19th century, family, isle of man, writing

The Kindness of Strangers


Thank you for all your kind thoughts and wishes about my previous post. I’m thrilled to be moving on to the next stage in my writing adventure.

After I finalized things with Laura, I took one last swing through revision-land with my project. This time it was solely to focus on historical accuracy: checking the details I’d thrown in there because they sounded right, plotting out characters’ journeys on actual maps, and digging through a ton of digitized newspapers from the 19th century. I rediscovered my love for historical research, and confirmed that not everyone is as enthralled by the workings of Cleveland street cars from 1883 as I am. (But the bell punch was such an important way for conductors to count their passengers!)

And then I did the thing I’d been putting off for a while. I double-checked my translations of Manx Gaelic.

My actual great-great-grandmother, the one whose life the book is based on, grew up in a Manx immigrant family. Family members occasionally wrote letters to each other in Manx, a language that originated on the Isle of Man. This is a self-governing dependency of the British Crown located in the Irish Sea, as well as the homeland of the Manx cat (the tailless one). When I was writing the book, I wanted to give a sense of how this fictional-based-on-real-life family might have interacted, so I threw in some Manx phrases. But it got more complicated than I was expecting.

See, the Manx language is not widely spoken. The last native speaker died in 1974, and at one point, UNESCO listed it as officially a dead language. (The dramatic decline–from the 1890s, when Manx descendants were still speaking it occasionally in America, to the 1990s, when it was declared “dead’–is astounding.) But in the last twenty years the Manx government has poured tons of support into teaching children the language in school, and there’s been a resurgence.

All this means that it was pretty difficult to find a dictionary (everything I found was online), and even harder to figure out what I wanted my characters to say. There may have been some long nights trying to find passages in the Manx-language Book of Common Prayer…maybe. I’m stubbornly independent when it comes to research, and I wanted to try to do everything myself. Which, yes, meant I cobbled together stuff from an 18th-century text.

For my final check, though, I wanted to be sure. So I bucked up and emailed the most official-sounding person I could find, the Manx Language Officer for the main language program. I read over my email a dozen times, made sure I sounded as not-crazy as possible, and hit send.

The Manx Language Officer was as kind as could be. Within a few days I had every phrase and sentence I needed, plus others in case I wanted variety. In fact, this was the easiest part of my whole fact-checking revision, unlike trying dozens of search terms in the digitized newspaper collection.

The lesson? Don’t be afraid to ask experts for help. Especially when it comes to research. I only wish I’d known that before I tried to give myself a crash course in a once-dead language.


9 thoughts on “The Kindness of Strangers”

  1. Oh, Abby, I adore the rabbit hole of research. I remember when writing my historical fiction how I was desperately trying to sort out not only the accurate Gaelic phrases, but ones that were etymologically correct for the time. What a headache. I did happen to get sidetracked for a few days with a terrific BBC project I came across where folks were traveling to all corners of the UK in order to have villagers read passages from the same books in order to record the many dialects that are dying off. I adored that find–which was also essential, as writing speech with a specific dialect can be incredibly tricky. So many rules in order to make sure it doesn’t come off corny.
    Regardless, I’m so excited for you. So excited. Sooo excited!


    1. Shelley, that sounds like a fascinating detour! And what a challenging task, to find accurate phrases for the time period. In darker moments I wonder if it’s really necessary to go to such lengths for accuracy, but when you finally find that nugget of gold, it’s all worth it.


      1. Well, this isn’t 100% on topic, but it supports the ‘nugget of gold’ theory: I’m in the middle of reading a terrific book, Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. In it, there’s a scene where a 13-yr-old boy (takes place in the early 1970s in the Midwest) is sprawled on the sofa on a summer afternoon reading a comic book with the background noise of the Twins playing the 9th inning. That hit me right in the pit of my stomach because it could have easily been just a boy reading a book with the radio on. But because a little kid in the 70’s, living in the Wisconsin, it was wholly authentic and made the scene entirely relatable.
        Weird, I know, but things like that make me happy with other writers.


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