Transported in Time and Place by Christine Davis Merriman

Christine Davis Merriman completed an MFA forty years ago but, as with many of us, life intervened with her writing plans. Christine’s novel At the Far End of Nowhere has recently released – a novel that begins with this proposition: Imagine being raised by a father who is easily old enough to be your grandfather. This sets up an intriguing story proposition with the experiences and memories of father and daughter so far apart.

Transported in Time and Place by Christine Davis Merriman

Although I grew up in mid-twentieth century America, my father came from a much earlier time and place. Born in 1878, he was 72 years old when I came along in 1950. I inhabited a curious space, neither fully here nor there, transported daily between a rapidly modernizing United States and my father’s remembered nineteenth-century world where horses plowed the fields, steam powered the engines, and time moved more slowly. This experience inspired me to write my first novel, At the Far End of Nowhere.

After capturing the reader’s attention with a dramatic event that occurred in the near-present—the 2015 Baltimore riots that erupted after the death of Freddie Gray—a flashback carries readers swiftly back, sixty years—from a defaced West Baltimore row house to that same address in 1955. Later, a scene depicting the 1968 riots in Baltimore, following the Martin Luther King, Jr., assassination, echoes the opening 2015 riot scene.

A first-person narrator, Lissa Power, a young girl of the 1950s, uses present tense to maintain a continuous sense of immediacy as she guides readers on her journey through recent history. Lissa draws us in close, telling her own story of growing up in Baltimore and Baltimore County, from age four to twenty-two, 1955 to 1972. As indigenous witness and participant, she walks us through events as they immediately unfold, presenting her personal perspective of firsthand experiences. As she grows up and moves through the years, Lissa’s language and perspective mature, enhancing the sense of time passing.

Local icons and landmarks, along with contemporary radio and TV programs, immerse the reader in local colorFor example, a Natty Boh sign (the face of National Bohemian Beer, originally brewed in Baltimore) blinks his one eye from a corner bar as he watches over Lissa’s West Baltimore neighborhood. The Oriole Bird (symbol of the Baltimore Orioles baseball team) appears on an orange balloon at the downtown Oriole cafeteria.

A mechanized shoemaker in the front window of a neighborhood shoe store advertises a locally branded no-slip heel (originally manufactured in 1904 Baltimore by the Cat’s Paw Rubber Company). The precise actions of this miniature mechanical man capture young Lissa’s attention.

…the shoemaker, Mr. Gambini, …shuts down the mechanical man who works all day in his shop window. Over and over, the little shoemaker is taking a nail from between his pinched lips, jerking his head to one side, hammering the nail, and fastening a Cat’s Paw heel onto the bottom of a tiny shoe held upside down on what my daddy calls a shoemaker’s last. “Goodnight, little shoemaker,” I whisper.

In tribute to the waning mechanical age, Lissa’s daddy hoists her onto his shoulders to see the clock he once repaired in the Bromo-Seltzer Tower.

One day, my daddy takes me downtown to see the big clock on the Bromo-Seltzer Tower. He lifts me up and puts me on his shoulders so I can see above all the grownups. “Lissa, hold on tight, so you won’t fall.” He holds my legs steady, and I grab onto his ears. He wears his gray hat. He always wears a dressy hat when he goes downtown. In the summer, he wears a straw hat.

He points at the top of the tower. “I fixed that clock many years ago, and she’s been running ever since. After I die, I reckon all the clocks are going to stop running.”

Lissa and her father listen to radio programs. He tunes in to Gabriel Heatter, a popular news broadcaster. At age four, Lissa hears former President Truman speaking on the radio.

I like to sit on my daddy’s lap and listen to radio shows with him: Amos ’n’ Andy, Gunsmoke. My daddy likes to listen to the news on the radio. Gabriel Heatter is his favorite. Daddy says, “he tells us the good news, and we need to hear more of that.” I hear another man’s voice speaking. “Do you know who that is, Lissa? That’s President Truman. He was our president when you were born.”

A tool as simple and unobtrusive as a child’s hand-drawn map introduces a new local landscape. When the family moves from the city to a farm in northern Baltimore County, Lissa’s older brother, Spence, orients his sister, and readers, to the “lay of the land” in rural Maryland at that time, by drawing a map of the local farming community to show Lissa how to find her way around the neighborhood.

Our first year living on the farm, Spence gets a compass for his birthday, and Daddy teaches him how to read it. Spence goes on long hikes around the neighborhood and uses the compass to draw up a map on a big sheet of Daddy’s mechanical drawing paper. When he’s done, Spence shows me his map. “Look, Liss, if you don’t want to get lost out here, you need to learn the lay of the land. See? I wrote the four directions along the edges of this map—north (left), south (right), east (top), and west (bottom). You need to know the four directions so you can read a compass. I put different size rectangles with labels to show where buildings are. This is us,” he says, “Our property.” Spence and me are sitting cross-legged next to each other on the front-porch floor, and he has the map spread out in front of us. He points to our twelve acres. Our place is nested right in the middle of the map—farmhouse, grape arbor, Daddy’s woodshop, three vegetable gardens, barn and corn crib, three chicken houses, and two big fields that run all the way over to the east and south woods at the top and right edges of the map. At the top-right corner of the map, an arrow pointing beyond the east and south woods says To Grangerville Crossroads.

The old father’s storytelling threads through the novel, carrying daughter and readers back to a much earlier time in America. Stouten, born in 1878, recounts childhood memories of growing up on a Southern Maryland tobacco farm and spins nineteenth-century tall tales. In one of Stouten’s tales, the voice of a former slave recounts his mythical encounter with Johns Wilkes Booth (a myth consistent with local lore), as Lincoln’s assassin attempts his escape through treacherous local swampland.

“Once upon a very long time ago, I knew an old, old black man, a former slave by the name of Moses Queen. Some folks said he must be older than Methuselah. Said he was a young man in Civil War times….

 “Moses picked up a stick of wood, began to whittle it, and embarked on his story about the fine white gentleman who had crossed his path. ‘You know, boy,’ says Moses, ‘it was just about this time of day, just before sunset, when I was making my way home through Fallen Angel Swamp. And what should I spy but a horse come galloping along like a bat out of Hades, carrying a handsome young gentleman, riding alongside another white man. Now, this gentleman in all his finery looked right bad, pale as a ghost and tormented-like. He pulled up sharp in front of me, leaned toward me from his saddle, and said in the most graceful of tones, “Boy, could you help me out. I’m lost in this godforsaken bog.”

“‘I looked him up and down, and well, his leg looked like it was busted and had been patched up, and his face looked so pitiful and twisted, like his soul was in the deepest of turmoil.

“‘Well, you know, the pathways through that swamp is laid out like a puzzle with false leads and cutoffs and undergrowth that blocks your way. Course, I know Fallen Angel like the back of my old black hand. So, I guided him and his companion, used my homemade machete to bushwhack through them laurel and rhododendron thickets. Guided him and his friend safe and sound through that swamp, and delivered him to a Confederate safe house he knew of, just outside the swamp…. Well, it turned out to be a right funny situation, after all. Come to find out, by and by, I had played a bit part in the chronicles of time. The newspapers was reporting different stories about where this man was, and who it was helping him. And there was talk about how a black man—some said a former slave, some said a half-breed or a We-Sort, you know, we-sorts-of people (mixed black, Piscataway, white)—came to the aid of an actor named John Wilkes Booth who broke his leg escaping from the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln. Seems this Mr. Booth was making his escape through our own Fallen Angel Swamp here in Charles County….’”

A back story, drawn from old letters and diary entries written by Lissa’s mother, Jimmie, as a young nurse, provide insight into life during World War IIFound letters chronicle Jimmie’s courtship with a man old enough to be her father and fill in the blanks about Jimmie’s unspoken love affair with a man her own age, training to become a World War II pilot at Pensacola Naval Air Station.

…airmail missives soar past each other on parallel flight paths between Havre de Grace and Pensacola, as plans are made.

Characters’ speech and actions convey contemporary social norms and widely held cultural values. For example, when police officers see a teenaged Lissa, wearing makeup and form-fitting clothing, they dismiss her account of a man’s unwanted sexual advances in his pickup truck.

When I come into the kitchen, one of the police officers, who looks pretty young, is sitting at the kitchen table, writing up a report. The other officer looks older. He’s overweight and balding, and stands facing Daddy. As I enter the room, the older policeman looks me over. I realize I’m still wearing my school clothes. I can feel his gaze sweep over me, top to bottom, bottom to top. It makes me self-conscious. I feel the makeup on my face exhibiting to him something unintentionally provocative. I feel betrayed by the tightness of my form-fitting dress as it follows the contours of my body, by the sheer hosiery clinging to my legs. I am ashamed of my appearance. “Pete,” he calls out to his partner and tilts his head sideways in my direction. The partner responds to the signal, takes a long look at me, snaps closed the notebook he’s been writing in, stuffs it in his uniform pocket, and scrapes his chair back from the kitchen table.

 “Not much we can do without a license plate number,” says the senior partner. “Lots of men in pickup trucks around here.” With that, both officers leave abruptly.

When Lissa withdraws from college to care for her old father, the dean of students tells her that college is where young women come to find a husband.

On Monday, I go to the registrar’s office and say I want to withdraw from college…. The dean is a black-suited, middle-aged man. He sits behind a formal desk in an old office with high ceilings and ancient radiators that ping as he gestures for me to take a seat….

 “So, Lissa. Why do you want to drop out of college?”…

“You realize, Lissa, that most women meet their future husbands in college.” His statement takes me by surprise. It makes no sense to me. The last thing I want to do right now is find a husband. That’s not why I came to college.

Popular music stimulates aural memory and evokes period-specific mood. With the Vietnam War in full swing, Lissa falls in love with a soldier at the Baltimore USO, while dancing to Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.” Closing words from the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar, provide spiritual solace for Lissa’s elderly father as his health declines.

A backdrop of historic events that occurred during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s adds credibility to time and setting. Lissa’s lens exposes readers to the impact of living through the Cold War, space race, multiple political assassinations, Vietnam War, peace protests, and the women’s liberation movement. As Lissa and her father take the number eight bus downtown in the aftermath of the Baltimore’s 1968 riots, a detailed itinerary of the bus route recreates the layout of Baltimore’s streets, records characters’ real-time reactions to current events, and recreates what it was actually like be there, live through, and experience that particular moment in history.

In researching historic events to provide temporal context for the story, I discovered that these past events were precursors and portents of our present moment in time. Issues that Lissa and fellow baby boomers grew up with have echoed forward to influence ongoing political and cultural movements, events, and issues that contemporary readers face today. For example, #MeToo picks up where women’s liberation left off. The struggles of the civil rights movement continue to fester and mutate into new tensions that persist among races and ethnic groups. Fears of Soviet influence, generated by the space race and Cuban missile crisis, are resurging as apprehensions of Russian cyber warfare, election meddling, and political manipulation. The fact that history recycles—evolving, progressing, digressing, repeating—underscores the appeal of mid-twentieth century historical fiction.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Christine. Best wishes for your novel.

At the Far End of Nowhere by Christine Davis Merriman — In this hauntingly unconventional novel, young Lissa Power challenges the imagination and captures the heart as she struggles to grow up under the guidance of her father, Stouten―a watchmaker, inventor, and mechanical wizard―who is easily old enough to be her grandfather.

When Lissa is twelve, her mother dies from breast cancer, and the reclusive old watchmaker, now 84 years old, must oversee his daughter’s coming of age. Faced with the loneliness of celibacy, the vulnerability of old age, and the responsibility of supporting two young children, Stouten remains determined to protect his beloved daughter from all harm. As Lissa matures, Stouten’s authority becomes increasingly restrictive.

Against a backdrop of tumultuous events in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s―the Cold War, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, peace protests, the Civil Rights movement, the moon landing, and the women’s liberation movement―Stouten uses storytelling to transport Lissa back with him to the time of his childhood―when horses and oxen plowed the fields and folks moved more slowly, with the rhythm of nature. Here At the Far End of Nowhere, father and daughter weave fact with fiction and merge reality with fantasy to reveal a broader truth.

Readers can connect with Christine on Facebook, Twitter – @farendofnowhere, Instagram – merrimanchristine or on her website.

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.

Inside Historical Fiction with Tim Weed

Author Tim WeedTim Weed is the author of Will Poole’s Island. A few weeks ago, I found a post Tim wrote on world-building in historical fiction and thought I would ask him to share some of his thoughts. My thanks to Tim for agreeing to participate.

Tim is the winner of a Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Award and a Solas Best Travel Writing Award. His writing has appeared in many magazines and journals. Based in Vermont, he teaches at GrubStreet in Boston and in the MFA Creative & Professional Writing program at Western Connecticut State University.

MKTod: What are the ‘magic ingredients’ that make historical fiction unforgettable/irresistible? In your opinion, what do the best historical fiction writers do to ‘get it right’?

Tim Weed: For me, it’s about fiction first and history second. One has to get the underlying architecture of the novel right: irresistible characters, an emotionally satisfying dramatic arc, a compelling voice and point of view, and the particularized, resonant truths about the human experience that are brought to life by the best novels in any genre. Beyond that, it’s about how immersive the story is, and this for me is largely a question of world building.

