Looking for more from Sean McLachlan? He also hangs out on the Midlist Writer blog, where he talks about writing, adventure travel, caving, and everything else he gets up to. He also reproduces all the posts from Civil War Horror, so drop on by!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

GUEST POST: Civil War Mystery: Objects in photographs are closer than they appear

Today I have an interesting guest post by Kathryn Hohmann, author of the Civil War novel Soldiers Rest, which like my own novel features photography as a central theme. She offers some tips on writing historical fiction. You can learn more about her on her webpage and Goodreads page. Thanks for coming, Kathryn!

Like a resident of a coastal town who rarely gets to the beach, I was surrounded by hallowed ground but never visited the Civil War battlefields of central Maryland. On weekend bicycle trips, I was more worried about the hilly terrain than the interpretive markers along the route. Although I sensed that the landscape possessed some eerie quality, I gave the matter little consideration.

Then I relocated to Montana and on a backcountry outing, I broke my leg and ended up bed-ridden and bored. I rented The Civil War by Ken Burns and found myself engrossed. As the series comes to an end, Burns touches on the years after the war. To illustrate how Americans turned away from memories of the conflict, he includes a remarkable image of glass plate negatives of Civil War photographs, scrapped and salvaged for the silver emulsions on their surfaces and recycled into glass panes for solariums.

These photographs –our collective heritage from the Civil War– dulled by years of sunlight and rain, were the inspiration for my historical novel, Soldiers Rest. The years spent writing my book and becoming conversant in a slice of the Civil War taught me a few lessons that I’d like to share.   

Hit the books – hard. Readers of historical fiction will spot your blunders. Study up, seek help and don’t be afraid to make revisions, especially if you’re in the e-book space. Read, research and read some more.

Take a small bite. History of any period is a sweeping canvas and unless you’re a Civil War scholar, you may want to consider limiting yourself to a small space of geography and time. I chose to concentrate on the aftermath of a single overlooked conflict, the Battle of South Mountain, part of the 1862 Maryland campaign. The event rarely gets the attention it deserves, overshadowed as it is by Antietam. The Battle of South Mountain was small enough to be a good candidate for my story, and focused enough so that when it came time for annual commemorations, the events were intimate and engaging, and there was little chance I would be lost in the crowd, as I might have been at Shiloh or Gettysburg.

Make it personal. The telling of my story took me back to the Maryland hills, the very terrain that I had found so eerie during my cross-country bicycle rides. Unresolved questions demanded answers and kept me on my Civil War crash course. Soon I was telling the story of a young woman who marries into a powerful family and moves to the historic estate, Soldiers Rest. On the property, she discovers an abandoned greenhouse; its transparent panels are glass plate negatives, salvaged from the years after the Civil War. In the panes, she can see the faces of Rebel soldiers. Who are these fighting men and why does their presence seem to haunt her? The more personal my story became, the more easily my book took shape.

Incorporate folklore. Oral history, stories repeated over generations, make excellent inspiration for a historical novel, particularly when it comes to the Civil War era. By listening to local storytellers, I discovered that in the aftermath of the battle, Rebel soldiers disappeared on the farmstead of a man named Daniel Wise. Now I had my mystery, which I blended with the image of the scrapped glass plate negatives, adding to the complexity of the tale. I began to understand how the past haunts the present, and by delving into local lore, my efforts became more immediate.

Act locally. If you’re living near your setting, you’re fortunate enough to see everything close up. If you’re a visitor, tread lightly. That means no relic hunting and respecting private property. Even better, join local historical preservation efforts and support local business rather than big chains. Camping is an excellent option, as are B&Bs. Local people can help with your research and you’ll make new friends.

Understand the nature of history and mystery: they go on and on. Even now, I wonder about the Rebels who went missing after the Battle of South Mountain. There’s a marker near the site and there’s research, but still no definite answers. I have scholars to contact and hope to learn the truth.  There’s still digging left to do, and that’s part of what makes this work so interesting.  

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