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.

Interview with author Eugenia West

I first encountered Eugenia Lovett West when her most recent novel – Sarah’s War – was released. As someone who began writing after a thirty-year career in business, I was fascinated to learn that Eugenia West is well into her nineties. She says that her goal is to keep on waking up every morning with the urge to create. Amen to that!

What was the inspiration for writing your first novel, The Ancestors Cry Out? 

Thanks so much for inviting me to be on your blog, What was my inspiration for writing my first novel, The Ancestor’s Cry Out? I fell in love with the island of Jamaica when visiting family there—and this was in the 1960’s before it became a popular resort. Women still walked along the road with baskets on heads and there were few cars. The beauty of sea and sky was dramatic, the people were warm and friendly. As well, there was great contrast between the shore and the higher elevation. A trip into the hills and a visit to a sugar plantation introduced me to a wilder landscape and sense of a strong sub-culture, sometimes voodoo. I read a number of journals written by wives of British governors with tales of uprisings and tragedy. The combination of beauty and the undercurrents of danger led me to invent a cast of characters and to send a young woman from Boston on a mission to find a lost inheritance.

What keeps you writing?

I believe strongly in the value of escape reading. For me, it started when I had little children and nap time was a chance to read and regain sanity. These days, the need for escape reading may be stronger than ever, and my aim is to give readers total immersion into another world. I come from a long line of preachers and teachers and I may have inherited a love of playing with words.  As well, the euphoria when a manuscript is accepted does overcome the pain of rejection. And—at age 96, it’s a gift to wake up in the morning with the urge to create.

Do you begin with plot or character?

For writing history, I’m apt to begin with plot. Sarah’s War evolved after reading about the winter of 1777 in Philadelphia, the contrast between General Washington’s disintegrating militia at Valley Forge, the sickness, the bleeding feet in the snow. Now picture British officers living the high life in winter quarters in Philadelphia. There were weekly balls at Mr. Smith’s City Tavern, sports, musicales. This culminated in a farewell party for General Sir William Howe modeled after an old fashioned jousting tournament and ending with a grand ball and fireworks costing thousands of pounds. An extravaganza—nothing like this had ever happened in the colonies. The contrast led me to start years of research. I spent four days reliving the Battle at the Brandywine River. I knew where every regiment in both armies was standing, and how the British general, Lord Cornwallis, made a fearful mistake by allowing his troops fall out for a leisurely lunch, giving Washington’s men a chance to avoid a trap and escape. The first version of Sarah’s War was far longer, with three main characters.  In the end, to make the story move faster, I concentrated on one character, Sarah. It caused me great pain to cut out many pages of careful research, but I tried hard to maintain a sense of what it was like to live in that dangerous time. Loyalists and fence sitters outnumbered patriots. The streets were filled with informers and spies. There was no structure of governance, just thirteen states each with their own demands. We owe a great deal to those first patriots who might well have been hung if the war for independence was lost.

You’ve written novels since the 1970s. What changes to the industry do you think are most significant?

My sense is that changes in the last few decades are giving writers far more opportunities to see their manuscripts become books that you can hold in your hand. When I started writing novels, it was almost essential to have an agent with connections to editors. The alternative was expensive vanity publishing. Now many books are self-published and profitable. There are more small presses, and there’s also a new game in town—hybrid publishing. The author pays up front and the hybrid publisher produces a presentable book—cover, ISBN, links to distributers etc.  Depending on the success of the print run, the author gets a high percentage of earnings. There have been other major changes. I used to work on an electric typewriter and mistakes had to be covered with white ink. Then came computers. Unlike children who seem to be born hardwired with technical skills, my generation struggled with the learning process—I still treat my computer with wary respect. In fact, when I started writing there was no internet and no social media like Facebook and Instagram and Twitter, giving writers the chance to build up lists of fans and followers.

What lessons have you learned from your long career writing fiction?

The answer is many—and often the hard way through trial and error. Readers and writers are starting off on a journey together. It’s up to the writer to create a bond—and that bond must be created as soon as possible. I learned that it takes many hours and many thousands of words to find one’s “voice” or particular style—my theory is that writing is 10% talent and 90% applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I discovered that I don’t have a gift for clever metaphors, but I do have an ear for dialogue that can move a story along without lengthy descriptions. It helped that when my youngest child was in school all day, I became a freelance reporter for a number of weeklies in New Jersey. Journalism teaches one to check facts and to cut down on adverbs and adjectives that detract from strong writing. Feeling important, I rushed around with my Nikkon camera covering everything from sewage disposal meetings to national conventions. Then, instead of 300 words, why not 300 pages? My first novel was sheer trash, but the second, The Ancestors Cry Out, was picked up by Doubleday. I learned that, for me, suspense is essential. I want the reader to be compelled to turn the page.

You’ve written both historical fiction and contemporary. What appeals to you about each genre?

As a story teller, not a bone fide historian, I owe a great deal to non-fiction writers like McCullough and Ellis and Philbrick. History can be flexible, accounts handed down are subject to change. For example, Malcolm Gladwell writes that it wasn’t Boston patriots dressed as Indians that boarded ships and threw tea overboard. It was tea smugglers, concerned that imported tea would eat into their profits. Historical fiction demands that you balance facts and imagination. Great care must be taken when introducing actual figures like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. On the other hand, for mysteries, there are rules to follow like planting red herrings, valid clues, surprise endings. The villain is always caught and justice must triumph. Mysteries come in many shapes and sizes, but for me a husband killing his wife in a bathtub is not an option. Mine have global sub-plots like advanced weaponry, illegal viruses, and cybercrime. To sum up, I think there is a special dimension to writing history because both reader and writer gain insights from expanding our knowledge of the past and of the people who changed the world. It’s a never ending source of interest.

Many thanks for sharing your perspective, Eugenia. Readers will be fascinated with your experience and inspired by your career.

Sarah’s War by Eugenia Lovett West ~~ 1777 is a pivotal year in the United States. The Revolutionary War has long since begun, with no end in sight. George Washington and his untrained militia struggle to survive. The thirteen states are torn apart by politics. Amidst all this chaos, Sarah Champion—a beautiful young Patriot and parson’s daughter whose twin brother was killed in the Battle of Long Island—is sent from rural Connecticut to live with a rich Loyalist aunt in Philadelphia. There, she is plunged into a world of intrigue and treachery. She spies on British officers enjoying festivities in winter quarters. She goes to Valley Forge with information about a plot to kill Washington.

As the war drags on, Sarah digs deep for the strength, courage, and wits to overcome the numerous deadly threats she faces, driven on by her determination to realize one dream: being part of the efforts to form a new and independent country.

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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.