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.

Truth in Historical Story-Telling by Tara Cowan

Tara Cowan, author of Southern Rain, has been writing novels since she was seventeen. We connected through Instagram where she is @teaandrebellion – now that tells you something about her interests, doesn’t it? Tara is also an attorney and lives in Tennessee.

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We’re all troubled by historical inaccuracy, aren’t we?  A wrong date, a poor retelling of events, a word from the wrong era, a fashion choice three decades too soon… All of these can snap us right out of the world we are trying to create.  I’ll call these “easy fixes” that can be prevented with historical vetting and a great deal of research (even though there’s nothing easy about that at all!).

But you can get all of that right, and still there is a deeper level of accuracy for which we need to strive: our characters’ beliefs about moral or social issues of their era.  For me, this has become one of my greatest struggles as a writer and reader of Historical Fiction.

So much of what our historical characters do or believe can be mind-boggling or even morally wrong to modern eyes.  Slavery is the obvious example from my novel, Southern Rain, and, of course, it takes everything within the modern author not to be heavy-handed with the message, “This is an affront to human dignity!”  But would my Civil War era characters have thought so?  Perhaps on some deep, primal level they would have known it within themselves, but would they have said it?  Unless they were staunch abolitionists, unfortunately, no. If you look at writings from the time, you see a very broad spectrum of beliefs relating to slavery, ranging from “necessary evil” to “positive good” to “bad for the economy” and “a danger to the balance of power.”  You’re wanting so badly for someone to just say that it was demoralizing and inhuman. And you can find those beliefs, but not as often as you would wish, and largely only among staunch moral abolitionists who were considered by their peers a bit radical at the time.  And so you, as the writer, are faced with a choice: tell the story like it would have been or sugar-coat the past?

That seems easy to answer, but it isn’t always.  We fear that the reader will dislike our characters if their beliefs are outdated or wrong.  That if our characters feel indifference on a subject about which they should feel strongly, our readers will turn against them.  The idea also presents itself that our readers will think that our historical characters’ beliefs are our beliefs.  Sometimes we just want to give our characters a break already in what could be a really punishing world.

Think about Lydia Bennett of Pride and Prejudice.  She is engraved on our memories as a flighty girl because everyone in the Regency Era would have said so.  A more modern pen might have taken a more sympathetic look at the full picture (she was young, her father was absent-minded, her mother was driving her to be married, etc.) and ultimately ended on a more forgiving note that really wouldn’t have been accurate to the Regency Era.  Things like this happen all the time in otherwise great books: the characters aren’t as shocked as they would’ve been, the characters don’t take something seriously enough…

I think a lot about a book by Tamera Alexander titled Beyond This Moment. (Spoiler Alert!) The Reconstruction Era heroine gets pregnant, as they would have said then, “out of wedlock.”  And she pays for it over and over and over.  Even in a succeeding book the townspeople haven’t fully forgiven her. When I read the book as a teenager, I hated that town so much.  I thought the author had drawn them too starchy and the repercussions too dramatically to put a nice, happy-ending bow on the story.  Now, of course, I realize that she was just being truthful, and my hat is off to her for that!

I see writers struggling all the time with the choice between sticking with the rules of an era on the one hand and giving their stories a more modern twist on the other. The bold Victorian woman who swears off corsets and goes to college has become so common in literature that the proper, buttoned-up Victorian woman seems to be the anomaly.  And those stories can be great– many of them currently fill my shelves!  However, I do believe we need to be very careful to frame those stories in an accurate way when we’re pushing the boundaries of history.  We need to tell those fabulous stories of women who had amazing scholastic or professional accomplishments because they did exist. We also need to remember that only an extremely small percentage of women was able to go to college in the Nineteenth Century because they were prevented from doing so.