MKT: Are historical novels inherently different from contemporary novels, and if so, in what ways?

TW: There’s a quote that I love from Andrew Miller, writing in The New York Times Book Review a few years ago, about the appeal of distance, and of “the strangeness such distance produces and of the lives lived recognizably in the midst of that strangeness.” He compared historical fiction to science fiction, pointing out that both genres require the writer to depict the only world he or she can possibly know—“the here and now”—in other terms.

To me, this notion captures much of what I love about historical fiction, both in the writing and in the reading: it’s at once a dream we have to enter and an oblique reflection of ourselves. In my experience, this kind of mind-altering immersion is harder to find in contemporary novels—if by “contemporary” we mean novels that are set in times and places very similar to the quotidian spheres in which we tend to live out our lives.

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

TW: I’m drawn by the gaps in our knowledge, and I’m interested in depicting facets of the historical worldview that may be less obvious or more difficult for the contemporary mind to understand than can be depicted in nonfiction historical writing.

Let me give you an example from my recent novel, Will Poole’s Island (2014). In the course of my research on 17th century New England I became interested in the clash of two seemingly opposed worldviews: that of the English protestant colonists and that of the Algonkian-speaking natives. What I discovered was that these two cultures had something in common that seems very strange to us now: they were both deeply rooted in the visionary and the unseen.

English sailors reported a sea serpent coiled on a rock off Cape Ann. At Casco Bay near what is now Portland, Maine, an English colonist reported using a hatchet to cut off the hand of a triton that had reached out of the water to grasp the side of his canoe. On the Indian side, it was believed that holy men could walk ankle-deep in stone, and that they could drive one to madness with their screams. Dreams and visions were a means of sacred communication, connecting the believer with the mystical forces of the universe. And so on.

I found this aspect of the 17th century mindset fascinating, which is why it figures so prominently in the novel. In a sense, my characters are enacting something essential to understanding the period. It also happens to be something that is—understandably, given how alien it seems to us now—only glancingly covered in most of the “straight” history that has been written about the time. To me, this is exactly the kind of rich vein that’s worth exploiting in historical fiction.

MKT: In writing historical fiction, what techniques do you use to ensure that conflict, plot, setting, dialogue, and characters are true to the time period?

TW: Generally what I’ve done is to limit my initial research to just enough to allow me to write a rough draft. I need to be immersed enough in primary sources to have a feel for the “historical voice” of the period. I need to know the broad outlines of where the story can and can’t go given the parameters of history, and I inevitably find those little treasures of plot and circumstance that come to one while one is doing archival research.

Then I write the draft, and the draft tells me how much and what kind of further, in-depth research I need to do. I do my best to get the history right—although, again, my primary allegiance is to the integrity of the fiction, not that of the history, so story comes first.

MKT: What aspects do you feel need to be included when you are building a past world for your readers?

We want the reader to forget all about those black marks on the page and enter a kind of trance state—what John Gardner called the vivid, continuous dream of fiction. For me, this means that much of the research both early and late in the process has to be of the sensory variety: what did things look like, smell like, taste like, and feel like? So I often find that research equals travel, and sometimes a bit of outdoor adventure as well. I like this kind of research. I think of it as one of the perquisites of life as a novelist—the gods know there are downsides too!—and a nice spiritual balance to the archival research.

TW: Do you see any particular trends in HF?

I don’t think I have a wide enough perspective to do justice to that question, although it strikes me that Hilary Mantel has laid down a marker. Her books have an irresistible urgency, a sense of gravity, and a sense of universal relevancy that transcends the genre. If you look back on the great masterworks of historical fiction—novels like War and Peace, A Tale of Two Cities, The Age of Innocence, The English Patient—you can say the same thing. So it may not be a trend, but it’s certainly something to spur us on.

MKT: Please tell us a little about your next writing project.

TW: I’m writing a novel about young rebel in 1820s Ireland who seeks his fortune as the sidekick of a charismatic highwayman. When the law closes in the two make their escape by emigrating to New England, where the young Irishman attempts a career as an early American outlaw. It’s been a lot of fun to write and research. I guess we’ll find out if there’s a market for it!

Will Poole's Island by Tim WeedWill Poole’s Island by Tim Weed: New England, 1643. A meeting in the forest between a rebellious young Englishman and a visionary Wampanoag leads to a dangerous collision of societies, an epic sea journey, and the making of an unforgettable friendship.

“This riveting portrayal of early Colonial New England shines a speculative but compelling light on the time and place.” Kirkus Reviews.