Thank you, Kelly-Lynne, for this opportunity to write a guest post for Historical Fiction Addicts. I’m very excited to be featured here!
I wanted to write a little bit about my own experience creating historical fiction characters. While writing my first novel, The Truth and the Life, I came to the conclusion that in my case, this process can essentially be summed up in two words: writing ghosts. While I suspect most writers can probably claim to have felt a bit “haunted” by their own characters at one time or another (why else would we write about them, after all?), historical fiction characters in particular have the added dimension of having “actually lived” in the past. They are, for that reason, more like ghosts in the traditional meaning of the word: entities (albeit fictional) that have somehow managed to cross a span of centuries to communicate their story to those living in the present.
It may be that I was somewhat destined to think about my characters in this way. The primary setting of T&L is the New Jersey Pine Barrens, a region that is notoriously, spectacularly haunted. I grew up there with ghosts on the brain, hearing stories from friends and family about restless, long-dead fiddlers holding raucous music sessions in the woods at night, weird lights twinkling in the pine boughs, and all manner of local legends—from the Jersey Devil to the dancing ghost of Joe Mulliner—spiriting away chickens and wayward children. In my early years, my own brother (probably in an attempt to scare me) told me several stories concerning the various supernatural experiences he had had while walking in the woods right behind our house. In one of these (so he said), he encountered the hazy image of a young girl in an old-fashioned dress who came up behind him, said one word—“hello”—and disappeared as soon as he turned around. Over the years, I’ve found myself vaguely wondering what kind of story she might have told, had she said more than one word.
The region, perhaps not surprisingly, is also full of ghost-towns. Drive down any one of the overgrown, unpaved sandy roads in the area and you’ll most likely come upon the relics of a once-bustling , mid- to late-nineteenth century industrial community that failed long ago for one reason or another (usually the casualty of a forest fire), its crumbling lime foundations now utterly deserted and yielding back to nature. In particular, if you were to look closely along the thickly-wooded shoulder of Chatsworth Road in Bass River Township, NJ, you might notice the decaying brick ruins of Harrisville, an abandoned paper-making town that to this day holds the local top spot for overall creepiness—and the setting that ultimately became the inspiration for the fictional town of Cedar Mill in T&L. Given these ghostly features of my childhood home, I suppose in some ways it’s no real surprise that I ended up writing historical fiction, and that my first real work ended up being set in this place where I grew up. Past and present are closely intertwined in the Pine Barrens, and the medium that intertwines them is very often storytelling.
In my personal experience, storytelling through the act of writing can be a form of exorcism. It banishes the ghosts of our characters onto paper so that we can finally stop thinking about them—or, at the very least, try to make some sense of them and their stories by allowing them to cross over into a world that we feel we can better understand and control: the boundaries of a written work. Writing about our characters essentially forces them out of the locations they have been haunting—the realms of history and of our own minds, both of which can be rife with unknowns and unpleasantness—and brings them into the light of the present, the afterlife of the written page. The pen and paper (or, in my case, the blank MS Word 2003 document) become the medium through which this transformation takes place.
Unlike what you see in a ghost movie or horror film, however, a successful exorcism of this kind doesn’t always spell the absolute end of the story for the once-haunted. Very few such films or stories (none that I know of, actually) ever really address the potential aftermath of the exorcism: the family members living in the once-haunted house who suddenly begin to miss their ghost, perhaps even wishing they could have it back. I would love to see such a film or read such a story, because after finishing the manuscript that would become T&L, I found myself doing this from time to time with my own historical fiction characters. I had grown fond of them while writing their stories, and had wanted to learn more about their lives and their time period for so long that, having finally finished the book, I suddenly found myself at a bit of a loss. This inherent desire to know—to know my characters better, to know more about their time, and to know why it fascinated me—had been a strong impetus for me to keep writing, to drive the story forward. In the process, I did come to know several of my historical characters quite well—enough to realize that one of the main characters in particular, Rachel Morris, had been running around in my mind for quite some time before I wrote the novel, making appearances in her own headstrong way in some form or another in earlier written projects of mine, and only in T&L finally having her full say. In the course of writing her story, I found myself becoming attached to her even as I was actively exorcising her from my own mind. By the time I had finished the manuscript, she had not only moved from my head onto the page, but from the past into the wider world of the present, leaving me a bit behind in the process. Now that she’s effectively moved on, I sometimes find myself missing her.
It was in writing about characters like Rachel that I came to understand one of the most rewarding aspects of writing (and reading) historical fiction, which ultimately lies in our relationships with the characters themselves. Despite the vast distances in years and reality between us and them, these entities of the past can often surprise us with their humanity. Ursula Le Guin, one of my absolute favorite writers, once wrote that “it is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope”, and I believe this observation holds true for historical fiction just as much as for any other kind of storytelling. In the process of putting final touches on my book, I found that my historical characters had, in the process of “crossing over”, also begun to transcend the label of “ghosts” and to become something even more miraculous and puzzling: human. In moving from my mind to paper, they were also moving from supernatural to natural—experiencing all the weirdness, messiness and wonder that comes along with the territory of living in any given time period. Like us, they were building dreams for the future in the same way that they were harboring fears, insecurities, and baggage from the past, interacting with one another in ways that were both positive and negative, both loving and hurtful. They were making mistakes, sometimes learning from them, sometimes not. In the case of Rachel and her cohort, David, in particular, they were experiencing all the confusion and wonder that can accompany the awakening feelings and attractions of young adulthood—in this particular instance, feelings of such a kind that mirrored the setting in which they both lived, resulting in a relationship with a thread of violence running through it that, while confusing to them both, was also in some ways life-affirming and necessary. The Pine Barrens, too, are a contradiction, the woods existing in their current form only as a direct result of the fires that constantly ravage them, destroying hundreds of acres of forest even as their extreme heat causes the pine cones to open and the native pitch pines to reproduce. As fictional, distant ghosts that suddenly had begun to feel like warm, living human beings, my characters had also began to exemplify this tendency for contradiction, as well as what I perceive to be its ultimate bending toward life. The finished book, I found, had not only become a record of these characters’ stories, but also served as an attempt to come to terms with everything I ultimately could not know about them—that large catalog of unknowns that we all constantly face in our daily lives, our own histories, and inside our own minds, but which we only ever face because we are so wonderfully, powerfully alive in the first place.
These days, with the book finished and published, I suppose I can say with some confidence that my “home” is no longer quite so “haunted”: that it’s been much quieter in my head since my own historical fiction characters have finally found their way into the next world, although I do continue to miss them.
That is, I suspect, until the next cohort of ghosts comes calling, going bump in the night, clamoring for me to tell their stories.