Inspired by History

To research the setting for my historical novel, my husband and I took a long weekend trip to Charleston, South Carolina several years ago. Since I’m from the South, I was anticipating uncomfortably hot, humid weather and lots of snakes as we traipsed around historic plantations in July, but amazingly, we arrived during a spell of comfortable temperatures and low humidity. I took it as a sign that my research would go well.

Fleet Landing, Charleston

While in Charleston, we enjoyed drinks at Fleet Landing, a place my husband still waxes poetic about when I mention the place, and had lunch on the patio at 82 Queen. Sometimes I still dream of the she crab soup I ate there. I do miss the seafood down south!

Camellia japonica “Reine des Fleurs”

We also visited the spectacular Middleton Place. The original main house and the north flanker were burned by Union troops in 1865, but the gardens are magnificent! In 1786, the French botanist and explorer, André Michaux gave the Middletons a house gift of camellias, the first to be grown in an American garden. One of the cultivars he gave them, Camellia japonica “Reine des Fleurs” is pictured above. In my book, there is also a camellia garden.

Drayton Hall the way it looked in 1869

The place where my imagination took flight and the experience of walking the land and entering the house made a lasting impression on me, however, was Drayton Hall, once a plantation on the Ashley River but which is now owned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. It was built during colonial times on the Ashley River and has stood through the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. In fact, it was the only plantation house on the Ashley River not destroyed by Union troops. It has even survived hurricanes and earthquakes. Yes, Charleston has earthquakes.

Until the 1970s Drayton Hall was owned by the Drayton family, the same people who built the plantation and lived and worked at Drayton Hall, but another family, the Bowens, lived and worked there even longer than the Draytons. Their history parallels that of the Draytons. They came to the U.S. from Barbados and lived and worked at Drayton Hall. Mr. Richmond Bowen was the last of them. He worked as the gatekeeper and unofficial historian. Through his legacy, the work of enslaved people and their sacrifices were recognized in the African American cemetery and history at Drayton Hall.

The beautiful Drayton Hall

Drayton Hall so captured my imagination that I decided to loosely base the location in my novel on it. I use elements from other places and earlier times, including putting a spring house and chapel on the grounds, similar to the one at Middleton Place. In short, I weave history into my story and blur the lines of what’s real and imagined as many writers do.

Middleton Place spring house( below) and chapel (above)

Despite River Oaks being inspired by Drayton Hall, the events in my book are products of my imagination. They are rooted in history and inspired by the research I’ve done on phosphate mining on the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, the grounds of Drayton Hall and Middleton Place, and Charleston during Reconstruction. I also fudge the years things happen to suit my story.

Phosphate mining at Drayton Hall

I often feel overwhelmed when I think of trying to capture the essence of this area, the time, and the people who might have lived and loved there, but when I do, I remember why history, especially Southern history, fascinates me.

People like the Draytons and the Bowens have weathered wars, poverty, hunger, disease, and other tragedies, but somehow have survived to remain rooted in the South for over two hundred years. Why is that? Why not move on to better places? That is what I contemplate as I write this book. Why does this place, any place, mean so much?

Southerners are the only people who’ve lost a war on American soil, and Southerners, black and white, had to rebuild their lives and reconcile their losses. I’m awed at their survival and determination to make a life when their way of life was gone. I think more than anything, that is what drives the story I’m writing. I hope my book will in a small way do their struggle justice.

Phosphate Mining at River Oaks

This is the first Wednesday’s Words post I’ve written in a long time. I’ve been busy revising my first novel called FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS and drafting my second.

Most people who’ve read my pages aren’t familiar with Charleston, South Carolina’s phosphate mining past. During the late 1800s after the Civil War, rich deposits of phosphate rock provided those who owned land on the area’s rivers with much needed money after the Civil War beginning in about 1867-1868. The rocks were mined and processed into a relatively cheap fertilizer. In my book, the main character is convinced mining will save her home from bankruptcy,but it comes with a cost to the land.

This brief excerpt comes from chapter 6. The image is from Robert Boessenecker’s blog The Coastal Paleontologist, Atlantic Edition

mining.jpg

 

“Mining was backbreaking, dirty work, but already one section of the pit was fairly deep and wide. The men had exposed a variety of sizes of tan phosphate stones along with coarse grained sand and the rounded bones and teeth of strange animals from some long ago age.”

Evocative Words

When I got my haircut yesterday, Claudia, my stylist, told me about her trip to Florida, a place we all would like to go when the snow still flies here in the Midwest. When she was there, she went out onto her mother’s lanai and heard the crickets singing in the shadows. I don’t remember where she said her mother lives in Florida, but it doesn’t matter. That word lanai and the idea of crickets singing in the shadows took hold of my imagination and transported me to the place in my imagination where I settled onto a cushioned lounge chair beside a canal thick with boats and lined with manicured shrubs under which the crickets sang. Together Claudia and I shared our own daydream of summer where the word lanai had meaning. It is not a word I use in Wisconsin. My reverie was short but one I longed to repeat. The word lanai and the song of crickets made me think about how words evoke place and meaning, especially in our writing.

During revision of my historical novel, I have been mindful of the words and the cadence of speech of my characters. My book takes place in 1869 in Charleston, South Carolina, so when I inhabit my characters, I speak and hear the Southern drawl I grew up with, but even more than that I take a trip back in time to the Ashley River during Reconstruction. I use words like pluff mud, great hall, parlor, and live oaks. I envision a ruined landscape and a city and countryside rebuilding but still ravaged from war. Horses whinny and nicker, camellias bloom, and thunderstorms grumble in the distance. The scents of salt water, manure, pluff mud, and Carolina jessamine mingle in the heat and humidity, both of which are a presence, as are the mosquitoes.

When I inhabit the world of Charleston and Winterhaven Plantation, I describe trying to climb out of a well this way: “Sometimes I feel I’ve been thrown down a deep well. Like I’m trying to climb out, but I can’t gain purchase on the slick walls. I’m looking up at a little round spot of light, but no matter what I do, I can’t seem to reach it.”

The way my hero Josiah sees Faith, the heroine, is different from the way men look at women today. He’s not moved by her cleavage or her tight pants, not because he wouldn’t be, but that view is not available to him. Instead, he notices “her slender back” and “the twin cords of muscle on either side of her neck where wisps of hair had escaped her plaits.” And he longs to press his lips to the hollow there.

Objects matter too. Some important objects in my book are an the embroidered handkerchief Faith gave Belinda when she was a child which Belinda gives her as a gift when she leaves Winterhaven. Josiah’s mother left him some Repousee sterling silver, embossed with a garden of silver flowers.

The motifs we choose to evoke place communicate with our reader as well. My book is filled with flowers and gardens. Each one communicates something different. Noisette roses adorn the cemetery where Faith’s parents are buried, only white flowers bloom in the gardens at the mansion where Faith and Josiah attend a ball. Yellow jessamine grows in the pines at Winterhaven. Josiah leaves a gardenia on the pillow for Faith after they make love. The list goes on.

As writers we must think carefully about place and time when we choose our words. Like master painters we create worlds with our words, full of people, objects, and conflict. We provide the reader a private reverie that we can share, a bit like stepping out onto a lanai to enjoy a warm evening while being serenaded by crickets.