Greta Nettleton’s The Quack’s Daughter tells the story of her great-grandmother, Cora Keck, through her diary and memorabilia from her days as a Vassar College student. This lively biography challenges our assumptions about women’s lives in the late 1800s as it offers an intimate glimpse of a wealthy young woman’s coming of age. Editor Catherine Cocks spoke to the author about what she learned in researching the book.
Catherine Cocks: How much research did you do beyond looking at your great-grandmother’s memorabilia?
Greta Nettleton: I began in the spring of 2006 on a small scale, intending only to share what I found with my two sisters. As I began to look up information about Victorian America on the internet, I quickly discovered many books and other original sources that had actually been used in 1885, donated from the libraries of Yale, Harvard, the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Michigan, and others, which would have been inaccessible to a nonacademic researcher twenty years ago. These precious artifacts are now searchable electronically on Google Books and elsewhere. I also received extensive support from Vassar College and its excellent college archives. I ended up spending seven years working on this, although not full-time.
Catherine: What advice would you give to other people who are considering writing about their family history?
Greta: Dive in and enjoy it! It’s the process as much as the outcome. Don’t be afraid to get started simply by jotting down the facts you have, and don’t forget to document where you found each fact—this proof provides the skeleton for the historical relevance of the history. The hardest part is trying to shape a story arc amidst the scattered events of real lives. I believe it is justified to add your own voice to build motivations, emotions, and context that connect readers to past lives. It’s your family, after all, and you have a right to an opinion about them!