I Have Another Guest Post on “A Writer of History”

M.K. Tod offered me another opportunity last week to have a guest post on her blog, A Writer of History. I wrote about the lessons I’ve learned in the last ten years on writing a novel. These were the lessons I presented during my session at the Arrow Rock Writing Workshop in Arrow Rock, Missouri, last month.

Please take a moment to check out A Writer of History. It’s a great blog with interesting information for writers and lovers of history. If you browse through her posts, you’ll find lots of intriguing reading suggestions in the historical fiction genre.

My post can be found here.

Hope you are having some fun as you celebrate Labor Day this year.

Black History: Hidden Figures and The Underground Railroad

In recognition of Black History Month, this last post in February is about two experiences I’ve had this month related to African-American history. At the start of the month, I saw the movie, Hidden Figures, based on the non-fiction book, Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, by Margot Lee Shetterly. And during the last half of the month, I read The Underground Railroad, a novel by Colson Whitehead. Both have caused me to reflect about story and history—two themes I write about frequently in this blog.

First, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing Hidden Figures. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t speak to it. But the movie told an unknown chapter in African-American history in a dramatic and engaging way. If Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backward and in heels, then these women “computers” did it backward, in heels, and running half a mile to the bathroom every day.

I didn’t grow up with the Jim Crow segregation laws because I came from a small town in the Northwest. I went to public school with Blacks starting in 1961, there were no separate drinking fountains or restrooms in my town, and there was no public transportation in town so no one worried about who sat in the back of the bus. I didn’t really become aware of racism until the mid-60s when the national news reported marches and riots in large cities.

When the movie was over, I wanted to know more. What was true and what wasn’t? Turns out, the Kevin Costner character is a composite, and no one really tore down the “colored” bathroom sign. Still, there weren’t restrooms for black women in every building at Langley, and Mary Jackson did have to search out a restroom (though Kathryn Johnson just used the unmarked white restrooms). Several other characters in the movie were also composites or fictional, but their attitudes seemed true to the period. As depicted in the film, African-American women at Langley really did work in separate rooms and ate in separate cafeterias.

Most of the salient points in the three protagonists’ histories were true. Kathryn Johnson did ask to attend briefings that no woman had previously attended, and she did verify the calculations for John Glenn’s first American orbit of Earth. And John Glenn did ask NASA to “get the girl to check the numbers.” Dorothy Vaughn was the first African-American supervisor at Langley and was a strong voice for the female computers who worked for her. Mary Jackson was the first African-American female engineer, and she did have to file a petition to get into the school where she could take courses she needed to qualify as an engineer.

So I discovered the story of Hidden Figures was definitely “Hollywoodized.” Nevertheless, I came away believing it was a true depiction both of the racism and sexism of the 1950s and of the intelligence and courage of these African-American women in contributing to the space program.

Shortly after seeing the movie, I began reading The Underground Railroad, which describes a better-known period in African-American history. This era in the 19th Century is filled with dramatic accounts of slave escapes and the elaborate and dangerous routes they took. I’ve read about gun-toting Harriet Tubman’s courageous trips to the South and about slaves hidden for months in barns and attics, much as Jews were hidden from the Nazis a century later. I wanted to read Colson Whitehead’s best-selling version of this epic story.

The book starts with a lengthy section describing life on a Georgia plantation under cruel masters and foremen. I believed his account. His writing is strong. I found Cora, the young female slave protagonist, to be sympathetic and believable. (Some reviews I’ve read have criticized the depth of the characters in the book, but I did not have that problem.) I was rooting for Cora and her companion Caesar to escape the plantation and find the underground railway station.

And then it turned out that the author created an actual underground railway station, complete with locomotive and box car, to spirit Cora and Caesar out of Georgia. The license he took with the truth totally turned me off of the book, though I did finish it. The novel continues with many stops along their journey. I won’t go into those so as to prevent spoilers. I will only say that at each point in the novel where Cora moves from location to location, she does so on an actual railroad located underground.

What a dumb concoction! The “underground railroad” name was a metaphor. It was “underground” because it was a resistance movement, and the people involved only knew a limited amount about the route, so they could not give away information if they were caught. It was a “railroad” because of the labels given to the locations and personnel involved. The stops were called “stations,” they were run by “station masters” with “conductors” and “agents.” But Colson Whitehead turned the metaphor on its head and purported to make it reality.

As a writer of historical fiction, as one who tries to make my fiction truthful, I found this construct a complete distraction from what should have been a compelling story. I liked the writing. I liked the characters, and I was prepared to believe their experiences. Then I was confronted with a “cute” fiction in a serious book. I couldn’t accept it.

