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Hidden Mysteries in Diaries, Journals, and Other Primary Sources

How does an author give her readers a rich story setting? Author Sabaa Tahir says readers don't want descriptions of food, clothing, and places. They want "to understand the world to its core, through the eyes of those who live in it."


To help me to set the mood, tone, and time in my stories, I read published and unpublished diaries to inform me about the era. These first accounts provide a powerful tapestry, helping me understand the context and challenges in which the characters in my stories live.


In the current novel I'm writing, set in the early 1900s, outbreaks of viral diseases, often resulting in pandemics, were part of the lives of my ancestors. Incorporating the actual mood and tone of the time would not be possible without access to narrative first accounts from diaries, letters, and newspapers.


Below is the 1924 diary of a twelve-year-old relative who lived in a small town in Ontario, Canada, not far from Detroit. The young teenager's voice of clipped entries reveals the devasting impact of an outbreak of smallpox. With no other entries about everyday life, one can only imagine the effect of so many deaths on this young person. 


Wed. Feb. 20, 1924: Smallpox broke out at the Gordon Deneau farm

Fri. Feb. 22, 1924:  Went to school; got vaccinated.

Sat. Feb. 23, 1924:  Daddy got vaccinated. John and Clara Shaw died today.

Sun. Feb. 24, 1924:  Church closed today. Mr. Jack Deneau and Henry Dube died today of smallpox.

Mon. Feb. 25, 1924: Melinda Meloche was buried, died of smallpox.

Tues. Feb. 26, 1924:  Mrs. Ernie Shaw took sick today.

Fri. Feb. 29, 1924:  Daddy and I are both sick from our vaccinations. Bert Deneau and his son died, and also Mrs. Henry Meloche.

Sun. Mar. 2, 1924: Mrs. John Shaw and Mrs. Cox died today. Mrs. Anna McLean died today.

Tues, Mar. 4, 1924: Gus and Joe Deneau died today and also Mrs. Fields.

Thurs. Mar. 6, 1924: Ralph Shaw died today. Mrs. Dougal's baby died today. Went out for first time since vaccination.

Sun. Mar. 9, 1924: Chloe Deneau died. Went to church. Long list of deaths read at church.

Tues. Mar. 11, 1924: Mrs. Ernie Shaw died at 5:00 AM and was buried at 11:15 AM.


Who would have thought that the Roaring Twenties included such smallpox outbreaks?

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