Researching Revolutionary

Section 1: Where I Got the Story
Section 2: Getting the Full Story
Section 3: Enough Already!
Section 4: Starting to Write = Researching on the Fly.
            Part 1: Internet/Short Resources
            Part 2: Other Fictions...Using Novels in Research
Section 5: Hitting the Road
            Part 1: Where the War was Fought
            Part 2: Where she Lived
Section 6: Finding the Right Balance

Section 1: Where I Got the Story

Revolutionary tells the story of Deborah Samson (sometimes spelled Sampson), a true-life woman who disguised herself as a man and fought in the American Revolution in 1782 and 1783 (for a fuller synopsis, go here).  Well before I'd ever considered writing a novel, I had heard the story of Deborah from my grandmother, who had long been interested in genealogy.  The story my grandmother told me went something like this: "back during the revolution, you had an ancestor who wanted to be a soldier.  She was jealous of the men who got to be soldiers, and she wanted to do her part.  So she ran away and disguised herself and joined the war effort."  As a kid, I filed Deborah away in the part of mind that contained Molly Pitcher (about whom I had to sing a song in our fourth grade pageant:  "Molly Pitcher was a maid/She fought for freedom unafraid/She carried water, fired a gun/And won the praise of Washington."  For the record, I got to play the role of Molly Pitcher.) and Betsy Ross and such under the vague category of remarkable women.  I had no idea what sort of effort it would take for a woman such as Deborah to run away let alone to jump across that gender boundary.

When, in the midst of my MFA program, I got it in mind to write a novel, I immediately thought of writing Deborah Samson's story.  I liked that I was (albeit distantly) related to her, liked that I had carried her story with me for a while, and liked that we shared a sort of parallel in having been women and lived as men.  So I started my research by going back to my grandmother's stories.  Though my grandmother had passed away, I had a copy of her book:
It is written in a clear and conversational style, and I can hear my grandmother's voice on every page.  In particular, I mark the pride with which she opens the passage:  "[Deborah] was to become one of the first women to do a man's job in a man's field and receive equal pay."  I immediately appreciated my grandmother's take of Deborah as a proto-feminist.  From there, the account rolls out quickly, rattling off Deborah's departure, enlistment, service, injuries, disclosure, and subsequent career as a lecturer.  My grandmother's account didn't give many details; there were dates and places and hints of story, but the account was sparse.  If anything, it served only to whet my appetite.  Why, for instance, did Deborah "volunteer to go on expeditions" and why did the general she served, after her discharge, give "her testimonials concerning her faithful performance of duty and exemplary conduct"?  What sort of soldier had she been?  How had she managed to survive in the army in disguise for almost a year and a half?  I set my grandmother's account aside, ready to sink in to some sources that could give me some answers.

Back to Contents

I knew my grandmother’s book hadn’t given the full history; we didn’t have any family documents on Deborah, and I wasn’t sure where my grandmother had obtained her information.  So, though the temptation was great for me just to jump in and start writing, I knew I needed to sit down and learn some more of the context, get a better handle on the facts, and start to sort out the story I wanted to tell from the history.  Therefore, I bought a copy of Alfred E. Young’s Masquerade: The Life and Times of Deborah Sampson, Continental Soldier (Vintage, 2004).  In order to make this reading profitable and applicable to my writing, I read it with a stack of index cards next to me, and whenever I encountered something in the text that seemed like a possible “moment” or scene, I jotted it down.  Then, at the end of the day’s reading, I would go back through these index cards and, on the other side, flesh out some of the details and begin to sketch my sense of the characters and the journey. 

There are a number of secondary sources on Deborah – I focused in on Young’s account because it was recent and thorough.  I particularly liked that he looked fully at her life; he didn’t just examine her wartime service.  At the start of his study, he puts Deborah fully in her historical context, taking pains to look at her in her place and time; this was invaluable for me.  It served as a reminder to me that I needed to take care to unfold her as a real person living in a real moment.  This is still a concept that I grapple with in historical fiction: how much fidelity the author owes to historical truth and how much to fiction and craft.  At any rate, Young gave rich detail and explanation of Deborah’s family life (how it came about that she was sent from home to serve another house at a very age, for instance) and carefully explained both what was typical and what was atypical about her.  He also went into the details of what Middleborough was like – who the loyalist families were and what had happened to them, what the industry of the area was like, what life on an average farm would feel like, and so on.  These details made it possible for me to imagine Deborah’s life fully (even though it would be important not to include all of this in a novel!)

In his treatment of Deborah’s service, which was where I knew I wanted to focus my novel, Young took care to sort the incidents that happened to into “likely happened,” “possibly could have happened,” and “likely did not happen.”  Because there are so few reliable records of what she underwent as a soldier, Young used a lot of contextual evidence – records from other soldiers in the area, for instance.  These also served as leads for me to follow and as a model for how I could get additional sources for what life was like in the field.  Young gave a very clear picture of the sort of clothing, the way time was spent, the amount of food, and such, but I wanted to know the particulars.  Many of my index cards are full of questions – in a scene I imagined taking place during the march to West Point, I wanted her to share food communally with men for the first time.  But what would they eat? How would they cook it?  Did they use utensils?  What were considered good manners at the time?  And so on… Young also provoked questions, but I finished reading his book with a stack of index cards, the scenes I thought would be rich for revealing and building character and desire, as well as the need to track down some primary sources, to begin to dig into the details that would make the story anchored and believable. 
Back to Contents

Section 3: Enough Already!

One of the resources that Alfred Young mentioned and utilized often was a curious biography of Deborah Samson written by Hermann Mann in 1797.  Once I had finished reading Young's Masquerade, I turned to Mann's biography hoping to get a feel for Deborah in language closer to her own time.  To explain the biography (the title of which is The Female Review) a bit... after Deborah's term of service ended in 1783, she returned to Massachusetts and, within a few years, settled down and married.  She was quite poor and applied for a pension from the US Army -- the first female veteran to do so!  The pension proved to be paltry as well, and Deborah made a bold choice to pursue fame through a public presentation of her story.  She worked with Hermann Mann, dictating her tales of joining the army, serving in the war, and the end of her enlistment.  Subsequent to The Female Review's publication, Deborah then went on the road giving a speech, a short synopsis of her adventures, and a performance (in her old uniform!) of the manual drill (a set of exercises done with a musket).

Because of the nature of Mann's memoir -- with Deborah so closely involved -- I wanted to read the text and get a feel for her own understanding of her journey.  However, I was sorely disappointed.  First, there is Mann's language itself.  Here's a fair sample, reporting how Deborah made her own set of masculine garments: "A handsome piece of cloth was to be put to a use of which she little thought, during the time she was employed in manufacturing it.  Ye sprightly Fair, what is there in your domestic department that necessity, ingenuity and resolution cannot accomplish? -- She made her a genteel coat, waistcoat and breeches without any other assistance, than the uncouth patterns belonging to her master's family."  Whew!  If that was the language of the time, I wanted little to do with it!  In fact, Mann's writing is ostentatiously flowery; he reaches for the lyric register quite often.  But beyond the prose, the real problem was the story, and Young's Masquerade pointed this out clearly: Deborah clearly fabricated much of what she told Mann.  The Female Review places her at the battle of Yorktown, puts her on raids against Indians, and has enjoying escapades (though never compromising anyone's virtues) with all manner of "maids."  None of this is  likely to be true.  I set the volume down (I admit I didn't finish it) with only a few useful notes -- some terms for particular items, some place names and such -- and felt disappointed.

But then I realized two things... first, the volume was a window into Deborah's character.  I thought it possible that many of her lies were given to Mann as a means of self-promotion and even (given her dire financial straits) self-preservation.  I started thinking of her as a courageous woman, but one with a, shall we say, flexible sense of ethics.  And this was very helpful to start my writing.  It gave me a sense of why she would sign on in the first place, why she would be willing to disguise herself, and why she would run away from home.  It wasn't that she lacked any sense of virtue or morality, but that she understood certain needs (personal and monetary) to trump certain societal standards.  Second, reading the biography reminded me that, at times, the truth isn't what's needed.  Deborah wanted to sell her story -- she wanted to go on the road and make some money.  She knew that, even in 1797 action, violence, and sex were what sold... and that's the story she told Mann.  And I, in 2009, closed The Female Review and knew, that's it.  I had enough truth to go on.  I feared that if I spent much more time researching the specifics of Deborah's journey that I would get bogged down in too many facts.  It was time to find my own story out of all the history.