I have been cogitating on why I can accept the Hollywoodization in Hidden Figures and not the fictional construct in The Underground Railroad. I’ve certainly read plenty of books that have turned history on its head—many time travel novels (such as Stephen King’s 11-22-63) take obvious creative license and use portals more bizarre than Colson Whitehead’s. But in those books, the reader knows what is coming—the fiction is the purpose of the story, and they are labeled as fantasy or science fiction. In Hidden Figures, the composite characters and the overstatements (such as running half a mile to the bathroom) improve the dramatic arc of the story. They are “truthy” in our current vernacular.

By contrast, Whitehead’s creation of a fictional underground locomotive detracts from the story. I had not read anything about the book containing fantasy before I started it. Moreover, the reality of the slaves’ journeys from place to place was so much more dangerous and dramatic than what he depicted that in my opinion the train chugging into the underground tunnels cheapened the real history he wrote about.

I had other problems with The Underground Railroad, such as its frequent interruptions of Cora’s story to provide a chapter of back story on another character, but I could have lived with those. The major flaw in the book was the underground train. I wanted the book to add to my knowledge of the African-American experience. Instead, his fantastical construct made me question the rest of the history in the book. The history may be at least as “truthy” as the history in the film Hidden Figures, but why did Whitehead give his readers cause to doubt?

In an interview on National Public Radio, Whitehead said:

“once I made the choice to make a literal underground railroad, . . . it freed me up to play with time a bit more. . . . it allowed me to bring in things that didn’t happen in 1850 – skyscrapers, aspects of the eugenics movement, forced sterilization and the Tuskegee syphilis experiment. And it’s all presented sort of matter-of-factly . . . .”

Well, I wish I’d known this before I read the book.

When have you been impressed by or turned off by a historical movie or novel?

How Were Wagon Companies to the Oregon Territory Formed?

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Wagon train photo, late 19th century (public domain)

I’m writing another book about the emigrants to Oregon in 1847 who traveled in the wagon company I created for Lead Me Home. The protagonists in Lead Me Home came from Boston, Massachusetts, and Arrow Rock, Missouri. And the doctor and his wife were from Illinois. The wagon company was formed in Independence, Missouri—a well-known “jumping off ” point for the Oregon Trail.

My current work-in-progress deals with one family from St. Charles, Missouri, and another family that farmed in Tennessee (so far, I haven’t specified where in Tennessee).

How likely was it that this wagon company would have attracted members from across the United States, as it existed at the time? It’s certainly possible. The real 1848 wagon company that took my Hooker ancestors to Oregon had members from several different counties in Missouri and Illinois.

Wagon captains used many methods to form their companies. Some were made up of neighbors wanting opportunities in the West, so the people all knew each other. Others—like my fictional company—were recruited at a jumping off point or elsewhere. Moreover, the wagon trains were frequently reorganized along the way. As the Oregon Pioneers website, compiled by Stephenie Flora and Nancy Prevost, states:

“The wagon trains of 1847 were in constant transition. Wagons left one train and joined another. Trains joined together, split, and then joined a different train. Each time there was a split another Capt. took over the wagons that split off.”

For example, one train in 1847, initially led by Captain John Bewley, had the following changes:

“Left Independence, MO on May 7, 1847. . . . joined later with the Cornlius Smith train that had left from St. Joseph, MO . . . . Capt. Bewley was elected the permanent Captain after a shakedown period of several days. . . . This train appears to have joined up at some point with the rear company of the Oskaloosa split led by Capt. Kees.”

And two more 1847 examples:

“Capt. Jordan Sawyer . . . left from St. Joseph, MO; party consisted of 27 wagons . . . , making 35 able-bodied men accompanied by their wives and children. . . . At some point this train may have linked with that of Capt. William Vaughn . . . .”

. . .

“Capt. Joel Palmer recruited a large number of people to join his company in 1847. It is believed he had 85 wagons and then was later joined by the Chicago Company led by Thomas Cox that added an additional 14 wagons.”

Thus, the reorganization of two companies after the Kaw River crossing that I depict in Lead Me Home is based on the types of leadership changes that really occurred. And the later splits in the company and change of captains (you’ll have to read the book to find out what happened and why) were also plausible historically.

The sizes of the wagon companies varied quite a bit—from about fifteen wagons to over 100. So my fictional company of about twenty to twenty-five wagons (after it reorganized) was on the smaller side, but definitely within the normal range. Even so, I didn’t name all the people who were traveling to Oregon with the wagon train in Lead Me Home, only the families who were characters in the novel. (And readers still tell me they can’t keep all the names straight! Well, one family had eight children, and I couldn’t leave any of them out.)

Some of the issues that I loved exploring as I wrote Lead Me Home—and that I am enjoying as I write my current work-in-progress—were the management of the wagon train and the impact of personality conflicts among the emigrants. The strength of company leaders and the ability of everyone in the company to get along made huge differences in their cohesion and in how successfully they dealt with the hardships they faced.

Any time a group of people is thrown together, these interpersonal issues become critical—whether it is 1847 or 2017. I was able to use personality types I’ve encountered in our times to create the Lead Me Home plot in the 19th century. And these same fictional characters are now letting me write yet another perspective of the same events in my work-in-progress.

When have you seen strangers work together for mutual benefit or argue to their mutual detriment?

Why Were the Pioneers’ Wagon Wheels So Large?

I have researched how and where the emigrants traveled along the Oregon Trail for ten years, and I’m still learning. Recently, I learned from an article in The Wall Street Journal about why the wheel is round. The article contained the sentence:

“The difficulty of moving a wheeled object increases to the point of impossibility when the bumps that a wheel encounters approach one-quarter its diameter.”

That, the author said, is why wheels on Conestoga wagons were so big and those on steam locomotives so small.

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Emigrant wagon exhibit in Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Baker City, OR

Now, keep in mind that the travelers to Oregon did not use Conestogas, which were too heavy to pull over mountains (Conestogas were used primarily in the flatter eastern United States and Canada). But the principle applies to the prairie schooners that were used in travel to the West.

Also, the front wheels on covered wagons were often smaller than the rear wheels. I’m not an engineer, but I suppose the front wheels were the limiting factor on how rocky a road the wagon could traverse.

I didn’t know this information as I wrote Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found. I wrote about the jostling wagons, but never thought about the physics behind why—other than that the trails were unimproved ruts and bumpy. Now when I write about travel to the West, I’ll think about the necessity of moving large rocks out of the way so the wheels could physically maneuver. (I did have a scene in Lead Me Home about having to cut down trees to get the wagons through the mountains.)

The article made me ponder once again the difficulty faced by the emigrants to Oregon. The more rocks a wagon was likely to encounter, the larger the wheels needed to be. If a wagon wheel had a diameter of four feet, then it conceivably could get over rocks that are one foot in diameter. But I imagine that ride would have been extremely uncomfortable.

Most likely the emigrants would have worked to go around large rocks, or move them, or otherwise avoid the rattling about that the uneven terrain would have caused. The wheels weren’t the only problem with wagon travel. The axles could break and the boards could loosen and crack. The emigrant diaries talk of frequent wagon repairs, often with only rudimentary tools and replacement parts.

Still, finding references like this one to wheel size is one of the things I love about writing historical fiction. I never know what I’ll learn—some of it necessary in the moment, some of it perhaps will be important in the future, and some of it I’ll never use. But I think again about the difficulties our ancestors encountered in their quest for a better life.

What have you read recently that taught you something?

Guest Post on A Writer of History

Last Thursday I had a guest post over on A Writer of History, which is an excellent blog on historical fiction written by M.K. Tod. I wrote about how I chose the time and place for my novels, Lead Me Home and Now I’m Found.

A Writer of History has a lot to offer both writers and readers. Writers will find good information on aspects of writing historical fiction. Readers will find reviews of wonderful novels about a variety of historical periods, as well as other guests posts by authors.

Check out my post on A Writer of History here, and I hope you browse a bit more on her blog after reading my post.

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Haunting Book: The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson

summer-before-the-war-coverMy last review of a haunting book for 2016 is of The Summer Before the War, by Helen Simonson. Ms. Simonson is the author of one of my favorite books of the last decade, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, published in 2010. Her second novel, The Summer Before the War, is good, but it doesn’t rise to the same level of excellence as Major Pettigrew, and most reviewers seem to agree with me.

Still, The Summer Before the War haunts me in its description of World War I on the home front and in the trenches. It starts, as one would expect, in the summer of 1914, before war breaks out. In the beginning, it is the portrait of a small English village and the characters that inhabit it.

The character at the heart of the novel is Beatrice Nash, who seeks the position of Latin instructor at the local school. Beatrice is penniless and must succeed as a teacher, no matter how much she would prefer to be a writer. Beatrice would be the first female Latin instructor, and the town’s movers and shakers might not be ready for such a development. The school has other female teachers, but apparently Latin is a masculine subject, at least in 1914. And besides, Beatrice is too pretty to teach, some in the town believe. But Agatha Kent, one of the grande dames of the village, has risked her reputation to get Beatrice the appointment.

Despite its title, The Summer Before the War continues long after the summer of 1914. In fact, it continues throughout the war years. The young men go off to battle, and the women and old men of the village are left behind. The book depicts the tragedy of war—on soldiers, on those who remain at home, and on the displaced (as the town takes in Belgian refugees). These themes are universal, but the novel is quintessentially English and very much grounded in Edwardian times.

SPOILER ALERT — DO NOT READ FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT SPOILERS

I think the reason this book didn’t appeal to me quite as much as Major Pettigrew is that the characters were not as unique nor as charming as those in Ms. Simonson’s first book. In particular, the cultural diversity of Major Pettigrew made that novel stand out for me—the British Army major’s reluctant romance with his Indian neighbor and the quirky intrafamily disputes in both the English and the Indian families hooked me.

