Remember a few blogs back when I talked about writers compulsively asking themselves, “What if . . .?” Beaufort’s Civil War history so engaged me that I became obsessed.
“What if,” I asked myself, “one--no two--people stayed behind when all the whites fled? And what if one of them was an old woman, and the other a young boy, her grandson, only twelve years old? And what if they had to hunt and fish to stay alive? And suppose the Rebels recruited the boy to spy for them? And what if a pretty girl from the north, an abolitionist, moved in next door? And what if . . .”
To answer these questions and more, I wrote a book I call The Home Guard. With some luck it will be published next year. Historical fiction is a popular genre, and I’ve encountered readers who read virtually nothing else. But for the writer, it is a lot of WORK, because even the briefest encounter or scene can require intensive research. For example, early in THG I describe Robert E. Lee traveling on the Charleston & Savannah Railroad to his headquarters near Beaufort. To paint the proper mental picture for the reader, I had Lee stroke his beard. Then I wondered if Lee had a beard in 1861. I had seen a photograph of him as a younger man clean shaven, and certainly the iconic photos from the Civil War display a fine set of whiskers, but what about Lee in 1861? I had two choices: eliminate the reference, or find the answer. I spent HOURS researching this detail, a minor one by any measure.
The point is this. If you take on historical fiction, you must be resigned to research, and lots of it. Readers understand the writer is going to take liberties with the story--that’s why it’s called fiction--but they expect the non-fiction history to be accurate, and they know their stuff. Some read the genre just to catch the writer in a historical gaff.
Original source materials, like letters and journals, are invaluable. Some of Aunt Sue’s details about life in the 1870s were just as applicable to life in the 1860s, and I used every scrap of information I thought relevant. They made The Home Guard a better book, and me a better writer.
Historical fiction presents challenges encountered in no other genre. In my next blog I will talk about how I dealt with those, and with what success. Here’s a hint: I learned a LOT. Okay, did Lee have a beard or not? In reading his wartime correspondence, I came across a letter he wrote to his daughter before Christmas in 1861, shortly after that train ride on the Charleston & Savannah. In it, he mentions his new beard filling in nicely. Sweet!
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