A reader has asked about my statement yesterday that the new edition of Left by the Side of the Road will contain an alternative ending for Beyond All Price. “Why?” My correspondent wanted to know. The explanation is simple. The alternative ending was actually the first one I wrote – before history and facts caught up with me and forced me to change the entire manuscript. Here’s the story.
The ﬁrst time you visit an online genealogy site, they ask you to enter the ﬁrst and last name of the person in whom you are interested. Then they suggest you add as many other details as you happen to know. When I was starting the research for Beyond All Price, I entered a name (Nellie Chase), her birth state (Maine),and a year range for her birth (1835-1845). And I got results. 147 of them, in fact! Who would have guessed that there would be that many Nellie Chases in the world, let alone in a single state. The site suggested I could narrow my results by entering more information, but more information was what I was looking for. I didn’t know her parentage, her city, her death date, her husband’s name, or any of the other things they suggested.
Did I eventually ﬁnd the Nellie I was looking for? Yes, I thought so. But it took years, and even then, I didn’t know who Nellie really was, or what happened to her after the war. That lack of information led me to turn her story into a novel, rather than a biography, and I had great fun creating a life for her before and after the war. I had let my imagination fly and had created an exciting and plausible end to the story. So far so good!
Then one night I received an e-mail from David Welch, who maintains the website for the Pennsylvania Roundheads Regiment. He had found two small tidbits of information about Nellie. A letter from another member of the regiment suggested that she was related to a prominent national figure. The other was an obituary that listed the man she married after the war and told of her heroic death during the Yellow Fever epidemic.
Her obituary, reprinted in a Reading, PA, newspaper, said that Nellie M. Chase had been living in Paris, TN, at the time of her death. (Gah! That was just a 100 miles or so from where I now live, and I had had no idea.) It also suggested that she and her husband ran the railroad hotel there. The obituary noted that both of them actually died in Louisville, KY. That information led to a local newspaper article about yellow fever deaths in Paris, TN. Other yellow fever articles led to a book on their employer, the L & R Railroad, which in turn gave the name of the cemetery in which Nellie and her husband were buried. After that it only took a quick inquiry to the Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville to discover the exact location of their burial plots and to get a photograph of their joined headstones, which in its turn gave me their full names and exact birthdates.
My “exciting and plausible” ending was nowhere near as good as the real story. This was definitely a case of the truth being stranger than fiction. It also meant that I had to discard much of what I had written as well as segments throughout the rest of the book. The Nellie I had been writing about was the wrong one. Back to the records I went, armed with a new set of names and dates to be checked. It’s a good thing I enjoy historical research. The historian in me was excited; the writer, more than a little discouraged. An obituary from a local 1873 newspaper changed my first book completely. So in the new short story collection, you’ll find some of the fascinating stories I had made up and then discarded – until now.