Dialogue and character with Sarah Taylor

Sarah Taylor has a BA in History and an MSLS and is a writer of historical fiction who recently published her first novel, Beautiful Dreamer, a novel about Steven Foster We met online as people do these days and our conversation led to today’s post. Welcome to A Writer of History, Sarah.

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M.K. Tod’s article, “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlines the seven most important aspects of historical fiction. I will focus on two of them, dialogue and character, as they shaped my recent novel, Beautiful Dreamer. Set in nineteenth century Pittsburgh, it follows the life of America’s first professional composer, Stephen Collins Foster. I have previously written historical fiction and historical fantasy about fictional characters.

Many new historical fiction authors create characters who behave like twenty-first century people, no matter the era they lived in, but, as historical novelist Harry Sidebottom said, “The past is another country.” It can be difficult to think as someone in another era thought, especially when they may have had beliefs contrary to the twenty-first century’s. With fictional characters, it’s easy to want to make them likeable—“They should be anti-slavery or pro-suffrage”—forgetting that political correctness as we know it today did not exist until 1970; before then, it meant “according to fixed laws” (late 15th century) or “in a politic manner” (1580s). Especially with real historical figures, they may have thought differently than people do now, and, even if you wonder, “How could they have thought that?”, it is important to represent them fairly and accurately.

For instance, in real life and as portrayed in my novel, Beautiful Dreamer, the Foster family was mostly conservative and pro-Southern, though they lived in the North, while Stephen Foster was pro-Union and anti-slavery. His father was a Jacksonian, and his brother wrote articles during the Civil War like “The Uses of Slave States,” while Stephen dedicated songs to President Lincoln. The family didn’t necessarily write why they believed what they did, which meant reading between the lines and researching reasons why similar people were pro-Southern or pro-slavery. It broadens our perspective to look at both sides of an issue, such as the North and the South, beyond the one side that’s commonly taught or discussed. Though the Civil War is often cast in moral terms, such as the North was “right” and the South was “wrong,” writing and researching different perspectives on the war helped me see all sides of an issue. As a historian and as a writer, I try to portray historical individuals sympathetically, no matter their political views.

Their hundreds of family letters opened a window on how they talked, and I drew quotes from them as they fit into the story. For instance, Stephen later wrote a friend about selling his song “Oh! Susanna” that “Though this song was not successful, yet the two fifty-dollar bills I received for it had the effect of starting me on my present vocation as songwriter.” I included this quote in the scene where he sells “Oh! Susanna” to a publisher and is happy to receive two fifty-dollar bills for it, though the publisher made $10,000 on the song. Historical people spoke and wrote differently in some ways than we do, but, in many ways, people from the nineteenth century spoke and wrote similarly to now and used familiar idioms. What Diana Gabaldon calls the “PBS voiceover effect” often used in Civil War era novels and films may be exaggerated.

If writing fictional characters, reading letters by individuals similar to your characters, whether a nineteenth century aristocrat or an eighteenth-century maid, would help, as would reading plays and novels of the time, such as Shakespeare or Charles Dickens. The Little Book of Lost Words: Collywobbles, Snollygoster, and 86 Other Surprisingly Useful Terms Worth Resurrecting, by Joe Gillard, creator of the website “History Hustle,” compiles historical words that are no longer commonly used (but should be), and the Writer’s Digest Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life series covers historical eras from the Middle Ages to the Wild West, compiling every fact important to constructing a historical era, including a glossary of slang unique to that era. Etymonline.com and dictionaries such as Oxford English Dictionary list the etymology of every word and idiom and when they first appeared.

While accuracy is important to historical dialogue, so is readability. If the dialogue is too historically accurate, a twenty-first century person might not understand it. For instance, I had to edit the quote from Stephen Foster above in the novel for clarity. It’s important to strike a balance between accuracy and understandability. I also fit dialogue from recollections of friends and family who knew Stephen into the story, including the scene where Stephen proposes to his wife, Jane McDowell, after both he and a rival suitor, Dick Cowan, accidentally show up at her house at the same time:

The next time I came [to Jane’s house], Joe [the servant] brought none other than Dick into the parlor. “What’s Dick doing here?” I whispered to Jane, but she just rose with a smile as Dick hung up his military broadcloth cape.

