Philip H. Smith and his wife, Mary A, Miller. Their children (left to right): Wesley (boys and girls wore dresses as young children in those days), Luther, Mary (Maidie), Ada, and Minnie. From my ancestry.com account. I have some personal photos of Mary as a great-grandmother, but need to dig them out.
Friend Stephanie M. Hopkins and I are working on a new project. I’m usually a solo writer, except when co-working with my partner, Dan Bush. This time around, though, I’m creating with a female friend. I can’t go into many details at the moment, but I can tell you that the story is set in Civil War America (Stephanie and I both have an interest in the period) and will involve two girls who are cousins. My job is to create a character to interact with her character.
That means first item on the table for us is to create central characters. In the past, I have done this in multiple ways. Sometimes I imagine that the character looks like an actor or even like a person I know. Seeing and hearing the character in my mind helps with development and interaction with the other characters. Other times, though, I might have an idea of how I want the character to be. I ask myself, “What qualities, foibles, lifestyle, and relationships do I want this character have?”
For this story, however, I recalled that I have an ancestor who fought in the Civil War. So, off I went to ancestry.com, where I discovered that his daughter was one of my great-grandmothers on my father’s side. And that I knew her!
Her name was Mary E. Smith Lape Frost. I knew her as “Nana.” Nana lived with my family for a short while when I was no older than 6 or 7 years of age. My memory of Nana is that she was a small, skinny old lady with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses. My clearest memory of her was sitting on her lap at her desk in her bedroom and writing a letter to Captain Kangaroo. (Look it up if you haven’t experienced children’s TV in the 1950s.) I scribbled on the piece of paper before me and then sat back against her and said, “What did I just write, Nana?” Nana very wisely did not say, “I load of gibberish, dear. You don’t know how to write yet.” Instead, she said, “What do you think it says?” I remember being completely flummoxed that she couldn’t understand my scrawls. The truth is that all writing looked like nonsense to me at that age. I always needed an adult to interpret everything in print or handwriting for me. And so I wondered, what was Nana’s problem that she couldn’t interpret my letter of appreciation to Captain Kangaroo?
When my great-grandmother died in 1961, my mother took me to see her body at the funeral parlor. Mom very gently explained to me that because I was nine years old, I was old enough to see what someone looked like when they were dead. So I went, I saw, and I thought that she really didn’t look much like the Nana I knew. (P.S. there was no traumatic scene in which I was forced to kiss a dead relative goodbye. My mom knew way better than to do that with her skittish first-born child.)
That was part of the inspiration. The other part involves my great-grandmother Mary’s father, Philip Henry Smith, who enlisted in the Union army as a volunteer on 3 February 1863. The records say was a private in the New York 6th Cavalry, Company F. For a while I thought that perhaps he was one of those dashing fellows riding along with a sword in one hand and slashing the heck out of the enemy (erghh… gross). But I was wrong and here is why: before the war he was a blacksmith. Most likely he forged the shoes for the horses and replaced broken equipment on the wagons and other equipment. He also could have been a farrier, or someone who specializes in shoeing and carrying for the horses’ hooves.
Given that information, questions began to arise. What would have happened in a town when the blacksmith left to enlist in the army? In real life, there appears to have been two blacksmiths in the town where my family lived. But what if there had only been one blacksmith? Who would have stepped up during his absence? And who would have provided for his family?
And just like that I had a setting and questions to develop my fictional character and her family. I have decided that the character will have my Nana’s first name, Mary, and will be called by what may have been Nana’s nickname, Maidie. However, my great-grandmother was born in 1869 and I need my character to be eighteen at the start of the story, so I have given the fictional Mary an earlier birth date of 1842. I don’t have a last name for her yet, but that is coming.
But all that brings up something central to writing fiction: it is all about asking “what if?” Or at least that is the starting point for an author. In my case with this project, the question has taken me to my own family for inspiration.
Have a good Monday (if you can)! I’ll be back on Wednesday.
Also, I encourage you to visit Stephanie M. Hopkins over at her blog, Layered Pages: https://layeredpages.com/
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder