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Turning Life into Fiction

Blanche Routh's wedding portrait and scrapbook.

In my soon-to-be-released novel A Real Somebody, I turned my great-aunt June into a character and fictionalized a season of her early life – in Montreal in the spring of 1947. Today I thought it would be fun to look back at some of the early research I did for A Real Somebody and give you an example of how I captured details from June’s personal archives and fictionalized them to use in the story.

In June’s archives I found a scrapbook that her mother, Blanche Routh, kept throughout her life. Blanche began the scrapbook in 1906, two years before her marriage, and there are clippings from the 1960s about the space race tucked in those pages as well. Blanche died in 1967.

Marriage, Birth and Poetry

Blanche’s scrapbook very quickly moves from carefully handwritten recipes to clippings – engagement, marriage, birth and death announcements, mostly of family members. At first, these are clipped and taped onto the pages in some semblance of order, including Blanche’s own wedding announcement. But then, as time goes on, and I imagine Blanche becomes busy with three children of her own, these clippings are simply cut out and slipped between the pages.

Then comes the poetry. Poem after poem, cut out from newspapers and magazines. Love poems and wedding announcements. I knew I wanted to include something about both of these types of clippings in the novel.

Left – Blanche’s wedding announcement from 1908.
Right – Poems clipped from the newspaper and taped into Blanche’s scrapbook.

Blanche’s wedding announcement in a Montreal paper read:

At St. Patrick’s Church at eight o’clock this morning the marriage took place of Miss Mary Blanche Routh, daughter of Mr. F.A. Routh, St. Famille street, and grand-daughter of Sir Randolph I. Routh, K.C.B., to Mr. James W. Grant, son of Mr. George Grant or St. Denis Street. The bride was gowned in white Duchess satin and carried a shower bouquet of white roses. She was attended by her sister-in-law, Mrs. F.C. Routh, who wore a gown of white crepe de chine, and two bridesmaids, Miss Marie Grant, sister of the bridegroom, who was gowned in pale blue silk muslin, and Miss daisy Routh, sister of the bride, wearing a pale pink gown. Miss Hazel Routh acted as little flower girl. Mr. W.W. Grant was best man and the ushers were Mr. Stanley McLeod and Mr. D. McGillis. Mr. And Mrs. Grant will spend their honeymoon in the Adirondacks. On their return they will reside at 226 Park avenue. The bride travelled in a brown cloth costume and a hat to match.

I took some details from Blanche’s wedding announcement, blended them with my understanding of her love of poetry, and turned this into part of the story. In the opening chapter, June has decided to write a poem as a wedding gift, for one of the girls from the steno pool, instead of contributing to the group gift.

I want to tell Abbie that a poem written for the newlyweds is the greatest gift I can imagine giving or receiving. After all, my mother was gowned in white duchess satin and carried a bouquet of white roses as she walked down the aisle of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral on her wedding day, but it is the poems she cuts out of the newspapers that give her comfort now. She memorizes stanzas and reads them aloud to Father as she feeds him his dinner.

Good writing has a lot to do with specific detail — it’s not just any blue cup that broke, it’s the blue pottery cup with the crooked handle that he found at the thrift shop and presented to her, down on one knee, when she was hoping for an engagement ring.

Does it matter that many of the significant details in A Real Somebody were not invented by me, but rather come from details from my own family history that I found in June’s archives? I like to think it does matter. I believe such borrowed specific details as the fabric of Blanche’s wedding dress and the poems she cut out serve to make the story more poignant.

A Real Somebody will be published on July 11, 2023.

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