From Family to Fiction

David O. Stewart is writing a series of novels called the Overstreet Saga, and I had the pleasure of endorsing the first of those novels, The New Land, with this comment:

“An engrossing saga of hope, determination, and bravery in a new world called America. Seeking land and opportunity, Johann and his wife Christiane risk everything to cross the Atlantic. Upon arrival in Broad Bay, they are devastated by the false promises of charlatans, the harsh land, and the ever-present threat of native attacks. Only through faith, grit, and the power of love do they secure a future and build a legacy for their family. David O. Stewart’s action-filled prose creates an unforgettable story.” 

Today, David shares the experience of writing historical fiction inspired by family stories, especially when you knew and cared for some of the figures. Many thanks, David.

From Family to Fiction by David O. Stewart

Writers are magpies of experience.  Whatever we seem to be doing, we also are gathering material: ideas, events, settings, phrases, facial expressions, actions, and feelings.  Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, we dredge through that inventory of random observations to meet the writing challenge of the moment.  

Mostly we don’t get in trouble for scavenging bits of life from the world’s vault of experience, so we do it unblushingly.  And we get away with it.

The risks from such scavenging rise dramatically, however, if the source is family.  Family members know things that others don’t.  Family members are more likely to remember at least their version of an event.  They’re (at least slightly) more likely to read what you write.  And the cost of offending them can be high.  Some writers produce long books – multiple volumes, even – about themselves and their close relations, often settling long-simmering scores.  I, however, have written nonfiction about the long dead, or novels featuring characters I’ve only imagined.  Until now.

Now I have a fictional trilogy coming out with stories inspired by the experiences of my mother’s family in America.  The first installment has launched as The New Land The next two will be released next year.  The novels follow stories that have been in my head for as long as sixty years.

Gratifying, yes.  But, maybe, a bit risky?  

Not very risky, it turned out, for The New LandBook One of the modestly-titled Overstreet Saga.  The story unfolds on the Maine coast in the eighteenth-century.  Not much information has survived about the ancestors who blundered into dangerous place, so the story is mostly made up – that is, fiction!  Anyway, those long-gone ancestors are in no position to kick up a fuss.

Book Two, The Burning Land, launches next May.  Picking up family descendants in the Civil War and Reconstruction years, I remain on safe ground.  I know more about those ancestors (census records, military records) but they’ve also been dead for more than a century, along with anyone who knew them.

The forecast is less clear with Book Three, The Resolute Land, which will release next autumn.  Scrounging around for an idea for Book Three (publishing loves trilogies), I had a slap-my-forehead moment.  During World War II, my mother worked for Mrs. Roosevelt in the White House.  Her brothers served in the Army Air Forces.  One flew in Europe and the other in Asia.  And their father was Midwest regional director of the War Production Board. Those four figures provided a stout structure for capturing much of that gigantic war: two on the home front plus one in each major theater of the fighting.

Then a small interior voice whispered. Did I want to write stories inspired by family I actually knew? I immediately began to rationalize. That grandfather died before I was born.  I never spent much time with my uncles, never speaking with them about their war experiences.  So I would just borrow the outlines of their lives, not their actual personalities.

I resolved to eschew research about the three men.  I wouldn’t quiz my cousins.  Nor would I seek records of their military and public service.  The characters they inspired would be fictional creations with fictional exploits, fictional friends, and fictional lovers.  Any offending passages would be the result of my twisted imagination, not malice.

But that left the fourth character, the one inspired by my mother.  She was pivotal to the tale, offering a backstairs look inside the Roosevelt White House, the center of the war, and also functioning as the hub of the fictional family.  The problem, of course, was that I knew Mom really well, for a lot of years. Her voice in my head wasn’t going to be quiet while I wrote this book.  

Parts of the real person seeped into the fictional character.  I still had to imagine dialogue, scenes and other people in her life.  But some of the personality is her: highly verbal, socially ept, quick to judge, strong yet unpredictably vulnerable, resilient, coaxing fun from unpromising circumstances.  The fictional character is not my mother, but then again. . ..

The experience leaves me on edge.  I think I’m glad to share some of her with readers.  I hope they are drawn into the character’s challenges and how she deals with them.  Then again, I also hope I’ve been fair to the real person who inspired the story. We’ll see.

David O. Stewart is the author of five non-fiction books and six novels, counting the three books in The Overstreet Saga. For more about his writing, check out the post on his recent non-fiction about George Washington and his mystery series, specifically The Paris Deception. He’s way more productive than me!

The New Land by David O. Stewart ~~ Lose yourself in the challenges and emotions of eighteenth-century Maine. 

In 1753, Johann Oberstrasse’s wife, Christianne, announces that their infant sons will never soldier for the Landgraf of Hesse like their father, hired out to serve King George of England. In search of a new life, Johann and the family join an expedition to the New World, lured by the promise of land on the Maine coast. A grinding voyage deposits them on the edge of a continent filled with dangers and disease. Expecting to till the soil, Johann finds that opportunity on the rocky coast comes from the forest, not land, so he learns carpentry and trapping. To advance in an English world, Johann adapts their name to Overstreet.

But war follows them. The French and their Indian allies mount attacks on the English settlements of New England. To protect their growing family and Broad Bay neighbors, Johann accepts the captaincy of the settlement’s militia and leads the company through the British assault on the citadel of Louisbourg in Nova Scotia. Left behind in Broad Bay, Christianne, their small children, and the old and young stave off Indian attacks, hunger, and cruel privations.

Peace brings Johann success as a carpenter, but also searing personal losses. When the fever for American independence reaches Broad Bay in 1774, Johann is torn, then resolves to kill no more…unlike his son, Franklin, who leaves to stand with the Americans on Bunker Hill. At the same time, Johann faces old demons and a new crisis when an escaped prisoner—a hired Hessian soldier, just as he had been—arrives at his door.

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, PARIS IN RUINS, is available for pre-order 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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The historical fiction author behind A Writer of History...

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2 Responses

    1. I suppose we all have some intriguing family history somewhere! Rumour has it that my family is related to Robert the Bruce on my father’s mother’s side.

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