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Old 02-08-2013, 02:12 AM   #1
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Question My Grandmother's World War II letters - WWYD?

Hey everybody,

I would appreciate some advice. I have in my possession about 200 letters written by my Grandmother (mostly to her father) during her Red Cross service in England and France during World War II. She died of breast cancer before I was ever born, and I wish I could have known her, but I feel blessed to have these letters.

She met my Grandfather, a First Sergeant in the U.S. Army, in Europe during the war.

I came upon the idea of using her letters as inspiration for a book. I've read through several (most are very hard to read due to her scrawly cursive) and most seem very slice-of-life for a Red Cross girl over there. She was not a nurse - she worked at some sort of club at one of the Army posts.

Her letters are very enjoyable to read the way she describes the things she's experienced. She wrote to her father several times a week. If you were in my situation and had a treasure trove of original WWII letters, would you:

a) Write a book using the letters, keeping it in epistolary format (but changing the names)
b) Write a book, but transform the letters into more of a narrative (not sure if that's the right term, but like in 3rd person or 1st person - also changing the names)

I would change the names to avoid legal stuff with family (I do not want to interact with the related family members) - her three sons, my Uncles, I have pretty much disowned because of the fact that their sister, my Mother, lives in a permanent care home due to 4 strokes and multiple brain surgeries and is a quadriplegic now (she is 61! Her life is the worst tragedy to me). They have never once visited her, called her, or called me/my sister about her. Understandably, I do not want to have anything to do with them anymore.
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Old 02-08-2013, 02:22 AM   #2
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That's a tough call, and one only you can make.

Are you familiar with the writer Homer Hickam? He wrote a series of books about growing up in West Virginia (one of them was made in to the movie October Sky with Jake Gyllenhaal). Now that doesn't sound that interesting on the face of it, but that series of three books is considered a minor modern classic by some (one of them, The Coalwood Way, is a favorite of mine). You could use the letters and try to put yourself in that time and place and write what could be an very interesting story. Then, to honor grandma, you could include a short note explaining how the book came to be.
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Old 02-08-2013, 02:58 AM   #3
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Personally, having a similar family situation, I would say the hell with the relatives. She was your grandmother, not just their relative, so if you want to write the book, do it. I think it would be a great project. Just to save future headaches, however, I agree with changing names, since it wouldn't hurt the story itself.
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Old 02-08-2013, 03:36 PM   #4
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I quite like the idea of the epistolary format although without much of a story arc (other than the war itself, of course), this may fall a bit flat.

And another vote for changing names.
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Old 02-08-2013, 04:17 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aixsponsa View Post
...but I feel blessed to have these letters.
The older I get, the more interested in my family history I become. You are blessed and I envy you.

Quote:
Originally Posted by aixsponsa View Post
...a) Write a book using the letters, keeping it in epistolary format (but changing the names)
b) Write a book, but transform the letters into more of a narrative (not sure if that's the right term, but like in 3rd person or 1st person - also changing the names)
Depends on what you want with it. If you want to create a family history, fleshing out what you didn't knew about your ancestors, I'd go for option a, and keep the names.

If you want to write a story based on what your grandmother describes in her letters, I'd choose option b.

Hope this helps.
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Old 02-08-2013, 05:36 PM   #6
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Before doing anything with the letters, you'd want to be sure you owned the copyright.
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Old 02-08-2013, 06:04 PM   #7
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One thing you should definitely do if you haven't already: scan the letters and possibly type transcripts of them. Documents don't last forever. You might want your grandchildren to be able to read these letters too.

I think writing a more conventional narrative would probably work better. Maybe use one or two letters almost verbatim in the text, or as chapter starters?
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Old 02-08-2013, 06:05 PM   #8
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I have a shoebox full of letters that my parents exchanged while he was in the Army during WWII. Dad's letters are boring, but Mom's are not, and I've often thought they would make a good epistolary account of that time. I haven't gotten to them yet, though. Good luck with your project. I think it's a workable concept.

ETA: I've often thought I would intersperse items from a daily newspaper (with permission, of course) to add to the story. I wonder how you get permission to use newspaper articles from a paper that's long been out of business. (The Washington Star, e.g.)
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Old 02-08-2013, 09:39 PM   #9
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I would make a novel out of them--no legal issues there. But you have them to add interest on the marketing end. Good luck!
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Old 02-09-2013, 12:11 AM   #10
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Thanks to everyone for all your advice. I'm transcribing the letters into Pages. Fortunately, they're in perfect condition - no fading, disintegration, only a little yellowed is all.

