A Ball of Golden Thread

Deborah Lincoln is the author of Agnes Canon’s War and An Irish Wife. She specializes in fictional retellings of almost-lost stories from her own family’s past, with characters both well-known and obscure. To get a sense of the stories she writes, consider this quote that I borrowed from her website.

In historical fiction, great events bring a poignancy to the lives of everyday people, to their efforts to survive and prosper. My work celebrates those brave, smart and anonymous women and men, honors their triumphs and hardships, and pays tribute to their memories.

Today, Deborah shares thoughts on creating the natural environment for a story.

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When I first read The Scarlet Letter, I was captivated by the idea that within a very few miles of the new world’s coastline stretched a dense and primeval forest (Hawthorne’s lovely descriptions) and I imagined myself an eagle flying over that forest that stretched forever, untouched. I wanted so much to see it, know it the way it was then and would never be again. I rebuilt it in my mind, smelled its scents, absorbed its sounds. Imagined the busyness of its small and large inhabitants and their absorption in the immediacy of their moments. And I wanted to build that world so others would see it, too.

Country cemeteries are wonderful places to wander to absorb atmosphere. 
This is the Bethelboro cemetery where Agnes, Harry and their family are buried.

That is the sense of place that I find crucial to telling a story, especially a story based in the rural past, in which the characters are so much closer to the natural world than we can be today. I want to call up the childhood, even racial memories lying deep inside us all that can be triggered by the rank rich smell of a humid summer’s day or the chorus of crickets at dusk. My characters need to be shaped by the land and elements because they are so much more dependent on them for their safety and sustenance. “For once we no longer live beneath our mother’s heart,” says Louise Erdrich, “it is the earth with which we form the same dependent relationship, relying completely on its cycles and elements, helpless without its protective embrace.” If we, the human race, still felt that, we would perhaps not be in the climate crisis we’re now experiencing.

Vegetation and wildlife are important to developing a sense of place.

In my writing I’ve tried evoking the sense of place first by visiting the area I’m writing about, as most writers do. For my first book, AGNES CANON’S WAR, that was the village of Oregon in northwest Missouri, as well as Virginia City and the Gallatin River valley in Montana. I grew up in the Midwest, so the humid summers, crisp, frigid winters, the flash of lightning bugs and the whine of mosquitos in the dark were all memories that I drew on to evoke an atmosphere.

I refreshed my memory of the vegetation, the birds and the animal life—and did my research to be sure those species existed in the mid-nineteenth century, the setting for my story. It wouldn’t do to insert a family of nutria in the creek in 1855 when they weren’t introduced into the United States until 1899. 

Oregon, Missouri: The town of Lick Creek, setting for AGNES CANON’S WAR

For my second book, AN IRISH WIFE, I needed to go beyond my own stomping grounds, east to the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania, a different setting from the flat farmlands I grew up in, and get a sense of the distances, what the horizon looks like, the sunsets and rainclouds over the hills and the geology, including what might lie underground. I toured a slope-entry coal mine to feel the weight of a mountain pressing in on me and to soak up the sense of dark and closeness, of menace, that working below the surface might provoke. I studied maps of mines, examined diagrams of geological strata, collected photographs of miners and their equipment taken deep underground. Odd as it sounds, annual reports of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Industrial Statistics dating from the mid-1880s were fascinating. Thank goodness for the Internet.

Experience what your characters would have experienced. Inside an abandoned coal mine. (Photo by Brian Moran)

Sense of place gives equilibrium,” Eudora Welty writes (On Writing, 1956), “extended, it is sense of direction too.” A writer can achieve an unflinching authenticity when she conveys a sense of place, and as Mary’s survey of her readers discovered, those readers want a time and place to be brought to life. As Welty says, “. . . it is the sense of place going with us still that is the ball of golden thread to carry us there and back and in every sense of the word to bring us home.”

Thanks, Deborah, for sharing your thoughts on creating a time and place for readers. I’ve read An Irish Wife and can still feel the dirt and despair of the coal mines of Pennsylvania, the deep prejudice against Irish Catholics, and the blossoming of young love amidst the nearby forests. A highly recommended story!

An Irish Wife by Deborah Lincoln ~~ In the brilliant society of 1880s America, King Coal fuels fortunes and drives prosperity for the privileged as it also destroys lives and the dreams of the unfortunate. Harry Robinson, coming of age in southwestern Pennsylvania, is the hope of his family for the next generation, expected to ride Gilded-Age momentum to the American Dream.
When he meets Niamh, an immigrant Irish woman married to a coal miner, he falls in love for the first time. Niamh’s arranged marriage brought her to America with the hope of giving her brother Patrick opportunities for a better life, and she asks Harry to continue the boy’s education. He agrees, hoping to stay close to Niamh and dreaming about ways to make her his own.
Through Niamh and Patrick, Harry begins to realize the extent of the prejudices that stalk Irish Catholics and all immigrants. When Niamh’s husband beats her and she escapes, Harry is determined to take her away, though it means overcoming her religious scruples and the disapproval of his family. But Niamh and her brother disappear.

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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.

Inside Historical Fiction with Deborah Lincoln

AGNES-CANON'S WAR by Delaney GreenDeborah Lincoln says “I’m fascinated by the way events—wars and cataclysms and upheavals, of course, but the everyday changes that wash over everyday lives—bring a poignancy to a person’s efforts to survive and prosper. I hate the idea that brave and intelligent people have been forgotten, that the hardships they underwent have melted away like a rim of ice on a warm spring day.”

Today Deborah discussed the unique aspects of writing historical fiction.

