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What a Summer That Was! (Writing Research) by Maggie Cobbett

I am delighted to welcome my friend and fellow author, Maggie Cobbett to my blog today. I first met Maggie many years ago at The Writers' Summer School that gathers in Swanwick, Derbyshire each August. I have always found her writing hints and tips useful and am thrilled that she has taken time out of her busy schedule to share insights into research for her next book. Thank you for your time today, Maggie.

Thank you for inviting me to your blog today, Val. The working title of my book in progress is 1968: an American Odyssey. It is inspired by the memoir I am writing just now.

We all have periods in our lives that we look back on with nostalgia and the summer of 1968 is one that I shall never forget. For one thing, it was a time of great upheaval. Young people all over Western Europe and the United States were involved in protests against authority, much of it focussed on the war in Vietnam. There was the Prague Spring, French students allied with millions of workers had seemed close that May to overthrowing their government and, in the USA, the Black Panther party had sprung from the Civil Rights movement.

It was against this background that my friend and I, having completed our second year at the University of Manchester, took advantage of the cheap air fares and general support offered by BUNAC (British Universities North America Club) as well as the very generous travel concession offered to foreign visitors by the Greyhound Bus Line. Away for the whole summer, we spent half of it working as camp counselors (US spelling) at an hotel resort in the Catskills and the rest ‘riding the Dog’.

Our journey took us from New York City to San Francisco via Philadelphia, Washington DC, New Orleans, San Antonio, El Paso and Los Angeles and back via Chicago, Detroit and Niagara Falls. We were shown great hospitality by many Americans on the way, met enough eccentric characters to inspire a dozen novels, nearly came to grief when our rudimentary Spanish let us down on the Mexican border – we mistook a brothel for an ordinary cheap hotel – and had a narrow escape from a very unpleasant encounter on the Subway between Manhattan and the Bronx. We were a year too late for ‘the summer of love’ and a year too early for Woodstock but I have memories of our journey that linger until this day. Endless political discussions, enjoying new foods but chafing at not being allowed to buy alcohol. Taking refuge in a cinema and watching ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ round twice rather than waiting for our midnight Greyhound in the sinister surroundings of a downtown bus depot. Nearly been thrown out of another one by a security guard who didn’t like ‘longhaired hippy types’. The police lieutenant who pressed his gun into my hand. (And no, that is not a euphemism.)

So, how did I set about my research for the memoir I’m currently engaged in writing? On the one hand, I recall many incidents as though they happened last year. (Sadly, my travelling companion has told me that she does not.) On the other hand, I have little tangible evidence of it; just a tatty old address book, a few photographs, mainly black and white, a handful of brochures collected along the way and the odd postcard sent to my parents and lovingly cherished. Diaries kept at the time have vanished, probably lost when my widowed mother gave up our family home, a great source of regret on both counts. Aware that memory is fallible and others’ recollections might differ wildly from my own, I’ve contacted as many people as possible with whom we spent time along the way, such as my penfriend from the age of 12 whose family hosted us in Michigan. (The shortness of our skirts had caused quite a stir in her very conservative family, she reminded me.)

I’ve also had a great deal of help from our local library, the Internet and social media. Writers as diverse as Jack Kerouac in his largely autobiographical novels, travel writer Bill Bryson, journalist Irma Kurtz and my good friend Ken Ludmer, still a hippy at heart, who showed us round Greenwich Village, have charted their own journeys across the USA, as have many others, and passages in their books have served to jog my memory about climate and scenery. Maps of the regions I travelled through and street plans from 1968 have been invaluable, as have contemporary accounts of the attitudes in different states towards civil rights. Although Greyhound already had a strict policy against racial discrimination on its buses and at rest stops, I’d noticed a growing nervousness amongst some of my fellow passengers as we headed south across the Mason-Dixon Line and believe now that they were right to be cautious.

I was delighted to find that former employees of the hotel resort in which I worked, (which had a great deal in common with Kellerman’s in ‘Dirty Dancing’), had even set up their own Facebook page. That has provided a treasure trove of material and I’ve even come across photos of my 20-year-old self that I’d never seen before. Even better, I discovered that a couple of people I remembered from those days had brought out their own memoirs. Having acquired copies, I’ve been able to cross-check some vital facts. Sadly, given all the years that have passed since that summer, many of the older people I knew back then are long gone, although the Internet has thrown up some very useful information. Remembering, for example, how impressed I was with the leafy suburb of Washington DC in which we were shown great hospitality by a doctor and his wife, I actually found photographs of their former home on an estate agent’s website. Talk about déjà vu! The surroundings and even the main rooms were almost exactly as I remembered them. I had a similar experience when I looked up the waterfront home of my mother’s cousins on Manhattan Beach, just outside Los Angeles, and recalled their generosity to the girls who landed on their doorstep, travel stained, hungry and very happy to be entertained for a week.

My research is far from complete and who knows what the next few months will throw up? The most important thing is that I’m very much enjoying a wallow down memory lane and the process of committing my memories to paper.

Thank you, Val, for allowing me to share this.

The Author

Having taught modern languages at home and abroad for many years, Yorkshire born Maggie Cobbett found a second career working in television and film. Everyone she met had a tale to tell and Maggie, never without a notebook and pen to hand, is a very good listener. Much of this is reflected in her latest book, 'My 'Extra' Life: Memoirs of a Supporting Artist'.

Fiction is Maggie's first love, but she's also had many articles and theatre reviews published and even the occasional poem. Her stories range from light romance and humour, mostly written for the woman's magazine market, to dark tales of murder and betrayal. These themes are also reflected in her debut novel, 'Shadows of the Past', and three short story collections, 'Had We But World Enough', 'Swings & Roundabouts' and 'Anyone For Murder'? Maggie has also written a couple of novels aimed at younger readers. 'Wheels on Fire' is a contemporary story set on a school visit to Paris. Kaz, confined to a wheelchair after a tragic accident, is out for a very unusual kind of vengeance. In 'Workhouse Orphan', set at the dawn of the 20th century, David, barely 13 and sent up to work in a Yorkshire coal mine, has to figure out a way of rescuing the younger siblings he was forced to leave behind in their London workhouse.

In between times, Maggie writes 'fillers'. Surprisingly lucrative, these have led to the publication of 'Easy Money For Writers & Wannabes' in which Maggie shares the tricks she's learnt along the way.

Stories of Maggie's are also included in two anthologies currently available from Amazon:

York Tales (The G.P.'s Tale)

Migration Stories (Not Wanted)

Maggie can be contacted through her website

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