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Writing History Is All About Solid Research


writinghistoryBestselling author James Alexander Thom immerses himself so thoroughly in the background of his historical fiction that readers swear he jumped into a time machine to write it. But his time machine is research.

To James Alexander Thom, the story of Mary Ingles had all the elements of a great historical novel. A 23-year-old woman living in Draper’s Meadows, Virginia, Ingles survived her settlement’s massacre by Shawnees in 1755, only to be captured by the war party and taken to the Indiana Territory. Escaping after four months, she made her way home on foot through a thousand miles of wilderness by following the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers. Along the way she endured incredible fear, doubt, hunger and pain, which ended in a bittersweet sort of triumph.

“I stumbled on the Ingles story while researching George Rogers Clark when he was a young surveyor on the Kanawha River, for my first historical novel, Long Knife, in 1976.” Thom kept finding accounts of Ingles in material about Clark, and the story intrigued him. More research led him to Roberta Ingles Steele, a great-great-great granddaughter of Mary, who had an old manuscript about her ancestor.

Reading that manuscript and others on Ingles’s life led Thom to retrace her exhausting journey, fording rivers and climbing tough terrain. “To write about a place, you have to see it,” he says. Only after he’d walked in her steps did Thom believe he could write Follow the River.

“I couldn’t do the trek in 43 consecutive days,” says Thom, then a university professor. “I could do the scenes I was writing. I would go to the scene, do sketches, take notes and photos.” The process took five separate trips.

“I wasn’t fool enough not to take provisions with me,” Thom says, remembering his recreation of Ingles’s ordeal. He ate what she’d eaten, when possible. “I did fast for a week. I think I always describe better if I do it myself.

“Your aim as a writer,” he says, “is to evoke the atmosphere so that readers will feel the ache of wading an icy stream, the bite of the wind, the pinch of an empty belly along with the characters and ask, `How could they stand it?'”

Thom first learned how to make his readers ask that question as he worked on Long knife, a novel he was asked to write by the Indiana Historical Society for the state’s 1979 bicentennial of Clark’s victory at Vincennes. In that book, the former Indianapolis Times and Indianapolis Star reporter told the story of George Rogers Clark, Indiana’s only frontier war hero. The research for Long Knife led Thom to focus his research on the four elements of story that he says are vital to any historical project: characters, action, environment and worldview.

Creating Real Characters

To make readers see his characters, hear them talk, and empathize with their actions, Thom wants to know as much as possible about them, whether the characters are people who actually lived, or creations of his mind. Surviving portraits of the real people are only a start, says Thom. “You’ll have to find out how your characters moved and carried themselves; what they were like at various ages; what they thought about; what they read, studied and wrote; even how well they spelled. You’ll need to know about their motives, strengths and weaknesses, public deeds, and private lives. Were they drunken or sober? Could they talk well and persuade others? Were their voices high or low, quiet or penetrating?”

When writing about historical figures, Thom looks to many sources: maps, memoirs, diaries, paintings or photographs, newspaper accounts of the time, and other vivid sketches by contemporaries. He searches for little-known details.

Fictional protagonists cause more difficulty because entire lives must be created for them, including family members, personal traits and beliefs. “Develop these as much as you have time for. A character doesn’t grow in a vacuum. Family and comrades are always with us.”

Thom also finds out or creates the same information for the antagonists, since the quality of the opposition determines how well the protagonists will succeed.

“You have to dig and dig,” he cautions. “Sometimes people invented ferocious reputations to make their exploits look better.” The idea is to create balanced characters with a mix of good and bad qualities.

Once you’ve created that mix, “you must act as if you don’t know the person you are writing about is dead,” Thom says. “Write the story as if you don’t know even/thing you know. The character doesn’t know what will happen in the future. Be there looking forward, as well as here looking back.”

Thom finds that sources for learning the details of everyday life in a particular time and place include period novels and books, modem-day buckskinners (history buffs who reenact the settlers’ lifestyle), living history museums, and university press biographies of obscure people who lived in that era. All of these sources help him discover how people made things, how they traveled, how long things took, common customs, how they got food and what they ate.

