into a search engine.

    • Activity 2: Italian family and roots. Write an opening scene about a young Italian girl living in a coal camp. Use details Denise supplied and find more y typing “Italians in coal camps” or “Ellis Island, trains to coal camps” into a search engine.

 

  • 5. Richard Currey grew up in Parkersburg. His parents both moved away from the farm, into town. He had a grandfather who constantly supported him as an artist.

    • Activity 1: His grandfather. Discuss the ways Richard’s grandfather supported him and encouraged his development as an artist. How important is that for a writer or any artist to have somebody who supports them. What can happen when you don’t?

    • Activity 2, for advanced students: West Virginia sent more people per capita to Vietnam than any other state. Maybe you know a Vietnam veteran who would be willing to talk with you.  Show that veteran Richard Currey’s passages about Vietnam. Ask them if his account matches their experience, then ask if you can talk with them about their experience for a school paper. Be respectful if they do not want to talk about it.

  • Mary Lee Settle says recorded history is incomplete, because “the voiceless have no voice in it.” She aimed to give them a voice, she said, to put faces on our history.  An example: Johnny Church, the main character of Prisons,  a young man who defies his father to join Cromwell’s army, in 1641, rebelling against the English King. “Prisons” is the first book in a five-book series, The Beulah Quintet, about West Virginia. In later books, Johnny’s descendants end up in West Virginia coal mines.

    • Activity 1: Listen to the whole Mary Lee Settle program, reading along on the script.  Describe two other characters Mary Lee “gave a voice.” Would people like these be mentioned in most history books? Discuss the way their stories weave with the history of West Virginia at the time.

    • Activity 2: Think of two events in West Virginia history.  For each event, list three possible characters for a story set during that event. Example: 

  • Do it again!  Choose another writer.

 

Teachers: Through the year, you may want to return to this activity and ask the students to choose another writer to research. If you want to do that, save their first stories in a folder, so you’ll have a small collection at the end.

 

A deeper dive into one writer

Here is a list of In Their Own Country writers and historical West Virginia events or times they chose as settings.

Activity 1: Choose a writer who dips into West Virginia history. (1) Listen to their entire audio program and (2) read one of his or her books if you can. Write about (1) the way that book affected your understanding of that time in the state history.

  • Denise Giardina: Storming Heaven (1800s logging, The Mine Wars), The Unquiet Earth (the Buffalo Creek Disaster), Saints and Villains (the New River Tunnel); Good King Harry (medieval England).

  • Richard Currey: The Wars of Heaven (mine wars, railroads, company stores, early 1900s); Lost Highway (Appalachian music, The Depression); Fatal Light (West Virginian in Vietnam War).

  • Cynthia Rylant: I Had Seen Castles (World War II:)  When I Was Young in the Moutains (cultural history, mountain farm).

  • Keith Maillard: Light in the Company of Women (1800s: The National Road and iron mills), Clarinet Polka (the steel mills); Gloria (moneyed class in Wheeling, 1950s); Alex Driving South (non-moneyed class in Wheeling, 1950s).

  • Jayne Anne Phillips: Machine Dreams (Upshur County, The Depression), Lark and Termite (Korean War), Quiet Dell (the story of 1931 Harrison County murders); : The Night Watch: (Lewis County, the Civil War, Transallegheny Lunatic Asylum);

  • Sandra Belton: From Miss Ida’s Porch (segregated Raleigh County, 1950s); McKendree (a Fayette County hospital that became a nursing home, 1960s).

  • Mary Lee Settle: Addie (biography of her grandmother, 1930s) five books of The Beulah Quintet (1600s England) > through colonizing of the Kanawha Valley > through the West Virginia Mine Wars, > through West Virginia in the 1950s)

 

Activity 2: Choose a time and place in West Virginia history, with a goal of writing your own scenes or story, set in that time. First, research that time. Write ten paragraphs of your own scene, set in that time, using historical details. Include descriptive details, close-up and distant. At the end of your scene, list the historical references you consulted to get the details.

 

Group Discussion/Individual Essay. When you try to write a story about people who lived during a certain time in state history, how does the writing process change your understanding of that time?

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