I thought about it, and I'm not sure I would feel comfortable after all using my Grandmother's letters in a book. After all, these were her private letters to her father. I'm not sure I would want my future grandchild that I never knew to take MY personal letters and turn them into a book. Seems kind of wrong to me. Like a total invasion of privacy.

So, if I do anything with them, it would be as inspiration for an unrelated story, along the same lines (American girl works for the Red Cross in Europe during WWII).

Once again, thank you!
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Old 02-09-2013, 12:18 AM   #11
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Oh, and for anyone that cares, here's a tiny excerpt from one of her letters that I thought was interesting (words I could not decipher are represented as (?):

"Last Friday was the first district mess conference (and, understand, it is the model for all of England) and they met in the theater, then came to the Club for a cup of tea or coffee and a bite to eat. They had all frozen in the theater and the Club was so cozy the Colonel got the idea to have their future meetings with us and set his committee to working on the place without (?) (?) at all.

Next day a Major comes in to make final arrangements and I got (?) directions stating that A.R.C. Clubs will not be used for military meetings unless in emergency cases. My loophole there (?) that if they consider this an emergency case, then they should finish the fireplace in our lounge and they could use that room, but they cannot use any other.

I always figured there must be some way to get those darned fireplaces done before summer, and this did it! It means extra work for all of us, though, for 8 pairs of drapes must be made - by volunteer labor - and I’m our only volunteer."
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Old 02-09-2013, 01:54 AM   #12
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I would change the names and use them as the base for a third person narrative.
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Old 02-09-2013, 03:44 AM   #13
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The daughter of my husband's great-great-grandfather wrote a diary during the Civil War. Her ledgers were found in an attic and a professor transcribed and published a book. Don't know if they went to family members other than those who owned the house where the letters were found. That said, my husband's family is thrilled that the letters were saved and published. The original diary is in the library at Mount Vernon (because my husband's GGGF was a musician there). The professor who published the diary had a scholarly interest and gave the copyright to The Friends of Fort Ward. (book is The Civil War Diary of Anne S. Frobel)
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Old 02-09-2013, 09:01 AM   #14
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I have my grandmother's writings spanning over several years, so I know what a treasure it is having written family history. My family is all for whatever I choose to do with Grandma's writing and genealogical research.

It's too bad you can't talk to your family about what you would like to do.

If I were you, I'd do some research to see if you own the copyright to the letters.

Who had the letters after grandma's death?
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Old 02-09-2013, 05:28 PM   #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aixsponsa View Post
Thanks to everyone for all your advice. I'm transcribing the letters into Pages. Fortunately, they're in perfect condition - no fading, disintegration, only a little yellowed is all.

I thought about it, and I'm not sure I would feel comfortable after all using my Grandmother's letters in a book. After all, these were her private letters to her father. I'm not sure I would want my future grandchild that I never knew to take MY personal letters and turn them into a book. Seems kind of wrong to me. Like a total invasion of privacy.

So, if I do anything with them, it would be as inspiration for an unrelated story, along the same lines (American girl works for the Red Cross in Europe during WWII).

Once again, thank you!
My bolding.

This is what I was going to say. Writing a book based off the letters is one thing, but when she wrote them, they were intended for her father's eyes only. If I died, I would hate to have letters between me and my exes published (granted, that's much different because they're "love" letters, but you get the idea.)

That being said, the other (hypocritical) side of me does love to read letters and journals in books, so it would definitely be something I'd enjoy.

But if it doesn't feel right to you, then definitely don't go ahead with it.
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Old 02-09-2013, 05:48 PM   #16
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You might contact a professional transcriptionist to help you since you can't read all of her handwriting. Having looked at old letters before and then typed versions, it is amazing what someone with a trained eye can make out.
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Old 02-09-2013, 05:56 PM   #17
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In regards to what Amanda R. said, I actually just opened my own transcription business and have been doing freelance work for several years now. And aside from professional experience, I can read my husband's handwriting, which is a task in itself! I'd be happy to try to decipher what you can't read--free of charge and in confidence, of course! I'm not offering services, just help from one writer to another.
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Old 02-09-2013, 05:57 PM   #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by aixsponsa View Post
Oh, and for anyone that cares, here's a tiny excerpt from one of her letters that I thought was interesting (words I could not decipher are represented as (?):

"Last Friday was the first district mess conference (and, understand, it is the model for all of England) and they met in the theater, then came to the Club for a cup of tea or coffee and a bite to eat. They had all frozen in the theater and the Club was so cozy the Colonel got the idea to have their future meetings with us and set his committee to working on the place without (?) (?) at all.

