Beyond Sewing: Designing an Impression
I think in some ways, despite my actual years, I’m about a great-grandma in living history years. This may be one of those articles where you just sit back and enjoy the Granny Rant. But, hopefully it may be useful!
One of the frequent discussions that comes up is whether or not an individual needs a highly detailed persona (with associated worksheets, family trees, and character notes that would put any world-building novelist to shame).
There’s a certain amount of impression context and background you do need, just to make sure your material culture details (wardrobe, tools, etc) are consistent with what you’re trying to communicate.
But, you may not need a full backstory, ever.
Here’s what I mean:
When I first got really serious about matching my impressions to documented information, we were looking at Western Immigration as our most available event scenarios. We’re here in the West, most branches of my family had come out before Oregon Statehood. (David’s family is half Gulf South, one-quarter pre-Rev New England, one-quarter 20th century emigration from South Africa and Scotland.)
So I started with the most obvious resources: Trails era (1843-1865 for my interest era) diaries and letter compilations, advice to emigrants available in republished volumes like The Prairie Traveler, and family history documents.
With all of that, and being a Very Indoor Cat, myself, the people who most spoke to me from the past were Reluctant Immigrants: those who were going West under duress, for a variety of reasons. My first impression or person with full documentation was just that:
West Under Duress: A Woman Abroad and Quite Cranky About It, Thanks.
I didn’t need a name. I didn’t have to know my religion, generally, save for the times I was doing really early stuff and needed to be Methodist for the mission set-ups. I didn’t have a birthdate. I was crabby about being pulled away from family, but I didn’t do backstory for any of them, either. My conversations with visitors concerned our preparations, my annoyance with my Very Cheerful Emigrant Husband, and at least one Cheerful Emigrant female companion, my worries and fears, my desires for what I’d have in Oregon,
And even without any detailed backstory, because I had the words and lives of actual emigrants in my brain, I was fine.
Over time, with more research, I began to appreciate the notes and opinions of more Cheerful Emigrants, and began to develop an additional impressions:
West With Some Tolerance: A Woman Doing Her Best.
For this impression, I still talked about fears and worries, preparations, hopes for the future. I drew in more about the conditions Back Home that motivated the move. I was cautiously optimistic.
Now, 24 years in, I can be Reluctant, Tolerant, Enthusiastic, Tired, Broke-Down, Mormon, Methodist, Merchant, or Entertaining Emigrant. I can also share any of that information in second or third person, as well as first.
I still don’t have a name, birthdate, or Emotionally Scarring Backstory. My husband is usually off “finding better grazing for the stock.” He doesn’t have a name, either.
If I need a new persona to suit a new event scenario, I just research some, add those details and notes, and off we go. I *can* add a name if needed, but it’s usually (shocker) Elizabeth or some variant thereof. All of my surnames are bog-common in the 19th century, so I can pick any of those at will. I typically stick with a range of working class roles, and have never owned a ballgown (though I’ve been known to participate in a waltz, two-step, or polka. Oh, how I love a polka! Oh, how my knees do NOT love a polka!)
So that’s one way to go… Documented Generic, with Added Specifics As Needed. It’s highly flexible, suits first, second, or third person equally well, and grows and adapts as I grow and learn.