Imagine this: you have access to the diaries of your mother or father: Windows into your family’s past. Snapshots of moments of history.
What would this process be like? To sift through documents, to piece together a life — and, ultimately, your own family history? Susan Morrison, the blogger and author at Home Front Girl Diary, has this very story to tell.
The book Home Front Girl brings her mother’s diaries — penned as a teenager from 1937 to 1943 — to life. Her website and blog, created to complement her mother’s book, weaves personal, family, and world history and allows Susan to interact with her mother (now passed away) in an intimate, creative way.
We chatted with Susan about her project, how she uses her WordPress.com site to promote her book, and her blogging and research advice to writers, historians, and memoirists.Tell us about the interesting story behind your site.
Home Front Girl Diary provides information and personal stories related to my mom’s diary. Joan Wehlen Morrison, who was born in 1922, became an oral historian, published two books of oral history, and taught at the New School in New York City. After her death in 2010, I found her diaries she had written as a teenager from 1937 to 1943, starting when she was 14 years old.
The diaries have been published as Home Front Girl: A Diary of Love, Literature, and Growing Up in Wartime America. I edited those journals. My contract with Chicago Review Press included a stipulation that I create a website for the book, and I’d never done that before. As a medievalist in my “real life,” technology beyond a piece of vellum and a quill pen is a bit daunting, but I wanted to make the site appealing and, most of all, useful for students of World War II and my mom’s diaries.What was it like reading and transcribing your mother’s diaries?
Joan and Susan Morrison
Well, it was very emotional. She and I were best friends; she and my dad had been married almost 67 years, and he died two months after her death. So, I was in a very low place.
Her diaries were such a gift. They gave me access to her voice — the strong, young voice of the woman I so love. And her humor she had as a mature woman was already there in her teenage persona. Not many people get to know their moms as teenagers — I did, and it has been a remarkable blessing and journey for me. Reading the journals helped me emotionally and transcribing them helped heal my sadness.You sifted through a lot of material for Home Front Girl. How did you tackle the process?
I read the journals twice through. Three journals exist out of what seem to have been six original ones. Missing are the first and last, plus one from September 1939 to November 1940. Fortunately, I found her poetry and creative writing journals, as well as her college notebooks filled with personal writing.
After reading the journals, I used Post-its to mark the pages to transcribe. The material I was most interested in included references to World War II and politics; romance (before she met my dad!); nature; the meaning of life, God, and philosophy; and her own hopes of becoming a writer. I used the web to confirm dates — for example, she may have noted “Friday, April 17, 1941″ when she meant the 18th. I corrected tiny errors like that.
While I’ve published two scholarly books on the Middle Ages, and a number of articles, I originally planned this to be a self-published family project. But I realized it was too important historically, so sought out — and found — a publisher. Chicago Review Press has a line of young adult history books, so it was the perfect match. They even included my mom’s doodles she’d drawn in the margins of her journal!Using WordPress.com to promote her book
Susan’s menu at a glance:
In the resources section, I link sections of my mom’s diary to educational and scholarly sources. I want students of any age to be able to see “historical” documents alongside my mom’s interpretation of events. For example, she describes hearing about the Hindenburg catching fire in 1937; I quote her passage and link to the actual radio report. Or, she’d written about a newsreel she saw, and I found it. So you can read her passage and then see the newsreel.
The blog is an ongoing project. Here, I tie contemporary events and news stories to my mom’s diary. For example, when the meteor struck over Siberia in February 2013, I remembered how my grandfather, Werner Wehlen — Joan’s dad — had seen the asteroid that struck Siberia in 1908. I tied these together in a post, along with Joan’s commentary in January 1939 on the coincidence of personal, political, and environmental calamity: the death of her best friend’s father, the end of the Spanish Civil War, the ongoing war between China and Japan, and the Chilean earthquake that killed thousands.Tell us how you customized the Liquorice theme to make your site your own.
I chose WordPress.com since friends had said it was ideal for a neophyte like me. Also, since my mom’s diaries were written in the late 1930s and early 1940s, I wanted the site to look vintage or retro, and Liquorice was the perfect match. (The sidebar on the left notes how Susan customizes Liquorice.)
I also belong to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and two wonderful women, Kirsten Cappy and Samantha Clark, helped me streamline my site. Samantha suggested not having too many items on my custom menu and recommended one clean line across the home page.Your work weaves history, research, memoir, and personal history — what have you learned from this project that you’d like to pass on to other writers?
I’ve met so many people with similar projects. They may have a group of letters a parent or grandparent wrote, or a journal, or even a cookbook from the early part of the 20th century a grandparent wrote out by hand. You can transcribe these items and self-publish, seek out a publisher, or make them available on the internet for your family — and the world. I recommend transcribing family documents; you can have a hard copy, then make copies for your family. Or, you can make a site for your family’s history, and contextualize primary documents historically through links and include family photos.
I’ve been asked: what if a family document has “unpleasant” material in it? You have to be cautious: you don’t want cause a ruckus in your family — or even get sued. Keep materials safe — in a safety deposit box, for example — for future generations to deal with once the parties of concern have passed away. And keep papers in a dry, environmentally secure place — not too hot or cold — and free from paper-eating pests!
Finally, the story of a document is at least two-fold: One, it’s the story of the original writer of the document. Two, it’s also the story of the person putting the project together. So, be sure to include your story in your project.What’s one piece of advice for authors using WordPress.com as their online home?
WordPress.com allows you to “build a draft” of a site, so try out different themes. I showed the themes I was toying with to my kids for feedback — after all, the project was a young adult history book, so I wanted it to appeal to their age group. The book has also gotten attention from older folks who lived through World War II, or whose parents have. Ultimately, I wanted the design to be clean, easy and logical to follow, with a “vintage” look. I hope I’ve succeeded!
Thanks so much, Susan, for chatting with us!
Poke around Susan’s site, Home Front Girl Diary, for more.