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.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW  A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

Writing for Young Adults

Vali Benson had her first novel, Blood and Silver, published in 2020. The book has won awards at the San Francisco Book Festival, the New York Book Festival, the Arizona Literary Awards, the Paris Book Festival, the Moonbeam Book Awards, and the 2021 American Fiction Awards. Phew – that’s a lot of awards! Blood and Silver is young adult fiction and I invited Vali to chat about writing for young adults.

~~~

As a lifelong reader, I often thought, “I could do better than that”. So, I decided to finally do something about it. The problem was I wasn’t sure what demographic I wanted to pursue. Then I remembered how important reading was to me as a teenager. It provided acceptance when I couldn’t find any in the real world. So, I decided to craft a story that featured a resilient young character who is forced to deal with issues that far surpass her age. And since I have always loved period pieces, I decided to set my story in the old west. It is called Blood and Silver.  

Blood and Silver is my first book. It is a young adult historical fiction novel about a twelve-year-old girl in 1880’s Tombstone, AZ who runs into all kinds of trouble trying to save her mother’s life. I like to think it has an entertaining combination of history and heart. The inspiration for Blood and Silver was formed from family outings. When our boys were little, my husband and I used to take them to Tombstone for the Wild West show. I was amazed when I learned that this little town of just over thirteen hundred residents had once been a boomtown of fifteen thousand. I couldn’t imagine it, but I knew there had to be a great story there.   

I was shocked when my book started winning awards. I’ve won several in the “young adult” category which confounded me a bit because I was not sure if it fit the traditional definition of the genre. I wrote Blood and Silver thinking of a twelve-year-old girl because that is the age of my heroine. I thought about myself at twelve. I had just finished reading Gone with the Wind for the third time (I was obsessed!). My mother had not thought it appropriate for a twelve-year-old due to the subject manner. I fell into the same quandary with Blood and Silver.     

My twelve-year-old heroine lives in a brothel with her mother, who is addicted to opium. Sadly, many children these days are facing a challenge similar to this, especially teenagers.  When I thought about my demographic with that perspective, it eased my reservations. Like my heroine, Carissa, many children today are living lives where they are forced to be the adults. Their parents are drug addicted or alcoholic, or simply unable to raise their children. Yes, there are young people who might be confused about Carissa’s situation, but I  think that most teens today know much more than we adults did at that age.  

I was concerned at first about the “young adult” label. However, I have received numerous comments praising my handling of very delicate subjects. I remember one early review in particular which stated, “Blood and Silver by Vali Benson is entertaining and heartbreaking. This is the kind of young adult fiction that needs to become more popular.” Feedback like this helped validate my belief that my story fits nicely within the young adult category. The main reason I believe is because Blood and Silver grants the young adult reader the respect to deal with mature issues while not subjecting them to the explicit details.      

It is very important to write with your audience in mind. Writing for young adults can be tricky because certain concepts and notions will not resonate although they can be vaguely understood. The author must remember that the readers are not fully formed individuals yet. But they are not kids either. Give them credit for knowing what’s what in the world. The genre of young adult does not have to be dumbed down simply because the target demographic does not have as much life experience.

Many thanks, Vali and congratulations for writing this award-winning novel. Hopefully, you will soon have another one ‘out there’.

Blood and Silver by Vali Benson ~~ What is a twelve year old girl to do when she finds herself in the silver boom town of Tombstone, Arizona, in 1880, and her only home is a brothel and her only parent is a drug-addicted mother? If she is Carissa Beaumont, she outsmarts the evil madam and figures a way out.

“Blood and Silver” is a clever page turner with a witty young heroine set against an actual place and time in history. Dripping with suspense, charm and perseverance, it has been described as “both heartbreaking and heartwarming”. The narrative also features very identifiable issues. As opposed to so much Y/A fiction, “Blood and Silver”  is entertaining in a very relatable way with the benefit of a historically accurate perspective. According to Rabia Tanveer of Readers’ Favorite, it “is the kind of young adult fiction that needs to become more popular”. With a host of colorful characters and meticulous attention to period detail, “Blood and Silver” is a story of the best and worst of human nature, the passion for survival and the beauty of true friendship.

Buy Links:
Website:
http://valibenson.com/
Amazon:
https://www.amazon.com/Blood-Silver-Vali-Benson-ebook/dp/B086R4RBF3
Goodreads:
https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/53167218-blood-and-silver
Barnes & Noble:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/blood-and-silver-vali-benson/1136812955?ean=9780228827542
BookBub:
https://www.bookbub.com/books/blood-and-silver-by-vali-benson

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION. FOLLOW  A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.

The Seeds of Exiled South

Author Harriet Cannon and I connect during an author talk I gave last October. Harriet’s latest novel EXILED SOUTH released January 3rd, 2022. Exiled South is a dual time-line story of a twenty first century woman’s reckoning with Civil War era events that split her family for generations. The story features nursing during the late American Civil war and in particular during the Siege of Charleston South Carolina.

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The seeds of Exiled South, a dual time-line contemporary-nineteenth century novel, germinated for years. I grew up in a history loving, storytelling family. My mother inherited a bundle of family Civil War era letters. My father’s mother told and re-told her grandmother’s story of sacrificing wedding pearls and a ring in 1864 to save her fourteen- year-old son from the draft and certain death. Her son departed Charleston harbor on a ship headed for the Bahama Islands and was never heard from again. Years later, while living in South America, I learned the obscure story of the Confederados; Former blockade runners, skilled Black tradesmen, and others with reasons to flee the South immigrated to Brazil after the Civil War. I was hooked. I decided to write a novel about far-reaching consequences for civilians reeled into in a war they may not have agreed with. 