By contrast, the characters in The Summer Before the War seemed more generic. Any novel about World War I would contain the same archetypes—the grande dames of the village, the young men who reluctantly abandon their dreams to fight, the arguments between generations, the social strata of Edwardian England (like in Downton Abbey), and the betrayals in the village and on the battlefields. Even the plight of the gypsies in England has been covered in earlier books. For me, only the Belgian refugee characters took the book into unusual aspects of the war’s impact at home.

I did love the small-town intrigue between Agatha Kent and her nemesis Bettina Fothergill. Agatha has an ally in Lady Emily Wheaton, and the scheming among these three older women is delightful, as they strive to advance their chosen candidate for Latin instructor, either Beatrice or a doltish young man named Mr. Poot. The diplomacy that Agatha’s husband must exercise in his career at the Foreign Office is child’s play compared to the village politics plotted by these women.

I also liked the family conflicts between Agatha and her husband and their two nephews, Hugh Grange and Daniel Bookham, both of whom are pursuing their personal goals in directions that their uncle in the Foreign Service might not like. Hugh is studying to be a doctor, Daniel wants to start a poetry journal. Neither man anticipates the impact the war will have on his life.

A romance ensues between Beatrice and Hugh, despite many interruptions. I won’t tell you how it turns out, but you can predict that war interferes. And because it is a war novel, sympathetic characters die, but I won’t tell you which ones. The war brings out the best and the worse in the characters, as war does in most novels.

The Summer Before the War is a slow-paced novel, resembling the life in the small town it depicts. Many reviewers have commented that the novel should have had a stringent professional edit to take out some of its 500 pages. It was definitely longer than Major Pettigrew, which felt to me like a much more focused book. Still, for a grand overview of the impact of World War I on a small town in England, you can do far worse than to read The Summer Before the War. I can see The Summer Before the War being made into a BBC Masterpiece series, but I would rather see Major Pettigrew.

What novel have you read that you wish would become a Masterpiece series?

History by Non-Historians: First-Hand Accounts by Gold Rush Prospectors

Gold Miners in California, Currier & Ives, c. 1871

Gold Mining in California, Currier & Ives (c. 1871)

Writers of historical fiction look for first-hand accounts of the time to give their stories depth and verisimilitude. I wrote an earlier post about a book purportedly by a Gold Rush prospector, California: Four Months Among the Gold-Finders in California; Being the Diary of an Expedition from San Francisco to the Gold Districts, by J. Tyrwhitt Brooks, M.D. (1849). Although a riveting story of prospecting life, it was total fiction. Still, as a contemporaneous account of the era, it was useful in its way. But in my historical novels, I much preferred to rely on writings by actual prospectors, even if their stories were not as sensational.

Good first-hand stories by prospectors can be found on the website, “California Gold Rush: True Tales Of The Forty-niners.” Many of the anecdotes I used in Now I’m Found came from this site.

Johann Sutter’s own account of the discovery of gold at his mill is available in an article titled “The Discovery of Gold in California,” by Gen. John A. Sutter, on the Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco website. There are several accounts by Sutter on this website, which make fascinating reading.

Stories of women pioneers in California can be found in the article “The Foremothers Tell of Olden Times” on this same website. And for another female perspective, there is Jessie Benton Frémont’s book about her arrival in California, which I’ve also mentioned before, A Year of American Travel, by Jessie Benton Frémont (1878). Mrs. Frémont doesn’t describe prospecting, but she does describe storing bags of gold from her husband’s mine in their hotel room, which made me laugh.

Another good book I used that contains first-hand accounts from prospectors is A Year of Mud and Gold: San Francisco in Letters and Diaries, 1849-1850, by William Benemann (Editor) (2003). Benemann has compiled excerpts from many early miners’ letters, and the book does an excellent job of depicting San Francisco in the early Gold Rush years.

Most of the letters in the resources I’ve described were written by ordinary people to their families in the East. They had no idea that someday their words would be interesting enough to include in a book or on websites (which they couldn’t even have imagined), nor that novelists would use them for flavor in books about the period. These letter writers were simply describing for their loved ones the experiences they’d had in a strange land, a land where they hoped to better provide for themselves and their families.

Sometimes I wonder whether anything I’ve written will be used for some future author’s research. I suppose the interesting thing about history is that ordinary people often don’t know it when they see it. Yet for all the publicity given to politicians and tycoons and celebrities, what really matters is the impact of their actions on the ordinary people. It is that impact that ultimately determines whether treaties and laws and business decisions, whether arts and entertainment—all the products of the famous—are successes or failures.

What history do you think we are making today?