Every so often I feel a need to defend myself against the charge that I somehow betrayed my training as a professional historian by switching my emphasis after retirement to write historical fiction. I admit that there's a lot of dreck out there -- "historical" fiction that bears little resemblance to what actually happened. When I first went back to graduate school to study medieval history, I had to unlearn a lot of silliness i had picked up from a steady childhood diet of medieval story-telling. I now loathe the kind of novel that mixes fact with fantasy, or that takes a "what if" approach to explore alternative universes.
But it is also true that historical fiction, when written by a true professional, can cast much light upon confusing historical events. Many important historical figures have fascinating background stories that clarify their actions. Sometimes obscure individuals stepped forward at a crucial moment, did something that changed the course of history, and then fell back into the shadows -- their stories lost. And every writer of historical fiction that I know spends countless hours getting such details right.
My own failing is that I tend to get so involved in the historical trivia that my writing time turns into research hours. Just recently I needed to write about a character who experienced the great Charleston earthquake of 1886. I started by looking at internet pictures, then turned to newspaper accounts, and then ordered two books devoted to the event, both of which I read in depth. When it came time to write the actual description, it took only 420 words. But I had spend three weeks reading and distilling those details. Can the history in my novels be relied upon? I certainly believe so!
Today on Facebook I ran across another example of how hard historical novelists work to get things right. Elizabeth Chadwick writes medieval historical fiction, most often centered on figures from the 12th and 13th century, among them, Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall. Even the Royal Historical Society recognizes her excellence as a writer.And today she demonstrated her historical precision on Facebook with an extensive article on the effigies of medieval knights.
Sound dull? It's not. These effigies, found all over England in medieval cathedrals, have an amazing variety of poses, and she explores the validity of some of the interpretations historians have imposed upon them. Her article recalled for me a discussion I had with my own 12-year-old many years ago, when he asked me why a certain reclining effigy had his legs crossed. When I admitted that I didn't know, he suggested that maybe the knight had to go to the bathroom. Of course I knew where that answer came from -- the kid had been traveling with us by car across France and had been told more than once to "cross your legs and hold it" until the next town.
Here's a look back at the first column I ever wrote about St. Patrick's Day
St. Patrick's Day? If you happen to be
in New England, you may notice that small towns dye their rivers green for the
day. In Memphis, you can drop by Silky
Sullivan's down on Beale Street and have
a green beer. (They also do something with a goat, but I've never been brave enough to ask for details!) Everyone you meet will
claim to come from Ireland. And you'll
need to be up-to-date on your knowledge of all things Irish, like blarney
stones, leprechauns and shamrocks.
St. Patrick was real enough, although he was a
pagan, came from Wales rather than Ireland, and was named Maewyn. His first trip to Ireland occurred when he
was captured by Irish marauders and carried off as a slave at the age of
16. After 6 years, he escaped and made
his way to Auxerre in Gaul, where he studied at a monastery and adopted
Christianity. He returned to Ireland as
a bishop and spent some 30 years fighting with the local Druids and converting
the population to Christianity.
it that he drove the snakes out of Ireland.
True enough, there are no snakes there.
But, then, there never have
been. The island broke away from the
continent well before the last Ice Age, and snakes never managed to make the
swim to re-establish themselves. My
guess is that when Patrick promised to drive the snakes out of Ireland, he was
actually casting an ugly slur on the Druids, who were pagan priests – "the
are also problematic. We all know what
they look like – about three feet tall, old and ugly, with pointed ears and a
pointed cap to match. They smoke
long-stemmed pipes, make shoes, and hide pots of gold under rainbows. They are
anti-social, tricksters, thieves, and creators of mayhem in the middle of the
night. They like to get drunk on a
homebrew called poteen and as a result usually have pink-tipped noses. There are no female leprechauns, but I'm not
going to touch the problem of how they make new baby leprechauns! They are associated with St. Patrick because
they are elves and therefore join the group of folks Patrick wanted to run out
of the island. Patrick's connection with
shamrocks is better-grounded in fact. He
used the native three-leafed plant to explain the nature of the Trinity and
adopted the shamrock as his badge. Despite the pictures you'll see, leprechauns
probably do not hide under shamrocks.
There is a real Blarney Stone, and Irish legend says that if
you kiss it, you will be rewarded with the gift of eloquence. The stone itself is located on the third
story of Blarney Castle, just northwest of the village of Cork. To kiss the stone, you must sit with your
back to it, lean backwards (with someone holding your feet), and lower your
head down a crack between two stone walls.
They tell me there are iron rails to hold onto, but I think I'd rather
just remain green with envy for those who speak with honeyed tongues.
Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone.
Thom Bassett, in his article from today's New York Times, argues, "While the Northern generals deserve some blame, the burning of the South
Carolina capital was in reality a result of confusion, misjudgment and
simple bad luck. It was, in sum, an accident of war."
He describes a scene in which hoarded cotton was first piled in the streets by the Confederates and then was blown around until it draped over everything like a strange sort of snowfall. To that picture, he adds enormous quantities of whiskey and medicinal alcohol, which was not only flammable in itself but also inflamed the Northern soldiers who entered the city. Interestingly the comments elicited by this article could have been written in 1865, with Northern and Southern sympathizers lining up to take potshots and hurl firebrands at one another.
Is the topic fuel and fodder (pun intended!) for my upcoming Yankee Reconstructed? I'm not sure how I can work the information into my own story, which occurs three years later, but obviously, sentiments about the fire would still have been running deep. And part of the story does take place in the burned out shell of the city of Columbia. But what I found most interesting was the number of characters from my books who played a part in this event.
Sherman's march through South Carolina, of course, marks a major turning point in Damned Yankee. The Union army was in Aiken just a couple of days before this fire, and Jonathan Grenville took that opportunity to stand against their threats. He almost literally sends them off to do their damage in Aiken and then in Columbia.
One of today's commenters points out that "Anthony Toomer Porter, an Episcopal priest and Confederate Army
Chaplain, was present while Columbia burned and wrote about it in his
autobiography, Led On Step By Step, first published in 1898. He
confronted Sherman about the lack of control of his troops on a Columbia
Street during the fire." Readers of this blog will recognize A. T. Porter, as the same Dr. Porter who founded a school for Confederate war orphans in Charleston and hired Jonathan to teach for him.
And the Confederate general who failed to keep his soldiers from setting fire to the cotton bales to keep them out of Northern hands was General Wade Hampton -- he of the massive statue on Meeting Street in Charleston. He was commander of Hampton's Legion, in which Charlotte Grenville's first husband was blown to smithereens and in which Johnny Grenville lost a leg at Chickamauga. Wade Hampton also plays a major role in Yankee Reconstructed, as he creates a band of Red Shirts (much like the KKK), and later gets himself elected Governor of South Carolina by suppressing black votes.
This is why writing historical fiction is so much fun. Some of the wild stories behind the dry events of history books are so far-fetched that readers will assume that the author is making them up. Not so, dear readers!