Who by Fire

Shira Dest and I came into contact through a particular post here on A Writer of History. And I’m delighted to welcome her to the blog to talk about her work in progress. Shira’s published historical fiction is a serial short story called Ann & Anna (this is a link to the first part), which was posted on her blog. She is a published academic, community organizer, and an advocate for building strong public domain social infrastructure.


Thank you, Mary, for inviting me to write this guest post.  I’m currently coming back to working on my novel after a pause to work on a rather different project.  The working title of this novel, set in 1838 Baltimore, is Who By Fire.  When I picked up the thread of Isaias, the novel’s protagonist, I found that the arc I’d been outlining for him wasn’t working.  To my surprise, readers were far more interested in a short story series I’d begun: Ann and Anna, set twelve years later with a different protagonist, named Willow.  The novel and the series both draw from a similar set of sources, dealing with a subset of the domestic slave trade known as The Fancy Trade.  The character arcs are also similar, but I’ve learned a lot from the short story series that will apply to the novel.

Who by Fire – working cover

The arc for Isaias involves his being forced to make a choice, in order to save his family.  His wife, held on a different plantation, is about to be sold as a Fancy Maid, and he must learn to trust others to get the help he will need to save himself, his wife, and his son.  Ann and Anna’s Willow must also learn to trust, but she is a woman who has been a Fancy all of her life.  I discovered that the networks needed to make the novel work were very complex, as were the social interactions involved.  Much of the subtle communication revolves around song, and I had difficulty planning those interactions in an organic way.  The short series helped me work this out in a similar setting, but with a simpler cast.  While writing the shorter scenes for Ann & Anna, I found that reaching back for phrases I heard as a small child, often bits of song verse, helped to create smoother dialogue in the correct setting.  I checked time periods for phrases and songs by searching the internet.  There was also the normal historical fiction research on clothing, transportation, lodgings, and food, differing by social class and station.  Other research was more specialized.

Mr. Beecher selling a slave girl

I came across the Georgetown Slavery Archive while researching my family history, much of which is from southern Maryland.  The Archive documents the 1838 sale by Georgetown College of 314 enslaved Marylanders down to Louisiana.  The idea that some of those women who were sold south could then have been resold led me to find articles on the domestic slave trade, and to the growing body of research on the Fancy Trade.  I needed to understand how pricing of various types of slaves affected their treatment both within the enslaved community, and by free people of color as well as the various parts of the white population.  Many newspapers sold ad space for runaway slaves, and those ads are an important source of detail as well.  For me, imagining how my 5xs great grandmother might have felt as she saved up her earnings as a dress-maker in Charleston, SC, likely for many years, in order to purchase her freedom, helped me imagine the feelings of both Isaias and Willow.  Moving up to sources on slavery in Maryland, I sought out research on both the free mulatto population as well as the census data available across the board.  Much of this was already familiar territory from my family history research.  I was also able to make use of a few of my own family secrets, accidentally, at first, to bring Willow to life, by creating a similar situation set in the series period.  This made it almost uncomfortably easy to see the horror of being a Fancy through her eyes.  That will transfer over to both Isaias and especially to his wife, in the novel.  Many of the paintings and Abolitionist material around the so-called White Slave Trade, or the sale of Quadroons and Octoroons as Fancies, have been useful in both the story series and in the novel.    

Fancy Quadroon New York Metropolitan Museum

As to the setting, I grew up in and around Washington, DC, spending part of many summers in southern Maryland.  The smells, sounds, and varying kinds of food from season to season defined the area for me.  In the 1970s, varieties of lima beans, corn, seafood, wheat, and even cornmeal changed by time of year.  Those tastes, smells, and sounds, like crickets during a normal year, and cicadas during a noisy year, all end up in the story.  As do the groans of people chained to the walls of the slave penns, or marching in the coffles.  Obviously, bits of backstory emerge as explanation when needed for the story, as with the GU272, as Georgetown College’s enslaved Marylanders are now known.  These details have to be filtered through different classes of people who might have been in a position to overhear and then piece together the information and pass it on to others.  For example, body servants or other house staff in the halls might be able to hear discussions of the sale before it became final.  The Jesuit documents concerning the sale of the GU272 indicated that some were warned before the traders arrived to transport them, and indeed, one was able to hide long enough to evade sale.  That woman was the basis for my idea of Lucy, Isaias’ wife.  Paintings from the time portray a large variety of women known as Quadroons, then and even today in some places.  Having such a wealth of research material, family background, and pressure of conscience, I had to create the stories and learn my craft.  I continue to do this work to honor my own ancestors, and also in the hope of building empathy for the plight of women everywhere who endure the pain of trafficking today.  Thank you for this opportunity.

I’m grateful to you for sharing the background and some of your personal history for the novel you’re writing, Shira. Others look to family history for inspiration, but yours has such poignancy and such relevance to today. I will look forward to reading Who By Fire, when it is published.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available on Amazon USAmazon CanadaKobo, and Barnes&Noble. An earlier novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

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8 Responses

    1. Thank you, Sharon, for sharing this work on your blog. May we all teach, and help make the world a safer place for all of us, through our history.
      Best Regards,

  1. Thank you for inviting me to write this guest post, Mary. I do hope that this work inspires and builds greater empathy for all.

    Very Warmest Regards,

  2. Shira, thank you for this. I find it monstrous that people could be treated as possessions, but am aware that it goes on right now. I hope your book gets a wide readership and inspires people to stamp out this evil.

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