Historical fiction: when the research trail goes cold

Last time we discussed two kinds of historical fiction:

  • historical-era fiction that uses a few props from a previous timeframe as a general backdrop for fictional characters, and
  • fact-based historical fiction that contains authentic details from books, newspapers, and artifacts that reference real people who lived and breathed. This type of writing also brings in popular social movements, architecture, music, literature, technology, and fashion. Moving beyond the available printed materials, I also love to walk the actual streets where my characters spent their days.

Balancing Truth and Imagination in Historical Fiction

One I’ve done the research and mapped out the known events, it’s time to weave in some imaginary details. Here are two examples of when I fictionalize:

  • The trail goes dry and I am left with gaps. I know that a character arrived at a certain place and time–for example, D.R. Anthony married Anna Osborn on Martha’s Vineyard in 1864– but have no idea how or why. So I fashion a courtship that is plausible, based on what I know of his character, preferences, current interests, and financial situation.
  • The factual record gives too many examples of certain activities in a character’s life and none of other important aspects. For example, although D.R. Anthony was involved in several major fires and numerous shootouts, I do not report every one of those episodes. If I did, there would be no room to develop his life as a family man or strong supporter of his sister Susan’s activities. (She frequently used his home as a base to campaign for woman suffrage.) To round out the picture of the man’s everyday, private life, it behooves me to fill in the cracks of reported events with snippets of pure fiction. However, even in these most creative moments I try to match documented thought and speech patterns.

For another take on this fascinating genre of literature, click here.

 

Susan LaFlesche Picotte built upon Susan B.’s foundation

Susan LaFlesche Picotte, a Nebraska  doctor and and reformer, had credentials that wowed me and reminded of Susan B. Anthony. Google saluted her yesterday; Continue reading

The Anthonys’ Quaker Roots

 

Quaker Meeting House, Adams. Photo by Jeanne Gehret

A couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of presenting “All for Suffrage: Susan B. Anthony’s Kin” at Susan’s birthplace museum in Adams, MA, near the border of New York State.

After my presentation, my friend and I received a private tour by Adams Historical Society president Eugene Michalenko of the East Hoosuk Quaker Meetinghouse not far from Susan’s home. That is where Susan’s Aunt Hannah Hoxie (her father’s sister) sat on the “high seat” sharing spiritual insights during meetings. Hannah was regarded by the congregation as a gifted speaker in an era when women outside of Quakerism rarely spoke in public.

The high seat turned out to be on the top row of pews facing the congregation, nearest the center. Hannah’s central position connotes some importance. Measuring about 45×45 feet, the building features separate doors for men and women, who held their own meetings and kept separate records.

Once inside, a movable partial wall divides the two sides, with women and children sitting on the side with a huge open fireplace. (How kind those Quaker gentlemen were!) The dividing wall was removed during worship; thus, Hannah could be seen (and heard) by both men and women.

The Meetinghouse website includes more photos and describes many tenets of Quaker beliefs, including their opposition to war. Annually Daniel Anthony, Susan’s father, greeted the taxman by telling him that he refused to support a government that wages war and if he must extract the tax, he should riffle through Anthony’s wallet and take it himself.

Later, Susan’s brother D.R. Anthony ran afoul of Quaker pacificism when he killed a rival publisher in a streetfight in Leavenworth. By that time, the Anthonys belonged to the Rochester, NY Meeting, and a delegation wrote to D.R. questioning his adherence to the beliefs of his ancestors. Read more about that conflict in my book The Truth About Daniel, published in January.

Author Talk on Susan B. Anthony’s Kin

“All For Suffrage: Susan B. Anthony’s Kin” will be Jeanne Gehret’s topic in an evening presentation at the Penfield (N.Y.) Public Library this coming Thursday, April 27, from 7-8:30. Admission is free.

Miss Anthony’s devotion to woman suffrage is well-known. Lesser-known is how she also campaigned for black suffrage–and how her entire family supported her in both efforts.

Come discover how the members of Susan’s family thought for themselves and stood up for their beliefs–even when they risked public disapproval, arrest, the ruin of career, or death.

Copies of The Truth About Daniel, the first in the Dauntless Series about this amazing family, will be available for sale and author signing. This talk commemorates the 100th anniversary of woman suffrage in New York State.

The Anthonys on President Lincoln

On April 14, 1865 President Lincoln suffered a fatal gunshot wound from John Wilkes Booth. The news of his death reached D.R. Anthony, his wife Annie, and his sister Susan where she was visiting them in Leavenworth.

