Sue Ingalls Finan is the author of The Cards Don’t Lie. She taught American history and literature in Chicago, Pittsburgh and Northern California, and now lives in Sonoma County with her history buff husband Jim. Sue writes for her local newspaper and volunteers at hospitals and libraries with Duffy, her Irish wolfhound therapy dog. Over to you, Sue.
Stephen King once said, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.” Not only can we take books wherever we go (whenever we go), but they can serve as personal portals to times and places no longer accessible. For historical fiction writers, achieving the latter requires a combination of research, inspired invention and a translation of contemporary human emotions, goals, and desires to a bygone time, allowing readers to vicariously celebrate or commiserate with the characters.
Some time ago I wrote a historical fiction short story (Home Away from Home) about a Prisoners of War camp in Sonoma County, California. This camp held approximately 250 German POW’s from 1944-1946. I was intrigued by a local museum exhibit, which features photographs, newspaper reports, and paraphernalia such as wood carvings made from prune boxes. A long-time resident also donated a sixteen millimeter film of the prisoners marching from camp to the worksites of orchards and vineyards. The president of the historical museum, who owns the property where the camp was located, also interviewed the descendants of one of the guards, and happily shared the family’s stories.
My key resource was a letter in the museum’s possession written by prisoner Horst Liewald to his wife Elfrida. Luckily my neighbor, who was born in Germany during the war and later relocated to Sonoma County, speaks fluent German and English. My neighbor translated Horst’s letter, which somehow was never mailed. This is how Horst became my character. I concocted a series of fictional letters from him to Elfrida, whom he supposed was still taking care of their family farm in Breslau, Germany. Based on information supplied by the museum, Horst’s letters recounted the day-to-day life in the camp, including sing-alongs, beer and baseball games, and buying Cracker Jacks at the canteen with his pay of eighty cents/day. (It was truly a laid-back camp – no guard towers and guns.)
But I also added what I conjectured to be Horst’s fears and anxieties about Elfrida’s safety: he discovers from the guards that Russians were invading Germany, and he has not heard from his wife for several weeks. Through these details, the reader cares about the main character’s outcome, and can’t help but wonder: what happens after the prisoners are released? (Spoiler alert: In 1949, Horst and Elfrida emigrated to Sonoma County, sponsored by the owner of the farm where Horst had worked as a POW. Elfrida is still living in Oregon!)
In contrast, my current novel, The Cards Don’t Lie, demanded even more creative speculation. The Battle of New Orleans took place over two hundred years ago, and there is a lack of contemporary records regarding the role of females. We know the citizens of the city bonded; the barriers of race, religion, culture and class fell. The women nursed the wounded in the Ursuline convent as well as in private homes, collected weapons, made bandages, gathered blankets, bed linens, soap, food, and also sewed much-needed clothing for some of the last-arriving volunteers. All of these efforts required coordination and organization. My questions: who were these women? And what might they have had to contend with besides their husbands, brothers, and sons heading into battle?
Through visits to New Orleans, museums, statements of tour guides, and many books, I looked into the lives of the different strata of females of New Orleans, concentrating on the character creations of a free woman of color and a white plantation mistress.
Free women of color in New Orleans in the early 1800s were often involved in placages, or left-handed marriages with wealthy white men. Their mothers, thanks to their own placage benefactors, sponsored grand balls to arrange permanent financial settlements for their daughters. But! What if the placée doesn’t like her mother’s choice? What if the placée is in love with another man? Other questions came to mind: how does the left-handed wife feel about the legal wife? What if the male does not live up to the agreement? What if his white wife objects to his second family? And what happens when the British attack? (Do read the book!)
Also documented is the high incidence of death when giving birth, and that many children did not live beyond their first birthday. My second character is having difficulties with both. But she is determined to bear a son for her beloved husband and will do anything to fulfill her goal. This typically capable character also hears voices and has out-of-body experiences triggered by traumatic events, including the burial of her first child and the departure of family and friends to a battle that will decide the fate of the city and its citizens.
My research for both the short story and novel transported me to different eras and areas. But no matter when or where I alighted, my characters’ goals and desires are authentically ubiquitous – courage and the concern for loved ones.
Many thanks for giving us your take on being transported in time and place, Sue. The Battle of New Orleans is a unique setting for a novel.
The Cards Don’t Lie by Sue Ingalls Finan
1814: It’s the third year of the United States second War of Independence. The British are on the verge of capturing the strategically important port of New Orleans. In the midst of the Americans’ chaotic preparations for battle, three women play key roles in the defense of the city: Catherine, a free woman of color, voodoo priestess, and noted healer personally summoned by General Andrew Jackson; Marguerite, a pampered Creole plantation mistress prone to out-of-body experiences; and Millie, a plucky, patriotic prostitute inspired by her pirate lover to serve in the most dangerous capacity of all. These three women’s lives and fates become intertwined as they join forces to defend their country.
To be published by She Writes Press in October 2018.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.