WRITING THE HISTORICAL NOVEL AND WEAVING FACT WITH FICTION

By Timothy Best

I’m very excited about my latest novel, A Farm In Pennsylvania. It’s my third novel released by the good folks at TouchPoint Press.

It’s set in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863, just a month or so after the battle of Gettysburg. A battle that most historians believe changed the course of the American Civil War. It’s the story of a man named John Dorian from a prominent farm family in Ohio. He comes to town looking for a brother who was with the Union army and is now reported as missing. What he finds is a place still smoldering from the largest single battle ever fought in the Western hemisphere. Gettysburg is bursting at the seams with left-behind wounded, morbidly curious tourists, and other people like John trying to learn the fate of loved ones.

He winds up working for room and board at a farm a couple of miles out of town. It’s run by a lonely Hispanic woman named Maria Samuels who is trying to maintain her husband’s property while he’s off fighting for the Union. But John soon learns that Maria and her nine-year-old son from a previous marriage are virtually prisoners. This is partly because of their skin color, partly because Maria’s husband has a fearful reputation for having a violent temper, and partly because a no-account childhood friend of her husband who is supposed to look after them has actually become their taskmaster.

Since this story is a romance, I’ll reveal that John and Maria become involved and discover that theirs is the kind of intense, passionate love that happens once in a lifetime. But their story is also etched with twists and turns that’ll both surprise the reader and keep the pages turning.

As I say, this is my third outing with TouchPoint Press. But it was my first historical novel and, to tell you the truth, the project turned into a lot more work than I could’ve ever imagined.

Writing a good story is hard enough. But wrapping that story around a famous historical event is daunting. Bibliographers estimate that over 30,000 books have been written about the battle of Gettysburg. Close to three million people make pilgrimages to the small town and vast battlefield each year. As a student of the Civil War, I’m fully aware that there are many people who know more about the battle than I. So, I felt a lot of pressure to get the history right yet tell a different kind of story.

I’ll get back to the history part in a moment. First, let me address why I set my book in this particular place and time.

For everything that’s ever been written about Gettysburg—from memoirs, to textbooks, to essays on military tactics—relatively very little has been written about what happened after the battle. We know that fighting took place throughout the town. We know that hundreds of acres of farmland were pulverized. We know that thousands of animals were killed. We know that there were more casualties (counted as dead, missing and wounded) after three three days of fighting than all of the seven-and-a-half-years of the American Revolution. We know that churches, hotels, a university, barns, and any place that could accommodate wounded men became temporary hospitals.

In other words, we know the after-affects of the battle were a nightmare. A mess! I wanted to capture that and also write about the “other” heroes of Gettysburg: the people who put things back together after the armies had departed in the rain. I also thought it challenging to tell a love story amidst the muck, blood and destruction. Like a determined seed that grows through a crack in the middle of a busy city sidewalk, I wanted to tell the story that true can be found no matter  what else is happening around it. I didn’t realize this until much later, but Boris Pasternak did something similar with his epic love story, Dr. Zhivago.

I also liked the idea of telling a story about a kept and abused woman who lived in a place where everything that was happening around her was about setting imprisoned people free. There was an irony there I couldn’t resist.

Regarding the history, I’m rather proud of how my fictional characters either referenced or interacted with real people and events. Early in the book, for example, when my hero, John Dorian, arrives in Gettysburg looking for his brother, he meets a man named Marcus Roland who, like Dorian, has come to Gettysburg to try and learn the fate his son who was with the 11th Pennsylvania. Rolland says: “The 11th had a mascot, a little dog named Sallie. Everyone can tell me about that dog and what happened to it. But no one can tell me what happened to my son, Elisha.” Anyone who knows the Battle of Gettysburg well will know the true story of Sallie and how she stayed with her regiment and survived the battle despite all the musket and cannon fire. In fact, Sallie is depicted on the battlefield memorial to the regiment.

Another example is Elizabeth Thorn who lived in the caretaker’s house with her children at Evergreen Cemetery. In the book, she tells John the story of how she and her father-in-law dug 105 graves after the battle. She was a real person who bravely did this, and she was six months pregnant at the time. Other characters like Sheriff Adam Rebert, John Kuhn who owned the brickyard, and John Weaver who was overseeing workers digging graves in the new Soldier’s National Cemetery were also real people. The casual reader may not know, or even care about this, but I think the interweaving of the real and the fictional lends authenticity and enjoyment to the story.

Having said that though, the book shouldn’t be viewed as a history lesson. It’s fiction. Entertainment. But I hope there’s enough real history in it to draw the reader in and carry them away. I’ve told many people the writing of A Farm In Pennsylvania, was “a 15-minute-two-hour-process.” By that I mean, I’d spend 15 minutes writing a paragraph of how I envisioned something, then spend the next two hours researching what I’d written to see if it was even remotely accurate. This was especially true with the clothing of the characters. I’d ask myself: “What kind of fabrics would John Dorian wear. What kind of spurs would he have? What colors were available in men’s shirts back them? And so on.15 minutes to write something. Then two hours of research to validate it. Then there were old city photos to dig up, old maps to study, medical books of the time to locate, railroad lines and train schedules to research, etc.

If you allow it to, writing a period piece can drive you crazy because the questions you ask

yourself and research are literally endless: What were the wallpaper choices in 1863? What

utensils and supplies would you find in an 1860’s kitchen? How far would an outhouse be from the main house? How deep would it be dug? Why were the colors of the barns in Pennsylvania different from the colors of the barns in Ohio? What was the range of accuracy for this or that kind of pistol? And how do you have all this detail and history not overshadow the arc of your characters?

The bottom line is, you stick to your initial outline, do the best research you can, then write the kind of emotional story that you would want to read. So far, people are responding very positively to A Farm In Pennsylvania and that’s really gratifying. I invite you to check it out and come along with me on a journey back in time. A journey where I hope fact and fiction seamlessly become one.

In a book club you’d like Tim to address via Skype or phone? Reach out to him at timbest07@yahoo.com

 


About the Author

Tim’s produced six novels, two collections of short stories, and even a couple of one act plays that have been produced at the University of Michigan and the Interlochen Arts Academy at Interlochen, MI. As a bit of trivia, the old films of the Frank Capra largely inspired the idea for Substitute Angel. As Tim puts it: “Capra had a diverse film career, but there was a recurring theme to many of his movies, you felt good by the end of the story; about America, your fellow man, or the possibilities of life. That’s what I wanted to do with Substitute Angel. I wanted a to tell a story that was etched in grit, romance and danger, yet had a magical element to it where the reader felt uplifted by the end.”

When he’s not working on stories, teaching, or writing for clients, Tim breaks his stereotype by playing in a rock ‘n’ roll band full of old hippies. A Michigan native, he currently lives in Birmingham, AL, with his wife, daughter and two rescue dogs.

Connect with Tim online: www.timbestonline.com

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