“Good evening, Miss Jane. You’re looking wonderful as always.”

“You flatterer.” She laughed as they sat down.

“Good evening, sir,” Dick told me. I turned my back to them and didn’t answer, picking up a book and flipping pages without knowing the contents. Why was Dick here unless Jane had asked him to come and forgotten I was coming at this time? Jane and Dick went on talking as if nothing were amiss, and I went on flipping pages. If I acknowledged him, that would give him more reason to tease me the next day. At long last, Dick stood up and said, “Good night, Miss Jane” and “Good night, sir” to me. I ignored him. Picking up his cape, Dick left, and Jane rose to see him out.

I stood, shaking; if Jane mixed up the times on purpose, she achieved her desired effect. When Jane returned, I gathered up my nerve to ask her. “And now, Miss Jane, I want your answer. Is it a yes? Or is it a no?”

She blinked, startled, and then recovered with a slight smile. “Yes.”

I wrapped my arms around her waist and kissed her. Yes. She said yes.

Don’t be afraid to let your historical characters, whether fictional or real, espouse views that may now be considered controversial. At one point, they may have been considered mainstream; woman’s suffrage, for instance, used to be a minority view, while most women were indifferent or opposed to it. Use primary sources, such as letters and literature, for historical thought processes and dialogue, as well as dictionaries and etymonline.com to avoid anachronisms. By following the “7 Elements of Historical Fiction” outlined by M.K. Tod’s blog post, you’ll be able to write historical fiction that readers will be immersed in and remember.

Many thanks, Sarah, for adding to the discussion of the seven elements of historical fiction.

Beautiful Dreamer by Sarah Taylor ~~ Quiet and dreamy-eyed, Stephen Foster wants nothing more than to be a musician in a world where boys are supposed to grow up and go into business, like the family hero, his older brother William. Even though he can play the flute perfectly from the age of six, his family’s expectations of a traditional profession drive him to Cincinnati, where he works at his older brother Dunning’s warehouse. While in Cincinnati, he publishes his first great hit at the age of twenty-one, “Oh! Susanna.” With Firth, Pond and Company, the best New York publisher, to sell his songs and E.P. Christy, among the greatest of minstrel performers, to sing them, Stephen is sure he can make songwriting his business. He turns out hits like “Old Folks at Home” and “My Old Kentucky Home, Good Night,” songs that Frederick Douglass said “awaken the sympathies for the slave,” as if his life depends on it. With the Civil War approaching and personal tragedies striking, it does.

Beautiful Dreamer is available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Ladies of the Civil War

Author G.S. Carr provides the backdrop for a series she’s written about women of the Civil War. She’s also written The Cost of Love series and one book in Westward Home & Hearts series. When not crunching numbers and gushing over spreadsheets, she’s creating stories. Her tagline is Heart, hope and love to last through the ages. Many thanks for visiting today, GS.

Women have been kicking butt and taking names for centuries. They have defied cultural and societal expectations, resulting in many great feats of courage and changes to our world on both a micro and macro level. In honor of the many wonderful women of the past that have laid the groundwork for where we are today and where we will go in the future, I wanted to create a historical romance series based on a set of brave women, fighting for a set of principles they believe in. 

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This is how my newest series Ladies of the Civil War came to be. While watching a documentary about the Civil War with my husband I heard a brief mention of a woman who was in the Andersonville Confederate prisoner camp. Needless to say, that inspired me to embark on a research road trip. It was such a great experience being able to drive down to Georgia and visit the historical Andersonville site. Below is a picture I took of what the fort looked like while in use. 

During this trip not only did I leave with a new respect and deeper understanding of what many male soldiers went through. I also learned about some of their brave wives who accompanied them in the encampments. Now for those of you who are history aficionados this may not be news to you. But for this young lady who barely made it out of high school U.S. History, my mind was blown (writing historical romance has sparked my now love of learning about history). 

