I had a delightful surprise yesterday. Authors love to hear
from readers, of course, especially when they have nice things to say. But I’ve
never had a phone call from a family member of one of the people I’ve written
about. Even better, the caller had lovely compliments for my book The Road to
and wanted to offer access to family records I did not even know
The caller was a lateral descendent of Miss Ellen Murray,
the life-long partner of Laura Towne. She is the great-great-grandniece of
Ellen and has spent years studying Frogmore, the Penn School, and the events on
St. Helena Island. How did she find me? She’s not an internet person, so she
didn’t just go online. Apparently a friend who was traveling in South Carolina
discovered the book and told her about it. She asked for a copy for Christmas,
and had just now finished reading it.
She sent her husband to the library to see what he could find out, and
he evidently turned up my website, which gave her my contact information. So
reaching out was not easy – it took a lot of effort.
But what a fun time we had on the phone. We chatted almost
non-stop for an hour, and I was so fascinated that I didn’t even mind turning
off the Dog Show. She possesses diaries
written by her various grandmothers going back several generations, and they
include Ellen’s sister, who visited St. Helena both during the Civil War and after.
Our information exchange was valuable on both sides. She
corrected my spelling of a name that I had gotten consistently wrong. I
informed her of the existence of a copy of Laura’s diary she did not know
about. And we discovered some contradictory information – her sources say one
thing, while mine say another. I was so intrigued that I was up early this
morning to dig back through my sources. Already I think I’ve found a plausible
explanation for the discrepancy, but we shall have to talk again. I can hardly
wait for our next conversation.
I keep catching a glimpse of another fascinating story
behind this surprise. Is there a book in it? Who knows? I do know I’m feeling a
renewed enthusiasm for doing more
research on what I thought was an exhausted topic.
Just for fun, here are some of the items that made the front page of the Charleston Daily News in April 1867:
An English clergyman was on hand when a body washed up on the beach. He refused to read the burial service because he couldn’t be sure the man had been baptized. (Surely all that sea water should count for something!)
A Confederate soldier who was killed during the war in New Orleans has now been dug up and will be returned to Charleston for a proper burial, thanks to the discovery of fluids that preserve dead bodies (embalming). Funeral guests are assured they can attend without discomfort or annoyance.
A report is circulating in England that Napoleon was once planning to help the King of Portugal to seize the Spanish throne, in exchange for which he would receive ownership of Cuba. The paper denies the rumor, pointing out that Napoleon may have been many things but he was not a fool!
The closing of a book store, due to retirement, and selling stock at “a great sacrifice.”
A “Pulmonic Elixir Specific” which will provide a new cure for consumption, asthma, coughs, and all bleeding in the lungs. It has been created by the local druggist to invigorate, restore warmth, purify the blood, regulate circulation, and expel all diseases, while promising to be safe, without narcotics or emetics. $1.25 a bottle.
Help Wanted Ads for a good cook, (either white or black); someone who can make men’s clothes and make herself useful in the kitchen and garden; recent German and Irish immigrants to work on a plantation. (Lack of slave labor has become a real crisis.)
Also advertised on front page: ladies’ bonnets, sewing machines, window shades, kid gloves, hay, hams, coarse ready-made clothing, fine wines, Worcestershire sauce, boots, and hepatic bitters for those needing a tonic.
I'll also be doing a lot of geographical research in order to fill in Scrivener's Settings Templates. I haven't finished any of these yet, but here's the format:
Edisto Island Plantation
Role in Story: Setting for first quarter of book
Related Characters: the Grenvilles and their slaves
Season: winter/spring The plantation families arrive in November and leave by May to avoid the worst of the insects and the epidemics of swamp fever.
Unique Features: Unusually rich soil
Sights: swaying oat grass, sea birds
Sounds: ocean surf
Smells: pluff mud
I've been doing some research in this area already. The ideal solution to place description comes from actual visits, and I'm planning to do a lot of that in March of this year. But for settings from 150 years ago, today's views are not always helpful. Wherever possible I'll try to find photos and maps like these of the spots I'm talking about -- a setting's details need to be consistent, just like eye colors. For well-known locations, like Charleston during the Civil War, there are several great resources, including a book of CW photos put together by Jack Thompson. It sits at my elbow. And for the smaller details, I'll probably turn once again to another book on my desk -- this one called Tideland Treasure -- which explores wildlife and vegetation in the Sea Islands. If one of my characters gets thrown when his horse bucks at the sight of a snake (and one of them is going to have that happen), I want to know what kind of snake it was.
That's a rough look at the kinds of preliminary work to be done if I'm going to manage the switch from pantser to plotter. More next week.