Don’t Be a Show Off! BUT!! Remember What Your Characters Know!

Here’s a dangerous double-edged sword. Welcome to writing! Research as eeeevil vs. research as crucial. Just because you learned something existed in 1921, don’t tell us to prove your research skills are Ph.D.-worthy. As few people living today can use “Gretna Green” in a sentence, this article from a 1921 New York Times is, for a while at least, incomprehensible.

***

WINONA LAKE, Ind., May 23.—Whether a Presbyterian pastor can conduct a Gretna Green centre and continue to be in good and regular standing, will be decided by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which is holding its 133rd session here. The case is before its Judicial Commission, and that body will report tomorrow or Wednesday.

The Rev. John H. McElmoyle, Pastor at Elkton, Md., is accused of conducting the Gretna Green. Among the members of the Judicial Commission is ex-Governor James P. Goodrich of Indiana. A book of 200 pages of evidence is in the hands of each member. 

Elders of his church wanted Mr. McElmoyle dismissed from the pastorate. The case was taken to the Presbytery of Baltimore. From that body it was taken up to the Synod of Baltimore, and from there it was sent to the General Assembly, the highest court of the Presbyterian Church.

Mr. McElmoyle, according to the printed evidence, married 1,445 couples in one year. Sometimes he had as many as fifteen weddings in one day. The evidence says he had hack drivers to bring couples—many of whom were not of age—to his house. There is a story that a funeral at which he was to officiate had begun, when a hack was seen to drive up in front of his door. He left the funeral, skipped over to the house, performed the ceremony, and then went back and continued the funeral.

The evidence states that his wedding fees averaged one year $4 a ceremony, raising his income several thousand dollars.

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In case you were wondering, and I know you were…

Gretna Greene, n. 1. A  Scottish parish famous as a home for quickie marriages performed by blacksmiths over an anvil. 2. Any location where marriages can be arranged with a minimum of fuss.

Don’t confuse your reader, but do keep in mind what your characters know. If you’re writing a 1921 period piece, everyone would know what a Greta Greene is. You would never, ever do this (explaining just for the reader) which, tragically, I see a lot of in first draft dialogue.

SALLY

That awful Reverend Mr. McElmoyle! Using all his wretched Gretna Greene money to buy an Erector Set for every youngster in Elkton.

GEOFFREY

A Gretna Green, Sally? That’s a location where marriages can be arranged with a minimum of fuss, right?

SALLY

Well, Geoff, it sure is. That awful John H. McElmoyle certainly was a busy man!

***

This writing lesson comes courtesy of my son’s most excellent newsletter, Strange Times. I highly recommend signing up for it. Every little while, the oddest articles from one day’s 1921 New York Times

While, you’re at it, pre-order the final book in his Westside trilogy: Westside Lights. I’ve read it. It’s marvelous!

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