So, I took my stack of note cards and started imagining what the world had been like back then, and where I wanted my story to start, and how Deborah would act and speak.  And as I sketched and planned and drafted, I entered into the next phase of research, which I'll blog about in the coming week... how I got the particulars. Back to Contents

Section 4: Starting to Write = Researching on the Fly.

I'll divide this section into two parts...

Part One: Internet/Short Resources

At this stage in my writing, I was poised on the brink of my first novel.  I had a set of cards and pages of notes and ideas that established scenes and moments that I felt were crucial.  The research I had done, particularly reading Young's full account of Deborah's life, had set me up with a sense of the chronology.  At the heart of my novel, I knew, was essentially a journey.  On a literal level, it would be a journey away from home and a confined life (in the female sphere) and into the unknown and risk (life in disguise; life as a soldier).  On a figurative level, it would be a journey through (and towards) identity and desire.  When I write, I like to have a sense of what I'm searching for -- that is, I like to know the questions I'm going to ask -- but I don't know the end result yet.  So, I began to write.

What I found was that the facts I had researched thus far gave my novel a pleasing skeleton: they provided the structure and shape of the essential story.  But the more I wrote, the more I knew I'd need to do some serious research.  How did they speak?  What exactly did they wear?  What sort of money did they use and what was the value of certain items?  And on and on.  Yet, once I had begun writing, I didn't want to stop.  It seemed counterproductive to set aside the manuscript and spend time delving into tomes on any given subject when I didn't know an answer.  And it also seemed impossible to delay writing and try to read up on all the topics I anticipated needing to know about.  So I kept on writing.  

A little side note here to explain, as it is necessary to share a bit about my writing process to make the research aspect clearer.  I always write my first drafts by hand (there are many reasons for this: less temptation to delete, ease of making marginal notes, and it builds in a stage of drafting/revising).  So, as I worked on Revolutionary, I knew that answers to my "quick" historical questions were a simple internet search away, but I resisted the temptation to go to the computer there and then (unless the plot depended on it, and it seldom did).  Instead, I made a clear mark and gap in my notebook and tallied up the topic on a separate sheet of paper.  Then, when I had finished my writing for the day, I went to the computer and/or library and looked up the topics, then went back and added them to my writing.  I also posted key terms, some helpful maps and pictures, and other such lists on the wall near my writing desk.  

It is scarcely earth-shattering to say that the internet is a marvelous resource for writers of historical fiction, but there, I've said it.  As much good information as there is out there, there is also a plethora of inaccurate information.  If you go looking for a certain answer, it is almost assured that you will find that answer.  But I thought I would share a couple of helpful resources online and in print and share a little bit of why they were so useful as a way of illuminating this stage of my research.

1. Maps... given that Deborah's journey took her from Middleborough, Massachusetts to West Point, New York with many stops in between (in early drafts, I had her going to New Bedford and Boston), I needed to know about the roads of the era.  Where were there roads and what were they like?  How long would it take her to travel them?  At first (being a paper-book-preferring person) I got my hands on a historical atlas of Massachusetts.  But this proved to be less useful than these two internet resources.
  • The Map Collection of the Library of Congress. (Found Here.)  Fully searchable by location, clear dates, and an exquisite zoom/scan capability.  Truly remarkable.
  • The Massachusetts Historical Society's online collections. (Found Here.)  The best on this site is on Boston and environs.
Even with good maps made during the right time period (she left Middleborough in 1782 and several maps of the area were drawn up in 1780), I couldn't always find the information I was looking for.  Many maps show only major roads (and there aren't many of those!).  But other maps showed that roads often followed along rivers, so I could make some assumptions about possible tracks there.  In the end, as I found many times in this process, the research can only take an author so far.  And then it is time to make things up (within the realm of historical responsibility, of course).