In Follow the River, for example, Ingles and her Native American captors lived off the land, eating just fruits and berries, which were often out of season. Mary and her fellow captive, Ghetel Stumf, experimented with whatever they could forage. While at a salt-making camp, they come upon a huge oak tree. This passage describes their hunger for cooked food:

“Acorns,” Mary said. “Roast them and

they’re wonderful. And I know a way we can make

acorn meal in the kettles.” She was

growing enthusiastic about their food-gathering

now–not simply because she

desired a variety in the camp menu, as

the old woman did, but because she

was beginning to see a possibility of

staying alive on a long autumn journey

through the wilderness….

The next day Mary made acorn meal.

She shelled a large quantity of the acorns,

ground them on a great concave bone,

using a fist-sized tooth as a pestle. Then

she boiled the mass in fresh water and

squeezed it out through cloth to leach

out the bitterness, and spread it to dry in the sun.

That evening Mrs. Stumf used part of the

meal to make a delicious pan bread,

mixing it with cornmeal and chopped

walnut meats and flavoring it with a

paste made of the wild grapes. “Ach!

For some sugar or honey,” she groaned

as she sampled a crumbly corner of the

big cake. “I die for some sweet!”

That was the last she got of her cake.

The men devoured it in two minutes.

Getting Into the Action

Once Thom knows his characters intimately, he must know how they acted. Thom looks at how the characters would have built something, engaged in battle, or set forth on voyages or missions. In order to give readers a sense of participation, Thom reconstructs events that actually happened, or invents convincing ones. He thinks about what he intends to show and how the characters experienced it. He views paintings-of battles, “particularly if the sketches for them were done live.” He looks at battle plans and maps, considering the weather and season, and how they affected the discomfort of soldiers.

“Go to the scene, whether actual or fictional, and move where the people did. Get a sense of little things that influenced the battle, such as leaders’ states of mind, morale of soldiers, and the terrain they faced. Read diaries and letters of soldiers. Remember, the people fighting had no idea of the big picture, but only of a small part of the action. They couldn’t see for the dirt and smoke,” he says. “You must study not just the heroes’ side of a battle or event, but also the enemies’ perspective.”

For example, in a scene from Follow the River, Thom describes the Indians attacking the settlement at Draper’s Meadows:

Several warriors were having sport with

Bettie’s shrieking baby, tossing it back and forth

between them, while another held Bettie by her

dark hair and forced her to watch…. One of the

Indians was trying to hit the baby with his

tomahawk as it hurtled through the air. The

blade struck the baby and brought

him to earth…. Now one of the Indians had

the bleeding, screaming baby by its ankle.

Lurching away from the other two, he swung

the baby in a wide arc and dashed his brains

out against the corner logs of the cabin.

While many tribes took children and raised them as their own, Thom says of that scene, “brutality was strong on both sides. `Kill the babies and you kill the nits,’ was the way quite a few homesteaders looked at it. And some Indians held the same beliefs.”

Rebuilding the Environment

Stories aren’t just actions strung together in a vacuum. The environment gives the reader a context for the actions and beliefs of the characters, and recreating a lost ecosystem can be a challenge. “You must forget you know anything that happened after that day,” Thom says. “You become a participant. To do that, you must research the natural habitat that surrounds the characters and action.”

For his books, Thom examines how the population affected the territory, including physical surroundings, economy and living conditions, and the belief system that existed during his characters’ lives. Researching the physical environment will show whether the area was wilderness or farms. During the frontier time there would have been rivers without dams, unchecked in natural settings.

“The America of the earliest settlers had old virgin forest, which permitted no sunlight, no ground growth,” Thom says. “I couldn’t create a scene from that period having someone pick flowers in the woods, because there wouldn’t have been any.” The bird life then was different, too. The swans are gone now, as are the passenger pigeons, once so numerous that a flock might take three or four hours to fly over a given spot.

Besides book research, Thom looks at vegetation in paintings of the time. He searches for landmarks, and crops being planted and harvested. He tries to find botanists’ and surveyors’ notes and sketches of plants that may no longer exist.

In From Sea to Shining Sea, Thom describes the early American woods:

The valley was wide and fertile, and watered

by crystalline springs and creeks. He stood

with his back to a sun-dappled grove of

mulberry trees. A clear spring gurgled from the

earth near his feet. Beyond the meadow,

giant, graceful elms and walnuts and oaks and

maples towered, some of them five or six feet

through the trunk, their spreading limbs casting

pools of shade a hundred feet wide

on the grass. Far down beyond them curved

the mile-wide river, tumbling and spraying,

with a constant rushing sound, through a

long chute of rapids, descending 20 feet over a

great limestone fault.

