Image: Ford Mansion (Washington's Headquarters), Morristown, NJ. National Park Service
I know I’ve mentioned this before, but I’d like to go into the topic in a bit more depth.
I was lucky enough to have had parents who thought history and education were important. I was in the second half of third grade when we moved to Parsippany, New Jersey. Parsippany is in Morris County and during the American Revolution Morris County saw a bit of action.
When I was a child, they took me to visit Washington’s Headquarters (the Ford Mansion, pictured at top) in nearby Morristown. George Washington used the house as his headquarters during the winter of 1779-80. I remember being intrigued as I looked at the period furnishings. I wondered what Washington was like as a person and what Mrs. Ford, the widow who owned the mansion, was like.
Jockey Hollow, also in Morristown (see photo below) is where Washington’s troops encamped from December 1779 to June 1780. They survived the coldest winter on record living in log huts. Either with my family or with my Girl Scout Troop, I can't remember which, I visited those huts and wondered what it was like to live in them in such cold weather. Then I compared how the average soldier lived with Washington’s considerably more comfortable existence over in the Ford Mansion.
Photo of soldiers' huts. National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/morr/index.htm
:When I was in 8th grade, my parents took us to visit Washington, D.C. where we toured the Smithsonian museums and gazed at the White House and the Capitol. Then we went to Williamsburg, Virginia and toured the historical area. My parents had stayed there during their honeymoon in 1951 and had been impressed with the way Colonial Williamsburg endeavored to recreate an entire town on the bones of an existing one. That visit blew my mind because it was as close to historical immersion as I had ever been. I remember going through the Brush-Everard House, standing in a bedroom, and wondering what it must have been like to have woken up there.
Photo Left: ongoing archeological dig near the Palace, from my collection, taken June 2018.
Right: Brush-Everard House, from Colonial Williamsburg,
It is no accident then that I chose to work in Colonial Williamsburg while researching my dissertation at Randolph-Macon College over in Ashland. My research had nothing whatsoever to do with the colonial era. It covered the Vacation Bible School Movement in the Peninsula from the late 1800s to the early 1960s. But I loved sitting in that little outbuilding next to the King’s Arms Tavern and inputting data into a computer while listening to the clop of horse hooves and the crunch of wagon wheels along the street, the crowing of roosters, and the bleating of sheep. It was the best working environment ever.
The love of history and curiosity nurtured in me by my parents was augmented by college professors who made history come to life by relating stories about the people who “made” history. (On some level, don’t we all make history?) When I went to theological school and later to graduate school I began to understand that the macro view of history was built out of people’s stories.
Somewhere along the line, I also began reading historical fiction, and I’m sure it was because of the story element and my curiosity: what was it like to live in times past? What were people's interests? Their passions? Their fears? I primarily devoured books set in the nineteenth century, but occasionally wandered into other eras.
I write historical fiction because because I'm curious about other eras and the people who lived in them. For me, every story starts with the question, "what if?" I try to bring to life lives that are long gone and environments that now seem strange or quaint or off-putting. I try to understand the “why” behind the events of a bygone era and the impact those “whys” may still have on us.
Tomorrow: How I chose my setting and period.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder