An interview with author Diane McPhail

Diane McPhail is the author of THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER – a novel of the Civil War South, which is based on true events and rooted in family history. Diane is an artist, writer, and minister who lives in North Carolina. Welcome to the blog, Diane.

Why did you choose to write historical fiction? That is such an interesting question for me. Interesting, because it is unexpectedly challenging. After much thought, my answer is that I think historical fiction chose me, rather than the other way around. The reason becomes clearer in answer to your next question.

What drew you to the world of this particular novel. The story of what is dubbed the “Greensboro feud” has haunted me since early childhood. My parents were both from Webster County, where the conflict occurred. In truth it was not a feud, but a single deadly incident of individual, family, and community violence lasting hardly more than a day’s time. I have a vivid memory of my aunt taking me to visit the “ghost town” when I was five and discovering only an abandoned graveyard. Where were the empty storefronts and windblown dirt streets depicted in the movies of the time? I was sorely disappointed as only a child can be.

My mother died soon after I was born, so I knew little about her—only that she loved to draw and sew and laugh a lot. As an adult, I found myself hungry to know more about her. I sought out my uncle and was listening to his delightful stories of their childhood, when I turned the page of a photo album to find an old newspaper article about “Bloody Greensboro.” I remarked how I could not understand the motivation toward such violence and, in the aftermath, how those women managed to live on with such trauma. He sat forward and said, “Don’t you know who that young woman was who buried all the men closest to her?”

Of course I had no idea. “That was our grandmother,” he said, “your mother’s and mine.”

That revelation astounded me. How had no one ever spoken of such a relationship? How had that young woman raised my own grandmother? As frequently as I had heard this tale, no one ever connected it to my family. As a therapist, I found myself in the grip of trying to understand the depths of this story. My novel, a fictionalized exploration of my questions, is the result.

Can you tell us how you did your research and any surprises you discovered along the way. Since all of the family who might have had any information were gone, I depended on two primary sources that were immensely helpful. A family genealogy surfaced, thanks to a cousin of mine, and that information led me to the archives at Mississippi State University, where the family papers were preserved. These two sources were a treasure trove of unexpected revelation. It was through those sources that I discovered how the judge had attempted to free his slaves, although it was illegal to do so. I had no idea that manumission became illegal after about 1853, as part of the compromises involved in the free/slave state negotiations prior to the Civil War.

The exact source of the family conflict—I had only heard it as “land greed”—became intriguingly complex. The death that led to that conflict revealed a fascinating mystery in itself. The more I delved into the family papers, especially the judge’s, the more intrigued I became. And the more enchanted by such details as an inventory of his cows, each charmingly named. An extensive inventory of goods conscripted by Union forces led me to research Grierson’s raid, a diversionary tactic to engage Confederate forces away from Sherman’s drive for control of the Mississippi River.

At the urging of my teacher and mentor, Jane Smiley, Pullitzer Prize winner for A THOUSAND ACRES, to take my research even deeper, I realized the major role weather played in the Civil War. I arrived at an astonishing, little known revelation that the war occurred just at the end of the Little Ice Age, during a period of global warming that brought deadly extremes of weather and temperature much like we are experiencing today. I am continually fascinated by the timeliness of history.

Which authors have inspired your writing? Can you tell us why? Perhaps I am most inspired by the writing of Cormac McCarthy. My writing is not like his, though I might wish it were. Two things in his work stand out to me: his ability to convey through language things that are almost beyond language and his refusal to gloss over that which is most painful to face. I am also profoundly drawn to Kazuo Ishiguro, especially his book, NEVER LET ME GO. There is something in his depiction of pure humanity that moves me deeply. Mary Doria Russell has inspired me with her scope, and specifically her exploration of how the best intended actions can lead to dire unintended consequences, as happens in my novel. And to Ursula Hegi, I am indebted for her depiction of the collapse of community and even family under harsh political pressures.

What is your writing process? I am what is commonly called a “panster”—that is “writing by the seat of your pants.” I find it almost impossible to follow an outline. I never know what a character may do or think next, or what may show up around a corner in the plot. I love the unknown of exploration and discovery in writing. My first writing teacher, Madeleine L’Engle, had one foundational premise: the work knows more than you do and you must trust it to lead where it knows to go.

Of course, writing in this way can lead you into chaos and a good bit of “after the fact” organization. Another great mentor, Darnell Arnault, taught me a wonderful technique. Every scene or character description goes on a 5” x 8” card. These can be shuffled, arranged, collected in groups, and laid out in varying narrative lines. I also covered a full sheet of plywood with a surface for dry erase marker. With this addition to my office, I could tape the cards, draw out character and narrative arcs, then shift and experiment. I can’t imagine writing any other way, although I now have an actual outline, very general, for my next novel. Who knows?

What is the subject of your next novel? My novel-in-progress is again historical fiction, involving a minor character from a sub-plot in THE ABOLITIONIST’S DAUGHTER. Although this character plays a minor role, the beginning of her story is also the trigger that sets off the narrative in my first novel. I found that she simply did not want to let me go unless I committed to tell her story—a story I had absolutely no way of knowing. I simply felt that she would manage not only to endure a major catastrophe, but to flourish and find her true self as a result. Already the research has led to incredible surprises. I’m just waiting for the next!