Environment isn’t just an area’s vegetation. “You’ll also need to know how things were transported,” Thom says, “because that affected both the ecology and the economy.”

He always uncovers what people did for a living and why. For instance, Thom discovered that new arrivals to America soon became tobacco farmers. Native Americans had used tobacco for healing and ceremonies, so the Europeans thought it would be a good crop to grow and export. Tobacco fanning wore out the land, causing people to move inland in order to create more farms.

Moving beyond details of economy and ecology, Thom also searches for the spiritual beliefs of his characters. Digging deeper, he tries to determine which ones they subscribed to, or refused to agree with. How did they practice their religion? Were there meetings or churches available, and if not, how did people deal with birth, death, marriage and other times of community celebration or mourning?

He investigates his characters’ political beliefs. What means would they use to perpetuate political ends? Could they be swayed or bought? What happened to their belief systems when faced with antagonists’ threats?

Answering these questions provides a social context for your characters’ personalities and actions. But what backs up the social context?

Understanding Worldview

More pervasive even than character, action and environment, and more subtle to describe, is the worldview that appears as a background to all these elements. “Every age has its core of common beliefs about how the world works and what constitutes right living. Often these are unexpressed. They’re the accepted, establishment view of an era-its top ten list of things everybody knows without asking. They are the values a society tries to perpetuate,” Thom says.

When worldviews clash, you have conflict. “Native Americans, both at the time of the settlement of America and now, view life as a rotating circle,” he says. “As you take from life, you must put back. Everything depends on and comes from the Creator: game, crops, offspring. Your own offspring are part of the future; therefore, the environment must be preserved for diem. There is a cycle of birth, life, death and rebirth.

“Europeans came up against this cyclical worldview with a linear concept of life and time,” Thom says. “Early colonists and frontiersmen thought in an `A goes straight to B’ fashion, with emphasis on control, containment, change and progress.”

In Follow the River, Thom includes an example of the conflict caused by the clash of these worldviews. While Mary Ingles is a prisoner in the Indian camp, a chief named Wildcat takes an interest in her.

“Hear,” he said in a voice low and intense.

“White mo-ther is good blood. Children

good blood. Come with Wildcat to

Kispoko Town.” He pointed northward, up

the river.

To Mary, farther up the river meant

farther from Draper’s Meadows. That alone

was enough to make her shake her head….

“Wildcat will be,” he said, and then his

next words shocked her like a blow: “the

father of

your sons. They will be sons of a chief.”

In Wildcat’s view, it was a perfect solution. That is the cycle of the Native American. He killed some of her people, captured the rest, destroyed her village, dragged her away from her frontier to his frontier. Now he was offering her a share in his bounty, his life. He admired her courage and dignity. She would be absorbed into his people and would be cared for; her two boys and the children to come would not be slaves.

Mary, however, rejects the offer because she wants to return to her home and husband. Later she is sold to two Frenchmen. Wildcat takes her two boys to be Kispokotha Shawnees, partly in retaliation and partly for their “good blood.” Mary’s and Wildcat’s worldviews permitted only a limited understanding of each other’s thought processes.

Putting It All Together

“You’ll know you’re ready to write when you begin to dream about your characters,” Thom says. “You’ve researched every little plat map in the country. You’re surrounded by diaries, written in tiny, spidery letters. Diagrams of battles fall out of books that describe your hero or heroine’s known life. You’ve made the pilgrimage this person traveled, visited every site you’re going to use.

“The books will be piled this high.” He raises his hand to indicate 21 four-foot stack. “You read them, make notes.” He smiles. “I’ve never started writing that I didn’t have to go back to those books and check again.”

The Discussion

see what everyone is saying

  • Janice Landry October 29th, 2015 at 2:37 pm #1

    I once tried writing about the history and I must say it was such a challenge.

  • Kori J. November 2nd, 2015 at 2:34 pm #2

    Writing about history is not as simple as writing about something else. One has to be equipped with facts when doing it. If not, the writer’s credibility will be put into question.

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