We can make a person a man or woman of his or her time and still give them break-out moments. An example from one of my earlier manuscripts is a perfect Antebellum wife who, for an entire novel, allows her husband’s word to be law in their household.  Then he goes too far, in her estimation, and she absolutely fillets him. Do I think there was precisely that sort of drama in Victorian marriages?  Oh, yes, most definitely.  And I think that female character was quite strong in her own way for taking a look at the rules in place and concocting subtle ways to get around them, as women have done for centuries (even if she wasn’t ready to throw her corset out the window!).

For the most part, I try to stick to accuracies, however distasteful or foreign, of the era without imbuing the story with modern morality and ideas.  In Southern Rain, my otherwise-delightful male lead feels very hurt when his wife says that she wishes she could have the vote so that he would not speak for the both of them.  To us, she’s doing nothing more than wishing to exercise what ought to be her rights.  But to a Victorian husband, that would have been painful to hear, since voting went to the heart of his Victorian head-of-household rights and duties. If he were a modern man, it would have been out of character, but I had to do it.

I fear making it seem like it would have been easy if all of my characters think it’s great that a Nineteenth Century heroine wants to enter what was considered to be the masculine realm.  I fear trivializing the struggle of the enslaved by making all of my characters abolitionists.  We’re missing a great opportunity if we gloss over moral dilemmas because we’re afraid to tell it like it was.  What better opportunity to show that women are equal than to tell the truth of what happens when they are not treated equally under the law?  What better way to highlight the injustice of what the enslaved faced than to be honest about how people felt about them?

One of the best examples of a book which accomplishes this is America’s First Daughter, by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie.  The book follows the life of Thomas Jefferson’s daughter, Martha, and the authors mention something in the notes about not deviating from what she really would have felt.  She defended her father on matters no one would defend today, while also growing blazingly angry with him on others of which we would have been more forgiving. We see her caught up in Revolutionary fervor in the belief that slavery must and shall end, we see her slap a slave in anger, we see her changing towards complacency when slavery became an economic necessity, and eventually, we see her fighting for abolition as First Lady of Virginia against all odds.  The alternations in her feelings ring so true when you look at the nuances of things that humans do and feel over the course of their lives.  We wrestle with the moral questions of our day, and so should our characters. 

We shouldn’t be afraid to tell it like it was.  For just a moment, you might be overwhelmed, thinking: I can’t do this. I can’t portray characters who have such odd beliefs!  But you’ll be surprised to find how much is similar in humans across the ages.  We can write characters whom we like, and even admire, who hold beliefs that wouldn’t wash in the modern era.  And we’re missing a great opportunity for exploring the complexities of human nature if we make everyone just as he or she should be. And our readers are very sharp! They know that they are reading a work of both fiction and history, and they know when something rings true.  Readers of Historical Fiction want accuracy, and they want to be transported to another time and place and maybe learn something along the way.  Otherwise, we might as well be writing modern books.  And I, for one, can attest to the joy that Historical Fiction has brought me over the years!  So dig in, find the truth, and tell it boldly!  Happy writing (and reading)!

Many thanks, Tara. Best wishes for Southern Rain and the series that follows. Love the idea of breakout moments.

Southern Rain by Tara Cowan

Charleston, Modern Day:
Adeline Miller, a preservationist, gets a call from a Charleston psychiatrist who wants her to restore his Battery Street mansion to its former glory. Thinking this might be her big break, she relocates to Charleston, moves into the third floor of the mansion, and gets to work. As she begins to discover secrets from the past about the family who once lived there, her future begins to get a lot more complicated than she ever expected.

Charleston, 1859:
Shannon Ravenel, the daughter of wealthy rice planter King Ravenel, is destined to marry into South Carolina’s elite planting class. That conclusion is thrown into question when her brother brings home his friend from the Naval Academy, Massachusetts-bred John Thomas Haley. Love aside, can a planter’s daughter and an abolitionist’s son forge a future in a nation that is ripping apart at the seams, or does fate have other plans for both?

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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.