One hundred and fifty six years ago this July, the brutal battle at Gettysburg was fought. In only three days, 51,000 men were killed, wounded or gone missing; 5,000 horses were slaughtered on the battlefield.
I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to gather details for my book, Time Exposure. I roamed the sites of its bloody history, Cemetery Ridge, Devils Den, Big Round Top, Little Round Top. The excursion provided me with background elements to set the scene. But it also elicited dark, yet poignant emotions to help me paint the picture of the grim aftermath.
I used the technique of letters and diary entries to bring out the human side of the Civil War. I excerpt here a letter from my fictional Civil War photographer, Joseph Thornhill, to the love of his life, Sara Kelly. All other characters and events are real history. This letter might well have been written at the time.
July 3, 1863
My Dearest Sara,
I felt I had to write you today, after three of the bloodiest days I have ever witnessed. I must get it off my mind, and I might not even post this letter, lest you be terribly offended. But I feel I must unburden myself somehow.
Rumors have it that General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suffered great losses, maybe one third of their forces dead, wounded or captured. The Union Army is said to have lost a good deal, maybe one quarter of their troops, but it is safe to say we won the battle of Gettysburg. Lee’s army is retreating back to the South and Mead’s men are elated. Finally, victory, and an important one.
It is sad to think that this particular battle may have been fought over something as simple as shoes. There was rumored to be a large supply of shoes in the town of Gettysburg and on July 1 an officer under Ewell’s command led his men there to confiscate these shoes. Unfortunately for them, they ran into the Union Army.
I was slightly wounded today, some shrapnel lacerating my arm. But don’t worry. The doctors have bandaged me up and say I will be fine, no permanent damage, and I take a bit of laudanum for the pain. Luckily my camera, which was caught in the crossfire suffered no harm.
I must admit that until now I had no real concept of the power our modern weaponry wields. The force of the injury knocked me clean off my feet. I think this experience will prove useful to me in my work.
The wound has not stopped me from working, however, although it is a bit difficult with one arm in a brace. I rely on my apprentice more. I’ve been busy photographing the town and its people. Now I’ll begin, once again, to shoot the battlefield remains. I am steeling myself to this task slowly, but have not made much progress.
Both Alex and Tim O’Sullivan–you remember, I mentioned this fine young man and competent photographer to you–will arrive in the next few days. I look forward to working with them.
Now, other gruesome scenes await my camera. Embalming surgeons, as they call themselves, have arrived. Although many of the dead soldiers are hastily buried where they fall, many end up in mass graves. Some are later exhumed and buried in military cemeteries, whether they’ve been identified or not– often with the headstone reading only: “A Union Soldier” or “A Confederate Soldier.” It is hard to imagine–dying in the name of one’s country but that country not even knowing your name.
On a lighter note, I have also photographed some of the Union soldiers and officers after the final skirmish, and they were truly in high spirits–dirty, sweaty, exhausted, some wounded, but all euphoric. There was optimism in the air and hope, hope that this war would soon end. But for now we must deal with the brutal aftermath of this battle. Hospital tents crowd the countryside and the small population of Gettysburg is inundated with the sick and wounded. I doubt this town will ever be the same.
Tomorrow is July 4. I wonder if anyone, in the midst of all this furor, will appreciate the irony that this day marks the eighty-seventh year of our nation’s birth.
I miss you, my dearest, and long to see you this Christmas. You are always in my thoughts as I pray I am in yours.
Yours ever truly,
While letter or diary writing is a device to take the reader back in time, it is an opportunity for the writer to truly bring the past alive. Also, please note, the gentleman with the camera above is Civil War photographer, Mathew Brady, not Joseph Thornhill.
Since my mysteries take place at different time periods in the past, one of my personal “research” assignments is to study the language of those times. The style of language is important, certainly, in the narrative, but, absolutely, in the dialogue.
