Diaries, Diaries Everywhere, and Not a Drop of Ink

Monday, March 5, 2018

I apologize for the cutesy title, which isn’t even quite true. But it almost is.

Many Southern women kept diaries during the Civil War, and they ran into shortages of paper and ink. They improvised by writing on scrap paper and filling their quill pens with berry juice.

So when I decided to write a story about the Siege of Vicksburg, I considered using the diary format that has been successful for many middle-grade historical novels. Scholastic’s Dear America series, with books written by various authors, is the best-known. Then there is the American Diaries series written by Kathleen Duey, who is one of my favorite writers of middle-grade historical fiction. The first books in both series were published in 1996, so it is unlikely that one copied the other. (The time between conception and publication can take several years.) The two series ran in tandem until the early 2000s and faded almost in tandem, as well. Scholastic also issued a series for boys (My Name is America) and another for younger children (My America) published around the same time. The Dear America series recently saw a resurgence with both new offerings and re-releases of some of the original books.

But that’s part of the problem. Fashions come and go, and that is as true for writing styles and formats as it is for clothing. Not that all trends are fads, and a well-written diary story will never go out of style. But I prefer to write what works for me rather than chasing a trend.

The main reason I rejected the idea of writing my book in a diary format is simple: it limits my options for dramatizing the story. First, although some real-life diaries contain vivid descriptions, the writers rarely describe those places and events that are part of their everyday lives. Even the backstory is simply assumed. Second, real-life diaries rarely set up a scene or contain dialogue. To put it in literary terms, diaries tell rather than show.

Obviously, that isn’t always the case, and some authors have found ways around the limitations. Of the many Dear America books that I have read, a couple have made significant use of dialogue, but it only works with the right protagonist—one with a good memory or a strong dramatic sense. Or there is the way Kathleen Duey does it, where diary entries are fleshed out and accompanied by much longer sections written in a more traditional third-person style.

Still, not every Southern woman or girl wrote a diary, and I would rather have my protagonist spend her time reading. That gives me more freedom to write the story I want.

And I don’t have to worry that she’ll run out of ink.


The photo at the head of this post shows three of the Civil War diaries in my collection. From left to right, they are My Cave Life in Vicksburg (Mary Ann Webster Loughborough), The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman (Sarah Morgan), and Vicksburg, A City Under Siege (Emma Balfour). Emma Balfour’s entries end on June 2, 1863, a month before the siege ended. Her subsequent entries are probably just lost. But who knows—maybe she ran out of ink.

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