How fascinating to have discovered and explored your family history, Diane. I wish you great success with your writing.

The Abolitionist’s Daughter by Diane C. McPhail ~~ On a Mississippi morning in 1859, Emily Matthews begs her father to save a slave, Nathan, about to be auctioned away from his family. Judge Matthews is an abolitionist who runs an illegal school for his slaves, hoping to eventually set them free. One, a woman named Ginny, has become Emily’s companion and often her conscience—and understands all too well the hazards an educated slave must face. Yet even Ginny could not predict the tangled, tragic string of events set in motion as Nathan’s family arrives at the Matthews farm.

A young doctor, Charles Slate, tends to injured Nathan and begins to court Emily, finally persuading her to become his wife. But their union is disrupted by a fatal clash and a lie that will tear two families apart. As Civil War erupts, Emily, Ginny, and Emily’s stoic mother-in-law, Adeline, each face devastating losses. Emily—sheltered all her life—is especially unprepared for the hardships to come. Struggling to survive in this raw, shifting new world, Emily will discover untapped inner strength, an unlikely love, and the courage to confront deep, painful truths.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Perspectives on writing with author Bob Rich

Bob Rich is a professional grandfather. His main motivation is to transform society to create a sustainable world in which his grandchildren and their grandchildren in perpetuity can have a life, and a life worth living. He’s worked as a research scientist, a builder’s labourer, a nurse, a psychotherapist and always as a storyteller. For eighteen years, he’s written a newsletter – a collection of thoughts and insights on a wide range of topics – called Bobbing Around. I think you’ll find his perspective refreshing.

Why do you write historical fiction?

Mary, it’s not like that for me. Writing is the chocolate icing on the cake of life, and research is the yeast in the cake mix.

I started with nonfiction, and without meaning to, built up a wide following in Australia, where I live. As a kid, one of my favorite activities was to read anything that taught me something new. I used to read encyclopedias, and could get lost in them for hours. This gave me an understanding of our world, and how it can be improved.

For years, I had a concept in my mind: a small group of forest-dwelling teenagers, facing an invading patrol of nomads who kill the boys and abduct the girls. When I felt confident enough, I started writing, and this resulted in a series: The stories of the Ehvelen. The Ehvelen are the REAL little people, the base of the many myths. I know, because I visited them in 700 BC. They became the protectors of the wild places, the Mother’s sword against cruelty, slavery, exploitation.

My writing skills have greatly improved during the past 20-odd years, and I should rewrite the books, because the content is great. Only, I’ve grown since, and now I am less interested in opposing evil as in changing it into good. For example, my award-winning novel, Sleeper, Awake, has plenty of tension, but no villains at all. It’s also historical, but the time is 1500 years into the future.

Another historical project was set between 1939 and 2000. It’s the story of a woman who did the impossible and survived the unsurvivable, more than once. She used intelligence, creativity and ruthlessness to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary, then built a million-dollar business behind the iron curtain. Only, this is nonfiction: my mother’s biography. After she died, I had a suitcase-full of research materials, but couldn’t even look at them for two years. The resulting book has the highest number of awards among my 17 titles. It’s Anikó: The stranger who loved me.

In 2013, I had book published that’s mostly historical fiction: early Viking times in Ireland, the period surrounding the Irish rebellion of 1798 and its sequel of Irish people being deported to what became Australia, then the Victorian era, and finally our times. Why did I write this one? Because it is my life story, though fictionalized to protect the guilty. It’s the story of my life, and five of my past lives I recalled in 2007, but the hero is not me. Rather, he is the person I’d like to be. This is Ascending Spiral.

Finally, one of my recent books is historical fiction, set in Australia in the mid-19th century. The inspiration for it was my work as a counselor in an (Australian) Aboriginal health service. I came to love and admire these people, who are the survivors of genocide, and terribly traumatized from what the invaders did to people of an amazingly wise culture. So, Guardian Angel is a tribute to them.

Do you have a particular approach to research and writing?

Typically, I invent a few characters, and put them into a situation. They then take over, and tell me what to write. Often, they tell me what I need to find out before I can make it happen. For example, Maraglindi, my Aboriginal heroine, told me that her life began near Newcastle, in New South Wales, so then I researched the area, contacted local Aboriginal associations, consulted with experts on various aspects of life in the area during the 1850s, and suchlike fun activities.

What advantages do you think come from concentrating on a period of time?  Any disadvantages?

I think I’d get bored with sticking to just one time-and-place. Life is too short for the seriousness it deserves. (A young fellow told me this in 700 BC.) If I get a concept for a particular time, or location, then I have the joy of researching it.

What techniques do you employ to write productively?

I’m not fussed about speed, or deadlines, and have several projects going at the same time, all very different from each other. I had a historical novel published in 2017, a contemporary one earlier this year, I am almost ready to send a nonfiction book (From Depression to Contentment: A self-therapy guide) to my publisher, and am working on a science fiction series set in the present time. I started the depression book about 10 years ago, and worked on it only when the more fun fiction projects dried up.

