“The more you know of your history, the more liberated you are.” ~ Maya Angelou
It’s not uncommon for authors of historical fiction to look to their own family histories for stimulation. In fact, it seems to be a de facto requirement rather than an unusual twist of fate. One of my recent discoveries included just such a connection, in the form of Judith Redline Coopey’s narrative of early 19th century life in Pennsylvania, Redfield Farm. I found her book as a tributary of my research into the Underground Railroad for my own novel, Certain Liberties. Her literary digs into her third great grandfather’s past uncovered a log cabin built around 1799 and rumored to be a station on that railroad to freedom. Preparing the cabin for restoration one summer, Coopey found herself inspired to know more about the people who’d built it.
Irresistible, that pull to those we know were real, but didn’t ever really know, each story passed down through the family is intoxicating, and the hard realities of handwritten journals and photographs also let our imaginations fly unfettered. I found the same attachments to my own family’s pasts (as there are many different facets of that prism) and started the same kind of restoration project many years ago in the form of my book. The impact of reading an account of making buttons for Confederate soldiers’ uniforms by embroidering the base of empty shell casings pushed me down an unknown path. There I exposed stories of a family teenage southern belle falling in love with a senior officer in the enemy ranks. Another was thrown into jail overnight for shouting expletives at Sherman’s invading forces burning their way through Georgia. I even found an historical novel called, My Dearest Cecilia by Diane Haeger, using the story of my 2nd great aunt for its own narrative! That discovery may have helped spur me on to use some of the first-hand material I have on another great aunt who survived the fire of San Francisco on the eve of her performance with Enrico Caruso.
But each of these accounts sent me off in another direction—Music of the Gilded Age, to Romance of Reunion, to the History of the Greenbrier Hotel. A book on the techniques of violin making, and numerous forays online into the history of slavery were augmented by my own grandmother’s talks of growing up in the antebellum South. From the black slave trade came research on the white slave trade, something many never knew existed (homeless women scooped up off the streets both here and in Europe swelling the ranks). The indomitable Nellie Bly’s personal account of life in the Roosevelt Island women’s lunatic asylum brought to light not only the horrors inside its walls but the revulsion of society’s mistreatment of women at the middle of the 19th century. All of this was very useful in understanding what my protagonist was dealing with in her battle against discrimination limiting “ladies’” professional participation in careers in the arts, especially the performing arts.
A long forgotten first edition of a History of New York by Washington Irving was given to me by my son, and lead me back to a previously adored book, The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. That book put me right into the culture of the old Dutch families who sprang from the original settlers of New Amsterdam, some of whom were relatives of mine, making me want to connect with those people in a more direct way. The de Koningh family that lights the center of Certain Liberties became the friends who welcomed me, helping me (and my protagonist, Emily Alden) climb into that world.
Many fascinating hours were spent researching the fashions of the times, and how they were affected by the freeing up of the silk trade with China after the war with Britain had fully receded. But I spent most of my time researching the change in women’s fashions as the suffragette movement began to loosen them up to healthier and more comfortable styles. I spent a lot of effort learning about museums that show what corsets were doing to women’s bone structure (not pretty!) and how the long skirts swept vermin in with them off the filthy city streets (lovely). I studied some of the meetings of suffragettes in England where the old fashions were desperately held onto by frightened conservatives and women themselves vilified other women who wanted to change. Most importantly, I studied the designs of sleeves, essential to a young woman like my protagonist, Emily, who wanted to perform on stage holding her violin high and proud and move with some modicum of ease and comfort. The baring of shoulders and necks seemed a major threat and erotic stimulant in the mid-19th century, so finding a way to free up the arms of a ‘lady’ of high birth (does it remind you of Jane Austen?) who wanted to perform publicly without strangling herself was very difficult.
All this research, and there’s so much more into the lynchings in the south, New York street cleaning vehicles, Dutch child-rearing techniques, early habits of Charles Dickens and the reactions of his readers, and construction and use of musical instruments, added to the tenet of the time-period in my head, often not making it directly to the page. I also called on some knowledge I already had of New York City real estate through my earlier professional life, as well as the stories of specific buildings related to me by my Edwardian grandmother who was born at the end of the 19th century and had stories of the families who occupied many of the buildings in the city and Brooklyn Heights from the generation before her. Her descriptions of the early days of Central Park and its importance to those who couldn’t get out to the country, added to my father’s early childhood reminiscences, added to my understanding of what it was like to live in the early ‘wilderness’ that was New York City. Even my own parents remembered the transition from horse and carriage to cars, so I’ve always felt I had a slim attachment to that time, made stronger now with the writing of the book.
When I finished Certain Liberties, I had a phantom sensation—like a limb that’s been removed that you can still feel. Because my characters and their stories came to me holding hands with ancestors I knew of but mostly never met, they seemed totally recognizable, as if they still live with me even though the ancestors are long gone, and the characters were never here.
I’m quite sure it’s that phantom sensation that propels most historical fiction writers to launch themselves on the long, complicated and ultimately superbly rewarding adventure telling stories not so much of what happened, but more of what it felt like to live then. I hope my readers enjoy getting to know the people of Certain Liberties in person as much as I did.