Dear Diary . . .

Have you ever wondered what daily life was like in the past?  What a young man or woman did with their time?  As I was doing research on the Victorian era for one of my books, I came across interesting selections from diaries of people of all ages.

My initial search started because the protagonist in my novel, An Inherited Evil, must learn more about his long-dead grandmother.  To give him the chance to do this, I provided him with diaries written by his grandmother when she was a teenager and in her early twenties.

Through my research, I discovered that many actual diaries of the time had preprinted pages with several dates per page—only room enough to write short capsules of your day.  Yet even those capsules gave a picture of a life.  Excerpts like, “Spent all day sewing my new frock,” or “Took most of the day to churn the butter,” are typical of these capsules.  But there are also bits about who the writer called on and who returned the favor.  And if the author of the diary lived in the country, guests would often stay overnight even if they lived nearby.  I suppose because a home nearby wasn’t really all that close.  (Or the weather was bad.)

For my novel, I needed the diary entries to be long paragraphs.  I was happy to find that Victorians also wrote in blank books and scrap books filled with drawings and photos to keep records of their lives.  The most difficult part about reading old diaries is deciphering the handwriting, which is often cramped, with more lines per page than seem humanly possible.  But if you’re interested in making the attempt, there are countless resources online and books available.

All this made me wonder if people do this type of record-keeping anymore.  I mean, I’m aware that some people keep journals where they record thoughts and feelings and ideas.  But do people, especially teenagers, record snippets of their daily life in a book meant to be private?  Or is that type of thing now done on social networking sites where people can instantly let others know about their day?

Maybe 100 years from now, people will be reading blogs to see what life was like in the 21st century.


6 Responses to Dear Diary . . .

  1. Kate says:

    My grandmother journaled every day of her life. In detail. I remember her referring to the entries to prove that something happened when she said it did, or to settle an argument. Now that she’s no longer with us, I’m hoping to get my hands on them (when I can do so without bursting into tears). I’d like to see what she thought about things when she was younger–like meeting my grandfather (I’m told that’s an amusing entry, that she compliments his Spanish, which was huge coming from her. (Nana was fluent in Italian, Spanish, French and English)) I especially would like to see the day I was born… ^_^
    I wish I could journal like that. I’ve tried, I’m not good at it. Maybe someday I could try again. I think it would be wonderful to leave something like that for my children and grandchildren

  2. Emilie says:

    I’ve tried to journal too, Kate, and the only time I managed to do so consistantly (like, twice a week) was my first two years of college. I enjoyed it then because those two years were so full of new experiences. I also journaled nearly every day of my study abroad trip to Ireland, but that’s much more of a travelogue than daily reflections.

    People assume I must journal regularly because I’m a writer, but that’s just not the case. Even prayer journaling doesn’t work for me, even though people think it should. Not sure why this doesn’t work…after reading this entry, I may give it another try:)

  3. Tricia says:

    I wish my grandparents had left a journal like that, Kate. What a great gift. As it stands, I’ll continue to read other people’s journals because they fascinate me. We can be separated by 100 years or more, but basic human struggles are the same.

  4. Jennifer says:

    In high school (when we lived in France) I journaled all the time. I’m going to go see if I can find my journals when I’m home Sunday. I have no idea where they are, but I think they might be in the attic. I also have a journal with sporadic entries from over the years – I found that I really stopped writing in a journal when the advent of Blogs and IM and the growth of the computer in general came about. Instead of sitting in bed at night writing in my journal now I surf the web or do what not on the computer. Kind of sad.

  5. QNPoohBear says:

    I’m just discovering your blog now and I want to comment on the topic of diaries. For several years I have been reading and writing finding aids for diaries our state’s historical society. Some diaries were printed as you discovered with only a few lines per day but many had one page/day. Even so, a diarist very rarely revealed her thoughts or feelings. Usually, men and women kept a record of daily events and it’s up to the historian to interpret that and determine what is useful in studying the past. Also, most of the diaries in our collection, and I believe most extant journals, are written by upper class men and women who had the time to sit and write. Sometimes diarists would write their thoughts and feelings in their diary. One teenage girl from the 1860s wrote “Private” on the cover and inside wrote about the boy she liked and her troubles with her parents’ rules – not much different from the teen angst of today! Her mother also kept a diary and wrote scathing words about a wayward son-in-law. The gentleman whose diaries I am currently reading wrote a lot about his love life and the trials and tribulations of relationships. Later he writes about being a dad and the joys of watching his sons grow up. Diaries can be wonderful sources of inspiration for novels! I’m kicking around a few ideas myself based on things I’ve read in diaries.

  6. Tricia says:

    Hello, QNPoohBear! How cool that you’re reading historical diaries. I love the glimpse of the past that they give us. It sounds like you’ve had the opportunity to learn a lot. Thanks for commenting. 😀

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