Andersonville Prison

Also during this trip, I found a gem of a book titled, They Fought Like Demons: Women Soldiers in the American Civil Warby DeAnne Blanton and Lauren Cook Wike. If you’ve never read this book, I highly recommend it. It helped to further expand my understanding of the various roles women assumed during the Civil War. From spies, to nurses, to soldiers, and much more, they were amazing. The book highlights several women who disguised themselves as men to fight in various battles. For example, Sarah Emma Edmonds, who went by the alias Pvt. Franklin Thompson and served with the 2ndMichigan Infantry.

During further research I found out about a woman named Cathay Williams. She enlisted in the Army under the name William Cathay on Nov. 15, 1866 (post Civil War) when she was only 22 years old.

 Cathay was assigned to the 38th U.S. Infantry and traveled throughout the West with her unit. Her bravery makes her go down in history as the first documented black woman to enlist in the Army (even though U.S. Army regulations forbade the enlistment of women at the time).

I was honored to learn about this amazing woman! I stand upon her shoulders, and the shoulders of many other women just like her, who bucked the status quo and changed the course of history. My hope is to live a life worthy of their sacrifices and create a new wrung in the ladder for the next generation. 

So needless to say, I had to give these women a story. The inspiration was too good not to use. And that is how three women, Henrietta, Ruth, and Abigail came to be. During a slightly inebriated game of cards, these friends make a promise that they will all find a way to serve the Union Army. And if navigating how to fulfill their promise wasn’t enough of a challenge, of course I had to toss in how they try to navigate the complicated landscape of love. 

Book one, Lady of Secrets, is already available on Amazon. Book two, Lady of Disguise, will be released soon. Henrietta is catapulted down a path of intrigue, coded messages, and intelligence operations. And Ruth disguises herself as a man to fight as a Union solider. 

These books were so much fun and an absolute honor to create. I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them. Happy Reading!  

I understand your fascination with women serving in the army, GS. I remember reading of several women who served alongside men when I was writing my WWI novels. Such courage is hard to fathom.

Lady of Secrets by G.S. Carr ~~ Henrietta Wright is a Free Colored woman who teaches reading and writing to anyone who enters her classroom. At least she was, until a drunken night with friends catapults her down a path of intrigue, coded messages, and intelligence operations. All in service of the Union Army. She can’t tell anyone what she’s doing, including the handsome Irishman she knows she shouldn’t want, but can’t seem to resist.

Since stepping onto American soil, Elijah Byrne’s only goal has been to survive another day. That is until Henrietta burst into his life and made him want more. She was never meant to be his – her fiancé can attest to that – but she makes him long for things men like him aren’t lucky enough to have. When she asks for his help, he can’t resist tumbling with her into a clandestine expedition that could cost them everything—including their lives.

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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 AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

REAL LIVES ARE STRANGER THAN FICTION

I met Curt Locklear at this year’s Historical Novel Society conference. He’s an author, historian, teacher, education consultant, and public speaker. He also plays the banjo. Welcome, Curt!

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Real Lives are Stranger than Fiction by Curt Locklear

One of the great things about research for historical fiction is coming upon a surprise and knowing immediately that you can use it in your story. In my discovery of the amazing lives of the Fox Sisters, it was not just a neat tidbit to insert to add flavor to a good story. Their lives, or should I say antics, became a driving element in the plot of all three of my Civil War novels.

The Fox Sisters were the first and most notable, or notorious, spiritualists. The  phenomenon they helped engender – the “Spiritualist Movement” – swept through the nation.  This movement, proclaimed by even church leaders as religious in nature, clutched the United States and Great Britain in its grubby paws. Twelve years prior to the Civil War, in upstate New York, two young sisters, Kate Fox, age12, and Maggie Fox, age13, began their elaborate hoax innocently enough. Their father was devout Methodist minister, but the girls had no qualms about their extended effort to deceive their parents and neighbors.