Writing for me is not distinct from life. Ideas bubble up all the time. Some I let go, others I grab hold of, and they take me over.

What strategies guide your writing career?

Get a piece of work as perfect as I can make it. Then I seek beta readers, and improve further. I’m always open to suggestions for improvement, and there is no such thing as a mistake, only learning opportunities.

Do you have any advice for writers of historical fiction?

Enjoy. Do enough research that you could move into that time and place and be indistinguishable from the locals. Listen to your characters. They know better than you do.

Is there a question you would like to answer that I haven’t asked?

What sets literature apart from the forgettable?

You can have a perfectly enjoyable book, which will merge into the great crowd of other memories within a few weeks, or at the most months. Other books stay with you. Real life events will bring something from the story to mind, and you feel a better person for having read it.

I think the difference is the message. Every book has a set of messages, which is the belief system of the author. When the subterranean messages are bland, the book is forgettable. When they challenge you, take you out of the ordinary and get you to question what others take to be common sense, then you have literature.

Many thanks, Bob, for sharing your views on writing. What an eclectic mix of stories. You mother’s life story sounds fascinating.

Guardian Angel by Bob Rich

1850, a small town in Australia: Glindi, an Aboriginal woman, gives birth to a daughter, the result of a rape by a white man. She names her Maraglindi, meaning “Glindi’s sorrow,” but the girl is a joy to all those around her. She has the gift of love. During her short life, she encounters everything intolerant, cruel Victorian society can throw at people it considers to be animals. She surmounts the savagery of the white invader by conquering hate with love. Even beyond death, she spreads compassion, then she returns a second time, with an ending that will touch your heart. Maraglindi: child of the land, fruit of an evil deed, and instrument of love.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

Dana Stabenow – author of Silk and Song

Dana Stabenow, New York Times bestselling author and writer of the popular Kate Shugak series, has recently launched her latest novel Silk and Song. She’s here today talking about research and inspiration.

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The great thing about writing historical fiction is what you stumble across during  research. Snake bombs? Really? Really, thus aiding in the success of the Mongol assault on Talikan during Johanna’s inadvertent stay within those, it turns out, highly breachable walls. Personally, given the Mongol record for wiping out any city or state who opposed them, man, woman, and child, I’d have yielded at the first sight of their banners on my horizon. Farhad and his father are not so wise.

Foot binding in China, to ensure the swaying gait which was considered to be erotic. It’s hard to create empathy for the villain who has it in for your hero but what if someone broke every one of her toes and folded her feet back on themselves and wrapped them tightly and left them that way for years, so that her feet would never be more than four inches long? So that ever after she would never be able to walk normally? Only teeter, or sway, which was held to be feminine and attractive to potential mates? It’s easier to understand the widow’s motivation in taking over Wu Li’s business when the option to run away from home to find a better life was brutally removed from her at the age of four. No wonder she hated Johanna so much.

The peripatetic nature of European life during the Middle Ages, contrary to the alleged immobility of those lives as we were taught in high school (“No one traveled more than a mile from their villages in those days,” my world history teacher said with immense authority in my junior year). Then I read the autobiography of Margery Kempe, a Christian mystic from England who not only traveled to Santiago de Compostela in Spain but visited multiple Christian shrines all over Italy. And that was on her way back from Jerusalem.

Also, please note, a woman, which opens up another entire can of worms about the status and privileges of women during that time. Evidently, they weren’t quite all barefoot and pregnant down on the farm for their entire lives. One of the most delightful discoveries during my research was The Medieval Woman: An Illuminated Book of Days, a daily diary which features illustrations from illuminated manuscripts current to the time in which I wrote featuring women…working. Yes, they are sweeping and spinning and weaving and cooking. They are also selling and painting and and laying brick for city walls and defending their castles crossbow in hand.

And, speaking of bricks, not just with crossbows. I hiked part of the Robert Louis Stevenson trail in France in 2015 and in Pradelles saw this bas-relief carved into part of the remaining medieval wall of the town. It commemorates the story of La Verdette, who beaned the leader of an invading force with a brick. After which the rest of the invaders…ran away.

I tried like hell to write La Verdette into Silk and Song but couldn’t work a believable diversion to Pradelles into the plot. Alas. The not so great thing about research is that you can’t use it all.

Many thanks, Dana. An intriguing and inspiring look at medieval times. Wishing you all the best with Silk and Song.

Silk and Song by Dana Stabenow – a gripping historical adventure of a young woman who flees China, crossing the known world in search of her grandfather, Marco Polo.

Beijing, 1322. Sixteen-year-old Wu Johanna is the granddaughter of the legendary trader Marco Polo. In the wake of her father’s death, Johanna finds that lineage counts for little amid the disintegrating court of the Khan. Johanna’s destiny—if she has one—lies with her grandfather, in Venice. So, with a small band of companions, she takes to the road—the Silk Road—that storied collection of routes that link the silks of Cathay, the spices of the Indies and the jewels of the Indus to the markets of the west. But first she must survive treachery and betrayal on a road beset by thieves, fanatics and warlords.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

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, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.