2. Clothing... You know the saying: clothes make the man!  Well, in Deborah's case, this was very much true.  I knew right from the start that what she wore would play a large part in determining whether or not she passed as a man.  Clothing then, for many reasons technological and cultural, is quite different from clothing today, and I wanted to be able to explain and depict the difference.  In particular, I wanted to make it clear how odd and jarring it would feel for a woman of the time to put on men's clothes.  So I needed to get some gritty detail.  Again, I did find a few books of use, but the internet once again won out.  Photographs of period pieces on exhibit in museums are easy to find and give a fully-dimensional sense.  But the best resource of all was the Colonial Williamsburg website (Found Here).  They not only provide the terminology and a wealth of pictures, but also have a feature where you can interactively dress a model from the period and see the layers of clothing worn by the poor, the wealthy, and so on.  This site (as well as some of the texts that I read) illuminated little details that you can't see from the pictures, such as the fact that there were no pockets back then in dresses and pants or that few men (at least of the lower classes) wore undergarments.

Once Deborah enlisted, the research became easier.  Uniforms are well-studied and documented.  There are excellent resources available in print, in the form of illustrated catalogs of Revolutionary War equipment (the guns, the cannons, etc. as well as the uniforms).  There are also great hands-on exhibits (and I'll talk about these when I get to my road trips) -- it was important to see these models in the flesh, as it were.  For online resources, though, one of the best (aside from simple image searches) was the National Park Service's handouts for the Minute Man Historical Park (in Concord Massachusetts).  This brochure (found Here) has photographs of people in reenactments, and closeups that detail their uniforms and accompanying equipment.  This really let me picture how Deborah looked and get a sense of the (sizable) burden she would have to carry as a soldier.

So that's the short version.  There were other challenging topics, like money (dollars? or pounds?), how the mail worked back then, and so on.  I'd be happy to discuss any one of these further if there is interest.  Just leave me a comment!

Next, I'll write about "part two" of this topic, concerning the supplemental reading I did alongside my first draft and how that helped me research the topic.
Back to Contents

Once I had a draft sketched out -- chiefly a fully formed plot and characters with a sense of identity -- I entered into another phase of research (I'm stretching the phrase a little, but it's still relevant).  This was, in a sense, the most pleasant part of doing research: I bought a lot of novels set during the American Revolution and read them.  

I've always been a believer in the idea that reading helps writing (in fact, I believe that reading helps many things!), so this step was a natural one for me.  But whereas I often read certain writers to help illuminate aspects of craft (dialogue or setting or what-have-you), this time I wanted to read in order to see how other writers presented this era.  I had in mind that I wanted to get to know the field, know what cliches to avoid, know what had been done so I wouldn't imitate, but also see how writers handled such tricky aspects as capturing the speech of the time, or explaining odd bits of antiquated technology (like all the parts of a loom!).  It was crucial for me that I undertake this process after I had a full draft: if I'd read some of this while I was still writing, I think it would have interrupted my creative process.  But by going to it after I knew what I had and what was weak, these texts were able to have an appropriate influence.

By far the most helpful text was James Fenimore Cooper's The Spy.  Full disclosure: I am not a big James Fenimore Cooper fan.  In fact, I adore Twain's evisceration of James Fenimore Cooper's style.  But not only is The Spy one of the earliest examples of American Historical Fiction, it is also set right in the area where Deborah Samson was active: Westchester County.  True, The Spy takes place earlier than Deborah's activity, but the setting was still valid.  Also, given that Fenimore Cooper wrote the novel in 1821, less than fifty years after the events actually occurred, meant that his presentation of speech, habit and such stood a good chance of being accurate.  At times, it was a chore to get through this novel, but it helped tremendously to get me to understand how people traveled, what some of the social mores were, and what the terrain might have been like. 

