My Utah history columns for the Salt Lake Tribune have a limit of 650 words; the Relief Society articles need to fit a single page. The brevity of these accounts may mask the complexity of the work behind them, so put on your deerstalker caps and Iâ€™ll recreate the process, using Frances Swan Clark as the example.
The first step is finding the indication of a worthwhile story. I may notice something in the course of research for other projects. Reading through the old Relief Society Magazine often yields a potential story, although I wonâ€™t merely retell anything that is spelled out there or in any other single source. With Frances Swan Clark, the first hint came from a reminiscence of Elizabeth Kane:
We knew Tom had landed in California; but that was all. On the 31st of May a strange letter reached me from a Mormon woman of San Bernardino, California. She was a bereaved mother, whom he had told to appeal to me for comfort. I knew no one but Tom would stop in the midst of his anxiety to pity her; and certainly no one but Tom would give me credit for such powers of consolation. The disconnected story she told was easily pieced out by the paragraphs we read, quoted from California newspapers. It was Tom who was the mysterious, soi-disant naturalist, Dr. Osborne, suspected of being a Mormon spy.
Who can resist strange letters, spies, and lost loved ones?
Mrs. Kaneâ€™s 1858 diary provided the first clue to the Mormon womanâ€™s name:
A very fatiguing day … I had a long letter from a Mrs. Clarke of S. Bernardino telling me about Tomâ€™s being there, and her husbandâ€™s accompanying him to Salt Lake, about her babyâ€™s death etc. I am asked to write her news of him. God grant I may have good news to give!
With this, I could begin compiling a list of candidates using the 1860 census, the San Bernardino mission journal, and letters written to Brigham Young from anybody in San Bernardino who mentioned other local members. That search turned up Augusta Joyce Crocheronâ€™s reminiscences about her California childhood. She referred to Frances only as â€œMrs. Clark,â€? but she did record much detail about the experiences of the Clarks and Jacksons (Col. Jackson was her stepfather), including this version of Francesâ€™s â€œYou did not deceive me …â€? speech (I wonâ€™t invent conversations â€“ these may or may not be Francesâ€™s precise words, but they are the words preserved by a witness).
I found Francesâ€™s letter to Mrs. Kane, signed â€œFrances Jessie Clark.â€? It was as disjointed as Mrs. Kaneâ€™s journal suggested, but it was valuable as a first-hand account of Kaneâ€™s visit to San Bernardino.
Finding Mrs. Clarkâ€™s first name allowed me to zero in on the Frances living with George Clark in San Joaquin County, not too far from San Bernardino. Working back and forth between George and Frances in the Churchâ€™s FamilySearch and other typical genealogical sources, I uncovered Francesâ€™s maiden name, her connection to Heber C. Kimball, Georgeâ€™s background (he was the son of the first mission president to Hawaii), and the identity of the baby (Margaret Jane). In the process I discovered that apparently no one else had really identified Frances â€“ the published Kimball histories and genealogies, for example, record that she married a Clark after leaving Heber C., but didnâ€™t name George. Clark family records likewise donâ€™t record Georgeâ€™s marriage to Frances.
Writing is straightforward â€“ tell what happened first, and then next, and then after that. I emphasize storytelling over the presenting of mere facts. General readers, like newspaper audiences and ward sisters, are more engaged by reading something with a beginning, a middle, and an end, with close connections between background facts and the events of a specific life.
These pieces have to fit in small spaces, but I write without regard to length until I have the story down. First drafts are always twice as long as the final draft. Itâ€™s a challenge â€“ one I face as a game â€“ to prune dead phrases and replace several weak words with a single powerful one.
Along with trimming the word count, I refine according to storytelling techniques I have worked out. I donâ€™t know the technical names for these techniques (if Margaret Young reads this, perhaps she can identify them for us). I inserted early in this piece the fact that Frances had buried her baby in Iowa as a clue to her recognition of Kane, because when I read mystery novels Iâ€™m dissatisfied with solutions that come out of nowhere. I also included a cross/doublecross arrangement learned from novels: Osborne reveals himself as Kane and the reader thinks thatâ€™s the denouement. But that â€œcrossâ€? pales when Frances reveals her â€œdoublecrossâ€? â€“ not only did she see through Kaneâ€™s secret, she successfully kept one of her own.
The final step is reading the piece aloud, buffing out anything that catches my tongue. Many readers hear words internally even when they read silently, and I donâ€™t want any awkward phrasing to pull them out of the story.
And thatâ€™s my research and writing process, as well as I can consciously reconstruct it.