They began their hijinks at night, tying a string on an apple and bouncing it on the floorboards of their upstairs room to sound like footsteps. Both girls later found they had an innate ability to make the joints in their big toes pop extremely loudly. They went on to invent a story about a peddler, Mr. Split-foot, who had been murdered. In the presence of their parents and neighbors, they would “ask” Mr. Split-foot’s ghost a question, and he would always rap the floors exactly correctly. No one doubted their story or discovered their ruse.

After a while, their mother sent them to stay with their much older sister, Leah. Rather than bring a halt to their connivance, the older sister saw the makings of a good income. If snake oil salesmen could sell their wares, Leah was certain that the sisters could market their uncanny ability of “speaking to the dead” to a nation of suckers. Their first séance, or spirit rapping, was held at Corinthian Hall – Rochester, New York’s largest venue. The price was one dollar.

The show was a success as were several more soon after. In a short while, “Spirit Societies” were formed all through New York state. The young sisters, in later seances, were speaking to Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and even Shakespeare. It was not long before other entrepreneurs figured out that a naïve and easily-fooled public would pay for séance shenanigans – wholly believing the purveyors of spiritual nonsense.

With newly burgeoning “science findings” sometimes flying in the face of some religious dogmas, many people searched for proof that immortality and the afterworld existed. Of course, skeptics immediately took on the hoaxes. A number of the shysters were found out. They were caught using small drums between their legs or having an accomplice behind a curtain, and so on.

Despite the skeptics, the spiritualist societies grew in number, most notably in Ohio.

The Fox Sisters, being more than once tied to chairs and monitored closely by renowned skeptics, were never found out. When the two spiritualists cracked their toe joints inside their shoes against wooden floorboards, the sound reverberated everywhere on the stage. No one guessed their ploy.

With their overbearing older sister forcing them into compliance, both Kate and Maggie became alcoholics and ended up broke at the ends of their lives. Both later admitted their lies.

The larger story is that many of the most respected individuals in the United States and Great Britain succumbed to the belief that certain people could openly consort with the deceased. Among them were Horace Greeley, the outspoken publisher of the New York Tribune and A. Conan Doyle, author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries.

When the Civil War began, never had the American nation seen such loss of life. The effects of witnessing the inconceivable devastation first-hand when the battle arrived in their front yards; and the dire news delivered by newspaper almost daily, led to a sort of national insanity. Large cities had a steady stream of hearses and coffin-laden wagons, the deaths being more from disease than battlefield death. Sometimes, in a single battle, small towns lost almost every young man who had joined the army.

No wonder people sought some sort of relief from their anguish.

The panacea was a chance to speak to lost loved ones during a séance. Historians estimate that as much as one-fifth of the US population believed in Spiritualism (the ability of some people to speak to the dead.)

Perhaps the most notable person to consort with spiritualists was Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of the president. Mrs. Lincoln held numerous seances in the White House after the untimely death by typhoid of their young son, Willie. Even the president sometimes attended. Mary Lincoln’s favorite spiritualist was Nettie Colburn, though she had Charles Colchester lead a séance as well. President Lincoln, his wife, and Charles Colchester play prominently in my third novel – Reconciled. The Fox Sisters are in all three novels and are involved in the dramatic climax in Reconciled.

Fascinating history, Curt. It’s my understanding that the famous French author Victor Hugo was also captivated by spiritualism. Best wishes for your Civil War novels.

Asunder Trilogy by Curt Locklear ~~ Thrust into the middle of Civil War battle, with both Union and Rebel protagonists and antagonists, Curt Locklear’s Asunder trilogy are stories of love and loss and of families torn apart.

Splintered is the second in the trilogy. From its heart-wrenching opening scene of stoic grief in a Lincoln White House on the day of his son Willie’s death to the final heart-wrenching battle scene and suprising assasination plot against Lincoln, Splintered proves itself a novel of sweeping, artfully rendered proportions, and one that is at times deeply moving, while always intelligent and socially conscious.

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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.