Next day a Major comes in to make final arrangements and I got (?) directions stating that A.R.C. Clubs will not be used for military meetings unless in emergency cases. My loophole there (?) that if they consider this an emergency case, then they should finish the fireplace in our lounge and they could use that room, but they cannot use any other.

I always figured there must be some way to get those darned fireplaces done before summer, and this did it! It means extra work for all of us, though, for 8 pairs of drapes must be made - by volunteer labor - and Iím our only volunteer."
I care! I found that excerpt lively and filled with personality. I understand your reticence about publishing your Grandmother's letters but she sounds like a pistol. Maybe she would have enjoyed the idea of being an inspiration for a story. You could certainly excerpt them as part of a novel, as someone mentioned above, without exposing the more personal side of any of the correspondence. The excerpt above doesn't reveal anyone but her, and it does that beautifully. My fingers ache for her! Sewing 8 pairs of drapes--ACK!
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Old 02-09-2013, 06:20 PM   #19
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Sorry for the late responses! I’ll group them all together.

Neporsche, I think that would be the route I would take if I do decide after all to make something of them.

Freda, that sounds so interesting! I would love to read something like that.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Susan Littlefield View Post
Who had the letters after grandma's death?
Susan, they were all kept inside my grandmother’s Red Cross chest, a massive thing that is now at my sister’s house (it contains so much great stuff - original pictures, documents, her Army “welcome guide” containing notes about things, a leather case containing her reading glasses and a comb, and other things like that.

It originally was at my Uncle’s (her son’s) house, but he gave it to me and my sister when he abandoned our disabled mother (literally dropped her off at my house - no forewarning - with all her clothes and possessions in garbage bags). (He and his wife had attempted to take care of her in their home for a few years because he didn’t want her in a nursing home - we tried it out but it was a disaster in the end because they couldn’t handle it and so they just gave up - but never told us they were having trouble - we would have put her back into a care home had we known. Have not heard from them since. My sister and I put her back into a permanent care facility where she belongs because she needs that kind of care 24/7). Oops, sorry for the derail! I just get mad thinking about my Uncles.

Amanda, thanks, that never occurred to me!

mrsvalkyrie, that is incredibly generous of you! Thank you so much for the offer. I can read the majority of what she wrote if I look at it long enough, but some words are just like, ‘what?’ Haha! I’ll get in touch with you about that sometime! Once again, thanks for your offer.

Elaine, I’m glad you enjoyed it! I felt really bad for her too with having to make 16 drapes by herself, on top of her other duties at the Club. I like your suggestion of using just small excerpts like that!
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Old 02-09-2013, 06:33 PM   #20
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Okay, just one more tiny excerpt - last one, I promise! - that I thought was cute:

(dated Aug. 15, 1944)

"Vi is such a good one to go with, and if we wear civilian clothes and keep our mouths shut, they usually mistake us for natives. In that case, we let her do the talking, and she can speak their language and get farther."

This is in reference to going on vacation in Oxford.
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Old 02-09-2013, 06:35 PM   #21
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This is actually very, very interesting. When I was reading that excerpt, for some reason the cast of "Pearl Harbour" popped into my head, and I think it has the makings of a great love story!
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Old 02-09-2013, 06:51 PM   #22
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I would definitely write a love story between a Red Cross girl and an Army guy during World War II! It was reality for my Grandmother. I think she would be interested to see that I married a soldier as well!
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Old 02-09-2013, 08:26 PM   #23
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1) Who owns the copyright on those letters?

2) Since the answer to 1) is probably not you, I'd use them as primary source material to write my own novel, like any other collection of letters you got from the library.

If the answer to 1) is you, then I'd publish them verbatim, with footnotes to explain any terms/names/whatever that aren't obvious from context.
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Old 02-09-2013, 08:48 PM   #24
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James, thanks for the reply. I'll have to look into copyright of personal letters. They're in my possession since my Uncle, who had them in possession before, gave them to me. I have no idea how copyright works on this sort of thing!
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Old 02-09-2013, 09:05 PM   #25
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Wow, this is confusing (researching copyright of personal letters). Not sure how it works if both the writer and recipient of the letters are deceased. I suppose it's best to just leave them be, then, and like I said before if I were to create a story, these letters would only serve as inspiration and nothing more. I'd rather not have to deal with legal stuff (however unlikely that may be)!
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