The flow and rhythm of the narrative helps set the tone for the story in the past. The dialogue should be close to language at the time, although revised enough so the modern reader can understand it. Here’s a combination of narrative and dialogue from Pure Lies, about the Salem witch trials of 1692.
Sixteen-year-old Felicity thinks: “Was all this a grand deception? A vile and sinful imposture? Could her own friends fabricate such a cruel and terrible scheme? Procter’s words came back to her and filled her with a morbid sense of dread. ‘They have concocted the devil out of the stuff of nightmares and, more, out of taedium vitae.’”
When it is useful to the story, I use the actual language written at the time. For example, here are some words from an arrest warrant for Susannah Martin:
“You are in their Majests names hereby required forthwith or as soon as may be to apprehend and bring (before us) Susannah Martin of Amesbury in the County of Essex Widdow at the house of Lt. Nationiell Ingersalls in Salem Village, in order to her Examination Relateing to high Suspition of Sundry acts of Witchcraft donne or Committed by her upon the Bodys of Mary Walcot Abigail Williams Ann Putnam and Mercy Lewis of Salem Village of farmes.”
Believe it or not, many citizens of Salem were literate at that time, simply because they were required to learn the Bible.
In my research, I read as many books of the time and about the time as I could to get a sense of the proper language but I often had to look up the date which many words or phrases came into use. For instance, I wanted to suggest that the “afflicted” girls were bored and cried out against their neighbors for sport. However, the word boredom didn’t exist at that time. Interesting, eh? It actually came into use around 1852. The word sport, however, dates back to 1582.
The modern story in Pure Lies takes place in 2006 and, for the most part, didn’t present language problems. Although with the constantly changing technology, I had to keep an eye on that as well.
Critique groups and a good editor can be very helpful in pointing out flaws of language in both historical . . . and modern pieces.
Writers, I welcome your thoughts.
March 25, 2019, will commemorate the 108th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. The 1911 fire was the deadliest workplace disaster in NYC before 9-11. It was significant not because 146 workers died, but because it instigated significant reform. At the time workplace safety was barely regulated and rarely thought about . . . except, perhaps, by the workers themselves. Other workplace disasters had occurred in the past and would again in the future. You may remember a similar fire at a factory in Bangladesh some weeks ago.
When I decided to write a mystery against the backdrop of the Triangle, I had no idea what I was in for. Research took me in several directions: the forensics of fire, the consequences of “defenestration,” that is, vertical falls from high places, the difficulty in identifying bodies falling from such heights, the safety hazards for garment workers, women’s rights, workers’ rights, changes in the American workplace.
But I also researched the time and place of the disaster. 1911, Greenwich Village, New York City. A time when Ellis Island kept its arms open to immigrants from many countries — immigrants who came for a better life, but often wound up in sweatshops, or worse. A time of Tammany Hall and corruption. A time of women’s suppression. But also a time of new beginnings, hope, and freedom in a new land.
I am a native New Yorker and was amazed at the fantastic bits of information I dug up. I learned, for instance, that Washington Square Park is built on what was once a potter’s field, where 100,000 people were buried for a century and a half. I walked the streets of Greenwich Village, saw the buildings my characters would have seen, drank in bars they patronized, and gazed up at the ninth story of the Asch Building (now part of NYU) to visualize the flames bursting through the windows and the workers leaping to their deaths.
The cover of my book is a photo I took of the building in 2010, with smoke and color added for dramatic effect.
For those of you who write about history, or simply enjoy reading it, I know you’ll agree that real-life events in the past make a grand backdrop for a fictional story.
Murder, in particular.
A brief story appeared on a local news station. It went something like this: Giant 11-ton wind turbine blade sheared off and flew hundreds of feet to land (luckily on no living creature) in the desert of Ocotillo, California.
The actual incident is under investigation, revealing a dark history of serious safety hazards including the wind company’s — Siemens — guilty pleas to corruption on a global scale including accusations of bribery and other serious charges in at least 20 countries.
