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.

Down a Delicious Writing Research Rabbit Hole

A couple of days ago, I was working on my book, which is historical women’s fiction set in 1868 Charleston, South Carolina. It’s a tough era to write about because not much detail about the way people lived during that time is readily available. To find what I’m looking for, I’ve discovered I have to go at it obliquely because so much of what I find out is buried in within other history.

That’s what happened when I was looking for a map of Charleston in 1868. What I ran across was this map of White Point Gardens in 1874. My two characters were strolling along the flagstones of the Battery, a seaside promenade, and I wondered what they would see where the Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet. So I started searching and found something I hadn’t known about. At the time I’m writing about, there was a two-story bath house connected to the peninsula via a footbridge. How cool is that!

View of the bath house before it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1874. Picture from the Preservation Society of Charleston

The public bathhouse had two floors, the first was the bath house, and on the upper floor was a cake and ice cream shop! Interesting for sure, but that information only made me curious to know what sort of cakes that shop might have served–just in case my characters decided to have dessert there.

I found some interesting cakes, one of which I plan to make. It’s called demon cake, a dense cake made with molasses, ginger, apples, brandy, and lots of spices. It’s just the sort of thing I love in fall. Here’s a picture of it from Food 52, one of my favorite cooking blogs. If you click the link, you’ll go to the recipe.

Demon Cake from Food 52

I also found out that Linzer torte is said to be the oldest cake in the world and is named after the city of Linz in Austria. Although the cake shop might have served Linzer torte, I believe it would have served more Southern fare, like pound cake and something called muster cake, which is now known by its more modern name of Election Cake and has the distinction of being the first American food associated with politics. Don’t know if that’s good or bad! You can read the fascinating history of that cake in the link above.

Election Cake (muster cake) photo from Food 52 and taken by James Ransom

The day I did this research I had a hard time not dropping everything to make one of thee cakes. I love baking. It has always been a huge stress reliever for me, and right now with covid19 still such a disruption, I really had to exercise self-control and keep my butt in the chair to make my writing goal for the day.

I wish I could say I do all my research BEFORE I start writing, but something always crops up that I need to know. I could put in a marker as some people recommend and do the research after I’ve written the scene, but that’s not how I roll. My curiosity gets the better of me and the details can sometimes change how the scene I’m writing unfolds, so I often research as I write. When I find out fascinating information like the above, I struggle to go back to my book!

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

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“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.”

Perspective: On the Inside Looking Out

Image result for revisionAt the end of June I began work on another revision of my novel to incorporate what I learned at UW Madison’s Write-by-the-Lake in Laurie Scheer’s class, Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend this class for everyone working on a novel or screenplay, but you could also read Laurie’s book The Writer’s Advantage: a Toolkit for Mastering Your Genre. I highly recommend it. The research you do will open your eyes to what has been done before and how you can offer something new in your genre. My research led to my learning a number of lessons not only in writing but also about life. One of those lessons involves perspective.

I’m a slow writer. Mostly when I revise, I weigh the words and images I put on the page, but even when I’m composing my first draft I struggle with a number of problems, chiefly point of view. Christine DeSmet, best-selling author and writing teacher extraordinaire, read and critiqued my entire first draft, God bless her. I don’t know how she could stand it! I can’t tell you how often she put in her notes, “You’ve switched point of view here.”  It must have been vexing. I was slow to see the difference, I think, because I was in l love with the writing process, rather than trying to see from a character’s point of view and only that character’s point of view. Now I understand whose point of view carries a scene and why and how not to switch point of view even as I write my first drafts.

The work I’ve been doing lately has to do with point of view, but it goes deeper than I thought before. It involves seeing the world of my story from the perspective of each character, and it is slow going. Since I delved more deeply into the genre of my book, I realized that my main character wasn’t strong enough. She needed to carry the story much more than she had before. That meant I had to understand her world as she did, to understand and love and hate the people and places she does. I had to feel what her home means to her, what falling in love for the first time feels like, what feeling betrayed feels like, all those things from her point of view, her perspective. I’ve had to imagine what life would have been like when being unmarried at 19 dubbed you a spinster, when wearing trousers rather than a corset and dress made you provocative and unladylike, when the only prospects of survival for a young lady were marriage or inheriting a large amount of money.

I’ve also imagined what living at a time when the world as you  knew it had collapsed and the societal structure was either non-existent or changed so as to be unrecognizable. You see my book is set in 1869 Charleston, South Carolina, so I try to delve into what society might have been like then, what relationships between women might have been like, both between white women and between white and African American women. To  see from Josiah’s perspective, I’ve tried to understand PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) and the struggle to live life normally after witnessing the unspeakable horrors of war. Back then PTSD was called “soldier’s heart” or “nostalgia.” I’ve tried to inhabit that world as much as possible, but not until I took Laurie’s class did I feel I could crawl beneath my characters’ skins and see their world from their perspectives.

Often I don’t take the time to look at life from a new perspective. I drive the same route to work each day. I travel the same path when I go for my morning runs with Stella. I drink the same basic smoothie recipe on a daily basis. To change that, something must jar me out of my routine. That’s what this class did for me. Today when I was out for my run, I decided to try something different. In my book my main character Faith has a special oak tree which she has considered hers since she was a child. It is a live oak, a big one that I imagine looks like the Angel Oak  on John’s Island in South Carolina. She goes there when she needs to think or be alone. I don’t have a special tree where I go to think, but a very old white oak tree stands in front of my house. At one time I imagine it might have been someone’s special tree because it survived standing in the middle of a farm field rather than being chopped down for fire wood.

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Today when I was walking back home after my run, I decided to include a picture of this tree in this post. That is it to the left. Since I’ve been thinking of perspective, however, I wanted to do something else, too.  I wanted to climb this tree to get Faith’s perspective from inside a tree. As a child I climbed trees,  but that was a long time ago. I climbed up to the first limb, but I chickened out going any higher. My middle name is not Grace for a reason. One day I still might climb it, but not on the spur of the moment when my husband is not around to rescue me if I can’t get down. So I did what I think is the next best thing. I took several pictures from beneath the tree looking up into the branches as though I were about to climb it. Below you’ll see what that looks like. Quite a different feel from the one above, wouldn’t you say?

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Before this revision of my book, I was looking at the world of my story as I always had, from afar. I was looking AT it rather than being inside the story looking out from it. Before I was telling the story, reporting it rather than inhabiting it with my characters. To understand my characters and what they see and feel, I’ve learned I must see from the perspective of each of them . They will show me what is important to them. I must be present in the story with them and feel what they do, see what they do, love and hate what they do. I must be with them in their world rather than looking at it from afar.

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.