In her diary, Susan recorded that they attended different churches to hear the ministers’ pulpit commentary on the assassination. It’s likely that they felt the same kind of shock and dismay that mark our era’s reception of the news about President Kennedy’s assassination or the fall of the Twin Towers.

D.R. must have felt a special regret because he had known Lincoln personally and later taken a special interest in his safety. Lincoln spoke in Leavenworth during his presidential campaign trail in December 1859, and that night traded stories with Anthony and other friends, propping their feet up and feeding the fire as they swapped stories.

Two years later, after Anthony had fiercely defended Kansas against proslavery forces, he was invited to guard President Lincoln in the White House at the start of the Civil War. The city of Washington was isolated, surrounded by Confederate troops, and rumors spread that Lincoln would be abducted. Thanks for a shrewd intimidation campaign by Lincoln’s guards, rebel troops thought there were far more of “those damned Kansans,” many of whom had shocked the nation by fighting alongside the notorious John Brown. You can read more about this threat to Lincoln on my 3/16/16 post, “Saving Lincoln from Abduction.”

Ironically, Booth had performed in Leavenworth on the same stage where Lincoln had admonished Kansans not to resort to violence but to solve matters by voting.

 

 

 

Opera and Ventriloquists

New York City residents wanting to escape the heat in the 19th century flocked to the attractions of Saratoga Springs, NY.  Both D. R. Anthony and his sister Susan gave public lectures there1. Why was the resort such a famous destination? Continue reading

Posse Hunts John Brown

Why was D.R. Anthony so fiercely abolitionist? Events such as the following would have fueled his anger. Today’s post gives us a typical example of how proslavery forces treated John Brown, an antislavery man whom  Anthony revered and probably knew. (D.R.’s brother Merritt had fought with Brown several years earlier in southern Kansas.)

Living only 25 miles away from the following tense encounter between a proslavery posse and  Brown, Anthony might  have stood with the guards who protected the famous hero. Even if Anthony didn’t, he certainly would have followed the news with as much anxiety as did New Hampshire  emigrant Julia Louisa Lovejoy, whose letter back east gives us this riveting account.

For the death of John Brown, the Missouri governor and others offered $5,500. Lured by this “bait,” Lovejoy reported, a pro-slavery posse headed by Marshal J.P. Wood  tracked “our champion” (Brown) to a cabin where the abolitionist holed up with a dozen African-Americans.

This cabin he had strongly barricaded, and told his pursuers “he would never yield, neither would he be taken alive.” The Marshal and his force surrounded the cabin and ordered Brown to “surrender!” Brown replied, “Come and take me.” The officer dared not undertake the job, and one hundred more like him could not capture those indomitable spirits that well knew what would follow if they were taken prisoners.1

A stand-off occurred. Brown’s group, armed with Sharpes rifles, was guarded by a company of twenty-five antislavery supporters. Giving voice to the bodyguard, Lovejoy wrote, “Take care, sir, if one gray hair on that venerable head is singed, your whole party will be riddled with balls!”

The Marshal’s posse sent for reinforcements to Atchison (about four miles away) and rumored that two cannons would soon arrive to explode the cabin. In an oddly turned phrase, Lovejoy wrote that United States Army troops who engaged in “pretended pursuit” seem to have sufficiently distracted the posse, during which time:

Brown sallied forth and took three of the Atchison men prisoners (one of them, it is affirmed, he recognized as the miscreant who shot his own son, F. Brown, at the “Ossawottamie battle.”) He also took four of their horses that they had secreted in the timber, and then with his freed slaves and party pulled for Iowa, taking prisoners and horses along with him!

Thus Brown escaped from Kansas in February 1859, just eight months before his fateful raid on the arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, WV. In a summary of this western event, Lovejoy correctly predicted the manner of Brown’s death, saying, “We fear now that Brown and his party will be intercepted by an overwhelming force, but he cannot be captured alive.” “

Photo courtesy of Kansas Historical Society

  1. Bell, Sarah. “Lovejoy, Julia Louisa” Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Mar, 31, 2017 at http://www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/lovejoy-julia-louisa

 

 

A Time of Confluence

In 1847 (two years after the Anthonys moved to Rochester) Frederick Douglass settled nearby and began publishing his abolitionist paper The North Star (later called Frederick Douglass’ Paper).

Although he had established his writing and speaking career in New Bedford (near Boston), his rising fame threatened or inspired jealousy in some of the luminaries of the movement—most notably William Lloyd Garrison—so he set out in search of a new home. Continue reading