A press conference was called and the following facts emerged:
- Wind turbines kill more than 573,000 birds (and bats) every year. Many are endangered birds like eagles and condors. http://landing.newsinc.com/shared/video.html?freewheel=90121&sitesection=ap&VID=24819212
- Wind turbines are not efficient sources of energy. They can only operate within a very narrow window of wind speed (not too much, not too little) and when they are outside this window they must shut down. However, when they are down they still need electricity to power them, thus “peaker” plants run by electric companies actually generate the power. Very inefficient as an energy source.
- The wind turbines themselves are making life difficult for those living nearby. The noise is creating health concerns for people and animals. Chickens are not laying eggs, dogs are cowering in the corners, children are developing headaches.
- The company (that purchased and installed the turbines) cares nothing for the environment. In the case of Ocotillo, they have bulldozed the desert and not replaced the plants, including Ocotillos, a rare and protected desert cactus.
- This same company has shown complete disrespect for Indian culture. They have desecrated ancient Indian sacred sites with barely an apology.
So what the heck am I going on about? Think about the possibilities for your next mystery or thriller. Small, desert town (with, would you believe, a Lazy Lizard Saloon) is besieged by corporate giant. Lives ruined, litigation ensues, people are murdered to keep the corporate secrets. And what about the environmental effects? Animal rights? Indian sacred site desecration? Local people going mad from the noise and vibration? Not to mention the danger of a blade shearing off and cutting them in half (like it did to some poor fellow in Oregon. It’s true. Hell of a story.)
Now if that’s not enough, here’s the clincher. The company in question here, Siemens, a German company, has a lurid past. The BBC reported that they have past collaborations with Nazis. They used slave labor from concentration camps including Ravensbruck and Auschwitz. These slaves reportedly built electric switches for the Siemens-manufactured V-2 rockets used to bomb the allies during WWII. More recently Siemens sought to register the trademark “Zyklon,” the poison gas insecticide used in Nazi gas chambers.
Is this a thriller or what?
Thank you to the readers and writers who responded to my query about a concept for my next book. Your input and my proclivity toward war(s) has helped me decide: I shall return to World War II. Instead of the Nazi confiscation of art and a missing Van Gogh painting as in my book, Deadly Provenance, I will focus on music and stolen music manuscripts. Working title: The Final Note.
Historical fact: Beginning in the early 1930s, edicts against the Jewish population began emerging in Germany. These edicts became increasingly distressing and disruptive, causing Jews to forfeit their businesses, their homes, their possessions. Slowly and inexorably they were impelled toward the Final Solution where they would forfeit their most precious commodity: their lives.
In 1933, a group of German Jews set up Der Jüdische Kulturbund, a cultural federation consisting of unemployed Jewish musicians, actors, artists, and singers. The Kulturbund, or Kubu, was created with the consent of the Nazis strictly for Jewish audiences. The Nazis cleverly permitted this association in order to hide its oppression of the Jews. The Kubu was illustrative of Jewish creativity in response to cultural exclusion.
The Kubu performed theatrical performances, concerts, exhibitions, operas, and lectures all over Germany, allowing Jewish performers to earn their livelihood, however scarce. Under the watchful eye of Sturmbannführer, Hans Hinkel, whose boss was Joseph Goebbels, Kubu survived for eight years performing for audiences that continued to diminish.
My research into the life of Jews at this time is only part of my work. Since the Kubu musicians were permitted to play only “Jewish” musical compositions, I will be researching music history during this period. In addition, my musician protagonist in the back story will be writing his own compositions. While I play the piano, I have little music theory background and have never written music.
Writers of historical fiction must become artists, teachers, police officers, lawyers, detectives, photographers, doctors . . . all manner of occupations in their novels. For this book I will become a musicologist. Well, I can only hope.
The stolen music manuscripts will lead to dire consequences when we fast forward to the modern storyline. Can the manuscripts be authenticated? Can we learn through modern science and technology, the attribution of these brilliant symphonies? My task is to find the answers.
Your ideas are welcome.