What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

Historic fiction, like fantasy or science fiction, transports a reader to a strange and exotic place where sights and sounds and smells and situations challenge our imaginations and conjure up a world that is both escapist and instructional. It requires an exercise of a different area of the imagination that modern novels don’t stimulate. Can I put myself in the place of a woman who is nine months pregnant in July with the temperature over one hundred, air conditioning unheard of, and a fifty-fifty chance that the doctor has no cure for the complications of birth? What does it feel like to dance a waltz in forty yards of skirt – and how does one manage the outhouse dressed that way? What was Thomas Cromwell really like, as a human being with family responsibilities, what was he thinking as he won, then lost, the political games of Henry’s court? Few of us will ever have the misfortune of experiencing war in our own backyards; how did our great-grandparents bear it when jayhawkers and bushwhackers swept through their neighborhoods and burned their homes? With all due respect to contemporary novelists, the modern world is often too familiar and often too dreary, to set one’s fancy free.

In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

The details. Assuming there’s a great story, compelling characters, a good plot, et cetera et cetera, historical fiction relies on historical ambience developed through the skillful use of detail. And not details that slap you in the face (think Gore Vidal’s 1876) but details that are almost subconsciously absorbed by readers and put them in the time and place. A mother ties a diaper because safety pins don’t exist; Kansas City was called Kansas Town before 1853; whale oil, rather than coal oil, would have been used in lamps before 1850. An appropriate detail might not jump off the page, but an anachronism surely will.

I think it’s even more important to get the dialogue right for the era, the social status of the character, and the seriousness (or lack of) of the story. A number of my readers have commented on the tone of the language in my book, Agnes Canon’s War, its appropriateness for the time period. (It takes place between 1852 and 1866 in the American heartland.) I’m hard-pressed to give examples (using “fractious” to describe a child rather than “cranky”? “That amiable drunk in the White House” instead of “that good-natured drunk”?) except to say that the language has a rhythm that is not modern and inflections that are just slightly quaint. And it goes without saying but I’ll say it anyway: the writer must avoid using modern terms or slang. I once read a Civil War-era novel in which the leading lady called a couple of visiting soldiers “you guys.” Talk about jarring.

What aspects about the past do you specifically try to highlight in your novel(s)?

I try very hard to ensure the characters’ reactions are appropriate to their times. For example, writing about America in the mid-nineteenth century requires an understanding about racial attitudes. Only the most enlightened people thought the races could be equal in all ways (Thaddeus Stevens, a leader of the Radical Republicans during the Civil War, was married to a black woman), so even anti-slavery advocates rarely thought the Negro should be the social equal of European descendants. The consternation about Atticus Finch’s racism in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman is, I think misplaced – he needs to be judged by his place and time, not by ours. We might not like the character once we’ve judged him, but we can’t be surprised by his attitudes.

Another aspect that fascinates me and I try to insert in my work (very subtly) is how often history repeats itself. I think it’s an important part of the teaching that HF can provide to emphasize that we rarely see a new phenomenon. For example, today’s outrage over the top one percent, the divide between the classes, played out in the U.S. (probably many times in the past) but manifestly during the 1870s and 1880s: the Gilded Age, without the social safety nets we have now. The Carnegies and Rockefellers of America amassed vast fortunes while the lower classes, often immigrants from Eastern Europe, sank deeper into poverty and distress; hence the rise of labor unions and bloody class conflicts. The controversy over immigration is an often-repeated conflict but with different targets: Catholics, Irish, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, now Mexican nationalists. Burke’s idea that “those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” is a touch overused, but HF is an opportunity to let people know about history in a way that reaches a different audience than do history classes.

In writing historical fiction, what research and techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period? What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

Building a world requires that every sense be included: sight (a shadow cast by coal oil footlights), sound (the unearthly Rebel yell: “Waa-wooo-yeeaaaay-yee!”), taste (venison steaks and potato balls and cheese straws), smell (the ever-present odor of dust and manure in the streets of town), touch (the rich softness of a deep velvet gown trimmed with the stiffness of blonde). Then a low-key reference to what’s going on at the time: the new book by Mr. Melville just arrived, they enjoyed a new beverage called a “lager.” I don’t know how writers did this without the Internet: did you know you can learn how to amputate a leg, without anesthetic, just by surfing the web? Of course you did. But reading books written at the time of my story is another way to get a feel for the time period and for the rhythm and language in use at the time. For nineteenth century America, immersion in books like Little Women and Uncle Tom’s Cabin and all of Mark Twain put an author in the mood of the era, and that all comes out in the writing.

Please tell us a little about your latest novel.

Agnes Canon’s War was published in October of last year, and is the fictionalized story of my great great-grandparents’ experiences during the Civil War in Missouri. I had access to the basic facts, which a cousin pulled together in the 1970s, and the characters were so exceptional, the events so extraordinary, that I didn’t want the story to die out. Agnes Canon was 28 and a spinster when she left her home in Pennsylvania in the spring of 1852 to join a group of cousins who boated down the Ohio and up the Missouri Rivers to settle in what was then the frontier, Holt County in northwest Missouri. There she met and married Jabez Robinson, a doctor who was born in Maine and had traveled to the California gold fields and the army posts of the Southwest during the Mexican-American War. In the decade before the Civil War actually broke out, both Kansas and Missouri were a battleground of politics and occasional acts of violence, and Agnes and Jabez were in the thick of it. This is the story of two people who watch their family, their neighborhood, everything that keeps a society civil, crumble into a chaos that they are powerless to stop.

I’m currently working on a sequel to ACW, which takes place in America during the robber-baron era of the 1870s and 1880s. I find that the more I delve into the stories of my ancestors, the more tales there are to tell. Historical fiction writers need never be at a loss for plot.

Many thanks for being on the blog, Deborah. So many interesting thoughts in your interview!

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE is set in WWI France and is available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. Her debut novel, UNRAVELLED: Two wars. Two affairs. One marriage. is also available from these retailers.

Mary can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads.