"Roundheads and Ramblings"
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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Connections

Daddy, Where Do Baby Books Come From?

"Daddy, Where Do Baby Books Come From?"  In a slightly different form, that's a question I hear at almost every book signing.  Readers always seem curious as to where their authors find the stories they write about.  "Is this book fact or fiction?" "Did this really happen?" "Is John (or Mary) a real person?" "Why did you choose this place?" "Is that character someone you know?"

Of course, the answers are different for every book, and sometimes, I confess, I don't know the answers myself. But in the case of Damned Yankee, I can tell you exactly where the idea came from. This is book five in a series of works about the Civil War in South Carolina's Low Country.  I've written about Union soldiers and Confederate soldiers, about Pennsylvania regiments and South Carolina militias, about Union nurses and abolitionist schoolmarms from Boston, about slaves and freedmen. And because I'm a historian by training and profession, I have always tried to stick to the facts, using real people -- their letters, journals, newspapers and family pictures. Even though I grew up in the North, I've lived in the South for 25 years, so I hoped I was able to take a balanced view of events.  Still, a family friend kept nagging at me: "Why don't you ever write about a Confederate family?" he wanted to know.  And he was right -- that was a topic I had ignored.

I knew exactly who I wanted to write about next.  My research had introduced me to a Low Country family who had suffered unimaginable losses as a result of a civil war that they had wanted no part of.  I knew who they were and where they had lived. I had even walked through their house and visited the church they attended. Some of  their intimate family letters were publicly available, and I had read them in great detail. There was just one problem.  I also knew that they had living family members who had had a hand in publishing those letters. It was quite likely that they knew a great deal more about their Civil War family than they had revealed in the letter collection. They also controlled much of the source materials I was going to need, and they might not take kindly to a stranger snooping about in the family attic.

There was only one honorable path to follow: I asked permission of the one great-niece I could identify.  And the answer came back quickly.  She was polite but clear. "No, thank you," she said.  "Someday I want to write my great -aunt's story myself, and I won't let anyone else have access to her materials.  I thank you for your interest in our family, and I wish you great success in your writing career, but please write about someone else."

Ouch! All the preliminary research I had done -- probably a year's worth of reading and planning -- was wasted. Still, I wanted to explore the broader picture of Southern families who suffered greatly from the war through little fault of their own.  What to do? I fell back upon that old TV adage: "The names have been changed to protect the innocent."

As I changed the names of the main characters and their locations, I realized I was creating something new -- not a historical account-- but my first novel. Once I got used to creating fictional names, the fictional characters came easily.  I moved them from another southern city to Charleston, and that presented the family with a new set of challenges.  I gave the father of the family a new occupation, which in turn gave him a new back story about where he was educated.  I changed the number of children in the family and added a couple more girls to the mix. The original family had slaves but almost never referred to them by name.  I could give my new family some interesting slaves whose strong characters influenced a couple of  the family's decisions. As their circumstances changed, so did their troubles. And because this fictional family was facing a series of disasters that were different from those I originally knew about, so they took a much different path in finding their solutions.  I had a novel on my hands.

In the end, there was almost nothing that could have been connected back to the original family. What didn't change? The message! By not using a real family, I had told the story of "Every Family" who lived in the South during those tumultuous years. And I had been able to bring to life several of the ways in which the Civil War affected the lives of all who lived through it.

Are the Grenvilles real people? No.  Do they resemble the family that became "off limits" to me? Not in the slightest. Oh, there are a few real people in the book.  Once I put the Grenvilles in Charleston, they had to know people like the Calhouns and the Middletons -- because everybody in Charleston knew those family names. The military commanders are all real, as are several of the peach growers in Aiken.  This story is not fantasy.  Its events and dates are accurate. The situations are authentic and, above all, the suffering is real and well-documented.  Only the characters themselves have been changed, not just to protect the innocent, but to give them a more univeral reality.

There Was This Boy . . .

When I was in first grade, I had a beau. "Johnny" was a typical freckle-faced boy -- not very clever, but raised to be polite and quiet. He lived about five blocks from me, close enough in those days that he could walk to my house and ask if I wanted to play. I never did. He didn't know anything about doll houses and I didn't like cowboys and Indians. Time after time, I sent him away, saying "I don't like boys!"

