I’d like to welcome historical fiction novelist Deborah Lincoln to historywithatwist. Deborah’s novel Agnes Canon’s War was inspired by her own family’s extraordinary ancestors. It also turned out that, in creating other characters for her novel, Deborah unknowingly had closely mirrored actual individuals of the time.
The truth is that when it comes to fiction, hard fact and real lives can play a huge impact on shaping what we write. Here, Deborah reveals the twists and turns that history provided to make her great story…
I once mentioned to my eight-year-old niece that I was writing a story about her several-times great grandma, and she said, emphatically, that she wasn’t at all interested in reading about dead people. She wanted to read about live people, by which I think she meant Harry Potter.
I understand that. Not everyone enjoys historical fiction; it can be an acquired taste. But how can you pass up a story like this?
Pre-Civil War America: A young man leaves his home in Maine and walks to Pennsylvania, hoping to get into a course of medical training, but is turned down. He teaches school, meets a young woman whose father rejects his suit, heads west, crosses the Panama Isthmus to California, joins the army as a doctor during the Mexican War, returns east, marries the girl who waited ten years for him and moves to Missouri.
Meanwhile, a young woman with a horde of sisters (and one brother) joins a group of family members emigrating to the Missouri frontier (how hard is that for a single woman in the 1850s?), where she meets and marries a widowed doctor whose secessionist views land them in all sorts of troubles during the war and result in their exile to the Montana wilderness at its end. Further adventures ensue.
These are the “bit players of history” whom David talks about. And these are the facts of their lives. This is you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up territory: why invent a plot when there it is, needing just a little flesh on its bones, full of enduring lessons about life, love, hate, war, freedom — all those great truths we turn to literature to illuminate.
Agnes Canon’s War grew out of the need to keep the memory of these extraordinary people alive. It’s part of the instinct toward immortality, I think, that most everyone feels at some time or another—what’s the point of enduring trials and triumphs if no one remembers? It’s also a way of realising how fragile is the train of incidents that leads to one’s own existence. One death, one misstep, and everything would be very different.
And even if it isn’t great literature, it’s still a darn good story. And molding the characters and personalities of your ancestors – how much fun is that? Agnes and Jabez Robinson (pictured), the protagonists in Agnes Canon’s War, were my great-great grandparents. Family lore is that Agnes’s relatives took advantage of the death of Jabez’s first wife to rid themselves of an unwanted spinster.
No, no, no. The facts don’t bear that out: five years elapsed between the death of wife number one and the marriage of our two heroes. This was true romance, a meeting of soul-mates. And again: what happens if your ancestor owned slaves? It’s easy to think the worst, but fun to think the best: he bought them to free them, and the two couples became friends. The hints buried in historical accounts actually support that conclusion.
Following those hints give depth to the story. Long after I began the novel (itself based on facts laid out in a faded manuscript typed on onionskin by a distant cousin), I read a history of Bozeman, Montana. And I found two of the secondary characters I had been writing about for years, the African American couple purchased by Jabez before the war: “A few other American black families also sought refuge in the West…. Richard and Mary McDonald left their home in Saint Joseph, Missouri, in 1864, and traveled by covered wagon with their three children to the new Montana Territory.”
This confirmed what I’d conjoured up in my imagination: The McDonalds went to Montana at the same time as did the Robinsons, which could only mean (I imagined) that the two couples were on good terms.
By that time, I had developed the McDonalds into characters of my own. I’d named Mrs. McDonald Rose, and it was too late to change her name back to Mary: she was Rose to me. Also, they had no children when they left for Montana, and they went by steamboat (with Agnes). That’s another issue for a historical novelist: how much poetic license does the author wield while honoring the actual happenings? In this case, had I known the facts about the McDonalds earlier, I might have stuck more closely to them.
As it is, I liked them the way I’d created them, so there they stood.
I’m not sure where I’m going with this, other than to say the historical novelist has the best of both worlds: wonderful stories ripe for the plucking, along with the novelist’s ability to fashion the stories and the characters with her own imagination. (Diana Gabaldon: “Besides, there is this interesting thing called novelistic license. I have one. Framed.”)
Collating “interesting snippets from the past” (David’s words) can lead to delicious story-telling, deeper understanding (“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – the over-used but true quote from Santayana), self-knowledge, honouring one’s ancestors. Someone else will have to decide whether Agnes Canon’s War meets any of these goals, but simply writing the book brought them home to me.