Thank you to Mary Tilghman for preparing this Guest Post on Historical fiction and writing it.
How do you feel about time travel? A science fiction novelty? An impossibility for real life? Tempting, but…?
Historical novelists would tell you they do it every day. And their deepest desire is to take their readers with them.
I fell into historical fiction quite by mistake.
I was a travel writer for Frommer’s, visiting places all over the states of Maryland and Delaware where history came to life.
Every once in a while a place would speak to me. In a different, sort of way.
Antietam battlefield, the site of the bloodiest day of battle in United States history, was one of them.
I found it nearly impossible to imagine all those men, from both North and South, converging on the gentle rolling hills in the middle of Maryland. The casualties numbered some 23,000 men dead or wounded. It was here I first learned about all the women who showed up to take care of the men who lay suffering on the damp, dewy earth for days. Any sort of shelter became a hospital—in spite of the filth, vermin, increasingly cold weather.
Imagine…That’s exactly what I did as I scanned the pastoral view more than 150 years after that awful day.
Imagining led to study and research. Before I could write, I had to know more. What was the community of Sharpsburg like? Where were the hospitals? The soldiers? Where did the nurses come from?
I started in the library and on the internet. For example, I went looking for photos of the aftermath of the battle.
Alexander Gardner took the most famous photos and lots of them are on line. history.net has a good collection, as does the National Park Service (nps.gov/anti) on the website for the Antietam battlefield.
The NPS also has a timeline and oodles of facts and figures, with maps and other resources—all online.
Being there makes all the difference. I toured the battlefield with an Antietam Battlefield Guide who jumped in my car and took me to key sites, told me about all the players. It isn’t cheap at about $100, but it led me to all the places that would figure in my story.
During a visit to the National Museum of Civil War Medicine curator Terry Reimer gave me the names of important players, including Dorothy Dix and Maria Hall. The first coordinated nursing volunteers during the War, the second ran a tent hospital I’d never heard of: Smoketown.
I did an internet search of all the names Terry suggested and found a single grainy photo of Maria sitting in a tent with several soldiers at Smoketown. It was on a website by Civil War historian John Banks (https://john-banks.blogspot.com).
At the Maryland Center for History and Culture’s H. Furlong Baldwin Library, I found reports of the hospitals’ sanitary conditions, more battlefield photos, and a 50-year reunion souvenir booklet with names of Civil War nurses. In it were listed Maria Hall and several volunteers at Antietam. It was a series of portraits of devotion to suffering soldiers.
Clothing becomes an issue in a novel and I found a great source on Facebook, 19th Century Sewing. Members provided all kinds of little details about what characters would wear.
Believe it or not, Google Maps became an important reference for the lay of the land. It helped me see where the Antietam Creek zigged and zagged, how close the fighting was to farms and town and figure out how long it would take to walk from Sharpsburg to the Pry House Hospital. My characters had to walk. Horses and carriages were, for the most part, long gone in the service of one Army or the other.
I read books as well, going back again and again to the series by Shelby Foote and the Illustrated Civil War History that went with the PBS series produced by Ken and Ric Burns.
The journalist in me was turning into a novelist. At some point you find gaps in the research and, as historical novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez said, you have to “make s—- up.” In other words, let your imagination go wild.
Professor Perkins-Valdez’s advice, which I heard at a Historical Novel Society convention, is true enough. To write historical fiction is to remember you aren’t a historian but a story teller. The history serves as a backdrop, informing every scene, every character. It provides your characters with motivation, conflict and goals—the essential elements of any good story. But history isn’t the story.
To write my story, I returned to the battlefield, looking for a girl named Maureen. My heroine would be an amalgam of the nurses I’d read about, a local Sharpsburg girl anxious to help her country as her Union soldier brother was.
In the comfort of my car, I traveled the roads she walked, I parked beside a forgotten field that kind of, sort of fit the descriptions I’d read of Smoketown. I found her humble house by Antietam Creek, complete with chickens browsing beside the road. And up the hill was a grander house with a sweeping view of the countryside. It was time to let my imagination loose.
That’s where I time traveled first. It was a hot, humid summer day when Maureen came out to feed those chickens while her friend Eliza and her brother Joe held hands as they crossed the narrow road after a wade in the cool water. War was coming and no one wanted to talk about it—and yet that’s all they were talking about. Eliza’s brother had already signed up and his new wife was staying with Eliza’s family. Their father, a tough Irishman who’d seen enough civil strife back in Ireland, opposed his son’s enlisting and certainly his daughter’s volunteering.
I was a “pantser” then, writing as the spirit led me without outline or timeline. But I had the timeline of the battle and dates for the Smoketown hospital where my character’s story would happen. With beginning and ending dates, keeping in mind conflict-motivation-goals, I fit in a story about an Irish immigrant family who loved the country they’d come to after escaping sectarian violence at home. I introduced neighbors, friends, and tried in a town divided by war, united by suffering. Then I gave birth to a girl named Maureen who wasn’t letting anything get in her way. I described scenery drawn from those battlefield photos.
The war came to life in my research and then in my imagination as I wrote. I spent several years living in the past until my first historical novel, DIVIDED LOYALTIES, was published.
It’s magic, you know, time traveling this way. Other historical novelists agree with this sentiment. We set off on journeys to different places and different eras, longing to bring the past to life for readers today.
DIVIDED LOYALTIES is available on Amazon and BN.com, as is my historical novella LOVE LETTERS & GINGERBREAD, a Jane-Austen-inspired Christmas novella set in 1830 Annapolis. Other historical novels are in the works.
Thank you so much Mary Tilghman for an interesting post, and I hope you guys enjoyed it and start writing your own historical fiction pieces.
Stay safe and have a wonderful weekend,