One day he knocked on our front door.  My mother answered, looked around to see who had knocked, and finally looked down to see an earnest little face. "Please, Ma'am. Are you Carolyn's mother?" When she admitted that she was, he asked, "Please, could you tell her to like me--just a little bit?"

Well, it made a a great story at the dinner table, much to my embarrassment. My mother, who missed no opportunity to  councel me on proper female behavior, shook her head at me. "Really, Carolyn, you should at least be nice to him.  Who knows? He might be the only boy who will ever ask you to the prom."

My father's reaction was quite different. "You stay away from him! I'll have no little boy courting my daughter at age six! I don't intend to let you date until you're thirty."

I thought the whole thing was silly, and I pleased my father by taking his advice (well, some of it!) I certainly stayed away from Johnny all through school. He remained shy, not very bright, neither an athlete or a scholar, just one of the kids in he back of the classroom.

I don' remember ever talking to him, until i went to college.  On the first night of Orientation Week, I went to a Freshman sock hop -- and there was Johnny. "What are you doing here?" I asked.

"I'm starting college," he said. "Wanna dance?"  So we tootled around the gym for a while, and then I let him walk me back to the dorm, purely for safety's sake.  I never saw him again.  My mother reported that he dropped out after two weeks and joined the army.

And that was that. Until this past Saturday. I was taking the holiday weekend off, and decided to spend a little time nosing through the newly released 1940 census. It hasn't been indexed yet, but it is possible to find the town where you were living and then page through the various wards, looking for your last name. I found our local grocery store owner, the high school drama teacher, a couple of classmates, including one who died young, and a man who worked for my father. Finally, I spotted my parents, listed at the very bottom of a page. I was there, aged 10/12s of a year old. And there was my brother, working as a special delivery mailman. We weren't yet living in the house where I remember growing up, so I didn't expect to recognize the names of any of our neighbors.

UNTIL . . . there was Johnny, just 9/12s of a year old, living right next door. I wonder if he ever knew that we were once that close?  Did he miss his chance with me before he was out of diapers?

My own "Six Degrees" of Connections

Did you ever have one of those periods when every random thing you did turned out to be connected to everything else? It's been happening to me with such frequency lately that I'm starting to be spooked.

My writing has somewhat stalled over the past couple of weeks because of the need to do some basic historical research. Yes, I'm a historian, but I come to the Civil War period very late.  In the upcoming chapter of The Road to Frogmore, my main characters meet a newly arrived African-American regiment recruited in Boston and sent to South Carolina.   They are the 54th Massachusetts, the regiment made famous in the movie Glory. I haven't seen that movie in years, and I need to do a lot of reading to fill in my background understanding of the regiment.

Last weekend, as I've mentioned here, we took four days off to travel to Arkansas and to visit the new Crystal Bridges Art Museum.  The guide handed us a small pamphlet as we entered, pointing out that it contained a handy map of the museum.
After a morning in the galleries, we went to the restaurant for lunch, and while we waited for our food, I casually glanced at the brochure and read an entry about a famous sculptor represented in the museum by a carving of a Native American called "The Old Arrow Maker." What jumped off the page at me was this sentence: "[Edmonia] Lewis gained notoriety with her marble bust of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the all-black Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment at Fort Wagner, South Carolina." Wow! that's the same regiment," I thought.  Crystal Bridges doesn't own that particular sculpture, but I eventually found a picture of it and was able to compare it with the colonel's official photograph.

Then yesterday I started catching up with four days of missed Facebook statuses.  One of my friends is the editor of the 100th Pennsylvania Regiment website, about which I write often. But yesterday I found him posting dozens of pictures that he had downloaded from the USA Military History Collection.  At first I skipped over them entirely -- until I looked closely at one and discovered that they were all photographs of members of the 54th Massachusetts. As it turned out, he is interested in this regiment because he is a reenactor whose own regiment was often stationed with the 54th. So there it was again -- that unintentional connection that reminded me to get to work on the research.

While I still procrastinated a bit, I was jerked up once more by a message from one of my readers, commenting on my The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese. She wanted to talk about the importance of historical research and to ask a couple of questions about my work.  OK. I'm happy to help, and the reminder prodded me once again to get busy. To make the final connections, she gave me her username, which just happened to be the same as the name of the kitten we adopted at Christmas.

I'm spooked, but I'm going to work now! The kitten says so.