Weaving History into Story
As promised, I’m back to blogging about history and fiction!
Writing historical fiction is like weaving. Each of my Saint Maggie stories has history interlaced throughout their fabric, but each does it in differing ways.
The original, Saint Maggie, reads a bit like a mystery but also deals with questions about authority figures and what happens when people feel those figures have betrayed them, as well as themes of forgiveness, love, and community. The book took about 10 years for me to write, mainly because I would finish a draft and put it aside for a few years before picking it up again. I believe I was messing around with language, character development, and a few other issues.
But in terms of story line, especially as I was working on the conclusion, I had a template because the story was based on a historical event that had been well-documented in newspapers of the time. I knew if I followed that roadmap, and inserted a twist here and there, I’d make it to the end.
And I did.
I was thrown for a loop when people asked if I was going to write another book about Maggie and her family. Somehow it popped into my head to write a story about the family in Gettysburg, which I had visited a couple of times. But I soon found out that Walk by Faith, as the book ended up being titled, presented new challenges.
First, everyone who bothers to find out can know exactly what happened during the Battle of Gettysburg, It is laid out hour by hour, if not minute by minute. No one, except some folks living in Belvidere, NJ, and possibly in Warren County, NJ, or perhaps the occasional local history geek, would recognize the basis behind the plot in Saint Maggie. The Gettysburg story demanded that I understand a very complex historical event.
This presented a problem for me. You see, I now was dealing with military history, which is not an interest of mine. Neither was that type of history going to be the focus of my story. My real interest was what happened to the characters before and during the battle.
Nonetheless, I needed to take my medicine and learn about, not only the Battle of Gettysburg but also the battles of 1863. Walk by Faith story starts early in 1863. In addition, Eli and Carson are war correspondents and are in the field. Where are they? What is happening at that location? How would I get Eli and Carson back to Gettysburg either before or after the battle?
First, I discovered that the New Jersey Fifteenth Volunteers had been deployed in Gettysburg on the last day of the battle. Then I found out that they had been joined to the Sixth Corps of the Army of the Potomac, so the Fifteenth was part of the US. troop movement into Pennsylvania. Fantastic. Problem solved.
As for what Maggie and those in the town were going through, there were resources with excerpts from journals written during the battle or memoirs written after it. Although we know the hour-by-hour facts of the fight, imagine this: the people living in the town did not have a clue. All they knew was that all hell broke out. They heard gunfire, had to dodge fire from pickets, and were subject to bombardment when artillery went astray. Dead animals and men littered the streets, and wounded men were coming to or being brought to the doors of their houses, churches, schools, and other buildings. Life was turned on its head for three days, three days that must have felt like three weeks. Remarkably, only one civilian (Jenny Wade) died during the battle.
But what must that have been like? What did the people do? What did they feel? Drawing on these questions, the main themes in the book revolve around faith, personal grit, and the pressure stressful times can put on peoples’ relationships.
Next, what happens after you’ve been through a horrific battle?
I tried to answer that in A Time to Heal. Surely, I thought, there would be tons of information about what happened to the people of Gettysburg after the armies left.
I was wrong.
I would have loved to have lodged myself in archival materials in Gettysburg and done research for a couple of weeks, but that isn’t possible for me. Materials that I found online or in books about life after the fight were scanty in comparison to oodles of information on the battle itself. But I did find enough, particularly about the tent hospital, Camp Letterman, that helped me understand what happened to the wounded in the months after the battle.
While I had a timeline to work from for Walk by Faith, there was no timeline for A Time to Heal, aside from Camp Letterman’s creation in June and its closure in November. But in my search for information, I did learn that the U.S. government sought to stop sympathizers from enabling Confederate soldiers to escape. This led to a storyline about how compassion can run up against law.
A Time to Heal’s themes focus on hope (symbolized by Maggie’s pregnancy), healing (how Maggie and Eli mend their relationship), and courage.
In late 1863, the war is still raging. It occasionally raises its head in Seeing the Elephant, since Eli has become Editor-in-Chief for the Register, but this book had no historical “anchor” whatsoever. By that statement, I mean I felt untethered and missed having even the vaguest of historical timelines to work my story around. And yet, the situation gave me a great deal of freedom, which I used to develop my characters, particularly Lydia and Frankie. If I spin off either or both of these young ladies later, rest assured that they will be formidable women!
In Seeing the Elephant, I ended up weaving history into Eli’s struggle with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (nightmares and panic attacks), the treatment he and others might have received in a hospital via the Moral Treatment method, hints of the coming Gilded Age (in the form of industrialist Josiah Norton), and the dangerous things that can happen when such a hospital becomes a money-making machine.
The themes emerging in this novel have to do with change (for the characters and the town), love, and courage.
And so now I’m working on the fifth book in the series. So far, the history being woven into this are education and schools, and newspapers. Did you know that in the 1800s newspapers shifted from being sponsored by political organizations or concerns to being sponsored by ads taken out by companies? Neither did I. Guess who is doing some research? Guess who is reviewing the information she has about public and private schools?
We’ll see what kind of a tapestry I can make of this.
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Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder