July 27, 2017

Turning Myself Into The Past

(This post was written for the blog Fresh Fiction for Today’s Readers)

My latest book, THE PURCHASE, is being called historical fiction. And I suppose it is.

But writing historical fiction is a mug’s game. Are we recreating the past, or creating it? While writing, I am imagining things that never happened, trying to make it seem like they did, like they were part of the actual pageant of history, like they make as much sense as the history we all learned in school, some of which was also a fiction. While writing, I am leaning backward from my 21st century chair and hoping to smell things that no longer even exist, to create medicines and foods and conversations I have never heard or seen or tasted.

So, I am turning myself into the past! I am becoming a way in which it can exist in the present. And if all events are with us forever, as causes and effects, then I am translating something from a language I’ve never heard. As I would translate the work of a stranger who speaks a language I don’t understand – a stranger who provides me with a dictionary.

How can I enter the mind of a slave, male, black, his mother an African captured and raped? How dare I decide to tell his story, or that of a slave girl who has learned to heal, although her methods are foreign to the people around her. My morals, ethics and beliefs were unimaginable in 1800, which is the time I write about in The Purchase. But I begin to understand the values of that time by reading its literature, its diaries, its official reports. Of course, my words will cast shadows of modernity on the story. I will reflect the past with all the distortions lent to me by a contemporary temperament, but I will resist that temperament at every turn and do my best to turn myself inside out, like a sock.

And in the telling, there is so much learning! I learn everything I can about how it feels to have been alive in 1800 in southwestern Virginia, where a human being could be purchased for two hundred dollars. Even when I’m working on fiction, there is research to be done; Locale. Weather. Trees and wildlife. History! And of course, clothes and habits. Writing The Purchase was a special treat in this regard. The story is based on a few facts I knew about my grandfather’s grandfather, a Quaker abolitionist who became a slave owner in 1798. In order to research his time and place, I found myself collecting all kinds of second-hand books. One of the best came from my mother’s library and involved life on a farm in southern Missouri before the Civil War. I figured southern Missouri wasn’t a lot different from south-western Virginia, so I read up on corn husking and winter amusements and what kinds of work children did on farms. It was in that book that I learned that nobody wore coats in the winter! This really surprised me. It was actually shocking to realize how impoverished those ante bellum lives were by our standards.

There was one big, blank page in all my research. Here is what I needed to learn: What was the effect on a person of conscience who bought a human being? It was the question that most haunted me. I believe our society is still reeling from that toxic effect because we all grow out of the soil scraped thin by our grandfathers. That’s another strange, thought-provoking fact and it kept me working on The Purchase until I had fully absorbed it and described it page by page.The lives I was reading about can never be relived but they can be assumed, entered, translated and shared. What a privilege to participate in such a transformation and rebirth.

Literature is not reality, but it reflects reality as seen and felt by the creator and then the beholder. It is the commitment of entering another point of view that I celebrate. On the part of both writer and reader.

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  1. F Nick Cannon says:

    Dear Linda,
    This isn’t about your book, but genealogy. I’m doing the genealogy of the descendants of Abram Click. Abram Click married Jane Sample and had four daughters: Mary Elizabeth (Click) Hillman, Phoebe Ann (Click) Simpson, Melissa Jane (Click) Weldin Wilson, Abi Clarissa (Click) Keim. Jane died in 1865, and Abram remarried in 1867 to Emma D Jenkins. They had four children Nettie (Click) Hunter, Linnie May (Click) Payne, Arthur Eugene Click, Orval Robert Click… (I’m a descendant of the youngest son.)

    I assume if you are writing about your past, you may take an interest in genealogy yourself. Abram Click is a mystery himself. He was supposedly born in Louisville, KY in 1830. A man named Moses Click about the same age followed him through out their lives. However, whether they were brothers or cousins, no one seems to know…

    How this relates to you is the oldest girl from the first marriage was Mary Elizabeth (Click) Hillman. If her name doesn’t wring a bell, perhaps her daughter Alice Gertrude (Hillman) Dickinson does.

    I’m just writing to see what information you may have about Alice Gertrude. Here is a link to Abram’s memorial. Realize that it isn’t the cleanest writing as it is more detailed notes as I try to solve the various unknowns.


    Before I seriously started doing the genealogy on my ancestors, all my grandma had for Abram Click was the tin photo of his first family. (My grandma died just shy of 100 back in 2003. I had done some informal genealogy before then, but after she died my heart just wasn’t in it as she was my inspiration. Anyway, almost 3 years ago, my mother went into the nursing home with dementia. Then I realized that the worst enemy in genealogy is time, and time was running out…. Anyway, since then I have learned quite a lot. Still as you said on one of your webpages every family has is an epic. I believe that every family has a story. Thus, I’m hoping you can tell me about Alice.

    from a umpteenth cousin umpteen times removed!

    PS: I think it is VERY impressive that you, your dad, and your uncle are all mentioned on a Wiki!

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  4. I’m always eager to hear family information. Somehow it all seems fascinating although I am too lazy to do much research into genealogy and depend on others to sweat it out. Is it a little too much like algebra perhaps??

  5. I am just back from a writers’ festival/conference in Slovenia. Is this the place to mention that? It was a different sort of turning into the past, as central Europe is still living its WWI, WWII, and Communist pasts. Still living and breathing all of that but not talking much about any of it because it is all too close, too personal, to likely to offend. In Slovenia the children of the partisans and of the Nazi sympathizers are neighbours, friends, co-workers. The partisans won but they lost their great cause and now have a country to invent and consider. What a lovely old new place. And I saw the Lipica horses, all white, streaming past on their way to shelter and food.

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