It was a challenge to write a mid-nineteenth century character like my protagonist Laurette, keeping her true to the mind-set of the era while concurrently creating a forward-thinking woman with gumption. I read a plethora of fascinating nineteenth century diaries and collections of letters written by well-educated Southern White women; tutored at home or allowed to attend the new academies for girls. While some women had strong social reform or political opinions, the freedom to speak out or act independently was heavily restricted by the rigid Victorian rules of gender comportment. Rare exceptions such as the famous, Grimke Sisters, overt suffragettes, and abolitionists, with wealth and social status behind them could step outside the boundary of homemaking and childrearing. 

An additional challenge creating Laurette’s character was the fact, in the South, in the 1860’s, female ‘nurses’ were widows or older married women who had experienced death and dying in the family and knew The Ladies Indispensable Assistant inside out. Younger single women visited hospitals to write letters and read to patients but it could ruin a unmarried woman’s reputation to physically minister to unrelated men. 

When the siege of Charleston began, people of means fled the city in the ‘grand skedaddle’ of July 1863. The remaining women, children, old or disabled White and Black men lived through Federal bombardment from Morris Island for 567 days. Food insecurity became the norm. Life threatening random rockets exploding on the peninsula kept farmers from supplying Charleston with fresh food with any regularity. Making matters worse, as the South was desperate for military supplies from Great Britain, fewer blockade runners could justify adding civilian necessities like muslin for clothing, thread, medicines, and kerosine for lamps to their cargo. 

However, the Siege relaxed social rules giving my protagonist Laurette the opportunity to work at the hospital nursing male patients. I created a backstory that would make sense when she knew to use snapdragon for skin rashes, tea of slippery elm for whopping cough and the inner bark of the dogwood tree as a replacement for quinine when it became unavailable. Laurette acquired knowledge of herbs and plants because her father had been a no nonsense practical Scottish immigrant with a chronically ill wife. When Laurette showed interest in the healing arts, he gave her permission to study ‘Hoodoo Medicine’ from a free Black woman and local midwife. 

Although racism was exceptionally cruel in the nineteenth century, it was not unusual for Black and White women to assist each other in childbirth, caretaking of sick children and to share herbal remedies. In her book, Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell discusses not only the medicinal knowledge enslaved women brought to North America, but she also compares the similarity between European, Native American, and African plants and trees used for healing various ailments.

Serendipitously, in the mid nineteenth century, native flora and fauna had become popular additions to the fashionable home garden. The naturalist, Dr. Francis Porcher, published Resources of Southern Fields and Forests in 1863. His book became a go to medical guide in the late Civil War when opium for pain, quinine for fevers and chloroform for surgery were impossible to come by. 

But finding the plants and herbs needed wasn’t easy during the siege of Charleston. Laurette’s diary entries tell how she and another herbalist, risked rape by deserters hiding in bombed out buildings as they sought out plants they needed in abandoned gardens. 

Dr. Porcher’s book became a bonding vehicle for Laurette and her brother-in-law, John, who considered himself a modern scientific physician. In his mind, Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, written by a doctor, justified using herbs and elevated his unmarried sister-in-law to the position of a colleague making her plant-based recipes legitimate treatments not old fashion folk medicine. Although Laurette’s skill as a nurse herbalist brought her respect, the consequences for the choices she made on behalf of her patients forced her to join the diaspora of Southerners who immigrate to Brazil at the war’s end.

Read more about Exiled South at www.harrietcannon.com

A few interesting books on the practice of medicine during the Civil War Era:

  • Hoodoo Medicine: Gullah Herbal Remedies, Faith Mitchell
  • Kate: The Journal of a Confederate Nurse, Kate Cummins edited by Richard Harwell
  • The Ladies Indispensable Assistant, E. Hutchinson (1851)
  • Motherhood in the Old South: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Infant Rearing, by Sally G. McMillen
  • Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Dr. Francis Porcher (1863)
  • Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex and the Civil War, Thomas P. Lowry
  • Unvanquished: How Confederate Women Survived the Civil War, Pippa Pralen

It’s fascinating that there are so many untold stories out there waiting to be discovered. Many thanks for sharing the backstory for Exiled South, Harriet. I know your audience will enjoy the way you’ve brought authenticity and inspiration to the novel.

Exiled South by Harriet Cannon ~~ Lizbeth Gordon, a school counselor and master at facilitating conflict resolution in everyone’s life but her own, returns home to South Carolina after her husband’s sudden death. An elderly aunt has troubling stories of ancestors who disappeared during Civil War Reconstruction. Curiosity drives Lizbeth into roots research that dead ends. 

But tentacles of family history reach across the continents when Lizbeth takes a job at an international school in Rio de Janeiro. She meets multiethnic descendants of Confederate exiles with her surname and nineteenth-century documents. Robert Gordon’s letters describe bold escapes from Federal blockaders and Civil War intrigue in Scotland. His sister, Laurette Gordon, left a diary that shares a heart-wrenching story of sacrifice that insured her daughter’s life would be free of shame. Will the keys to family secrets help Lizbeth open a door to family reconciliation?

A story of family identity and second chances.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.