There weren’t many other texts written so close to the war, so I jumped into novels written in the twentieth-century.  Most useful of these was Jerome Charyn’s Johnny One-Eye.  Set in Manhattan during the Revolutionary War (spanning much of the conflict), I turned to this novel because I knew the style was very different than my own (Charyn is delightfully irreverent and saucy) yet the setting quite similar – I wanted to take a look at how someone could be correct with the facts (Charyn’s novel is meticulously researched) yet also fast and loose with plot and characters.  He also – boldly – includes famous characters, like George Washington, without compromising historical veracity.

On an even broader level, Robinson Crusoe was a valuable volume for me, not so much on account of its direct relevance to my historical setting but because it was a popular book at the time; I wanted to know what people were reading and how it might influence them. (I also read pamphlets and broadsides of the time, trying to get a sense for what constituted news, but that is more in the “primary sources” realm).

Often times, the reading sent me back to do more research: I wanted to make sure the authors had gotten it right!  At other instances, I found myself disagreeing with how an author conveyed the vernacular in a novel… too much ‘tis and ‘tisn’t makes me uncomfortable – it can feel artificial even though that’s how the historical person likely spoke.  Similarly, it was a good reminder that sometimes an author can get too involved with the research and leave the writing of the real story behind.  As I read through some novels set during the Revolutionary War, I found pages-long descriptions of muskets or rations.  My notes in the margin often read: do I do this in my manuscript?  How much is necessary? 

In short, complementary reading is invaluable to the research and composition process.  As examples of what to do, as reminders of what not to do, as exposure to what’s been done and overdone, getting my mind around the field of literature helped me tremendously.  It sent me back to do more research and it also propelled me forward, helping me chart a course uniquely my own but also in dialogue with the larger literary world.

So, that’s it for the books stuff.  Next week, I’ll start on a couple of entries concerning road trips I took that helped me get aspects of my novel settled.  And road trips mean… good pictures!  

Back to Contents

Section Five: Hitting the Road

Part One: Where the War was Fought

By the time I had finished a full rough draft of the novel, I wanted a little vacation to celebrate.  (And I admit that I thought -- how foolish I was! -- the manuscript needed some rewriting, a little tweaking, and it would really be fine.)  What better vacation to take than one related to the novel?  My wife, supportive as always, agreed and we headed off for a little road trip.  

Deborah Samson grew up in Middleborough, Massachusetts, but that wasn't our destination (in part because I'd visited there before when doing triathlons and also because it was so close to home and we wanted more of a journey).  Instead, we headed to New York looking at sites where Deborah was stationed as a soldier and where she had been involved in skirmishes.

Admittedly, as I started the trip, I thought it would mostly be fun, but I soon found that it was a tremendously valuable part of the research, and, upon returning, I immediately dug back into the scenes that take place around the Hudson.  When I had initially drafted these sections, I looked at photographs (and drawings from the time) to give me a sense of the landscape and the buildings.  But these couldn't capture the richness of the sights and the sense of not just place but purpose and minutiae (what it felt like to be a soldier there) present in the spots we visited.  The work the New York Parks Department has done in establishing and maintaining these museums and recreations is tremendous.

I thought I'd provide some photographs and explanations of how and why these sites were useful in researching and revising my novel.

We started at New Windsor, the site of the final Cantonment (winter encampment) of the Revolutionary War.  Deborah spent the winter of 1782-1783 at this spot.  The soldiers first built their cabins and then lived in them through the winter months.  Here I am at a reconstructed cabin (on the original site)

And here is a model (at the museum of New Windsor) of the cabin, showing what they were like inside.  I'm sure they were actually much dirtier.  But do note the number of bunk beds!

This visit was eye-opening.  Sure, I'd read that the cabins were "close quarters" but standing next to one and then seeing how packed the men were drove that home more than any photograph or written description could convey.  How Deborah maintained her disguise in such a situation struck me as beyond belief.  It made me go back to what I had written and reconsider not only how she presented herself, but how she handled her time at New Windsor -- I ended up changing the plot considerably once I had seen the physical reality of the site.

Also in the museum were displays of uniforms and equipment.  These were also terrific; I hadn't realized how buttons were deployed back then (the difference between our modern "fly" on a pair of pants and the colonial "front fall," for example).  The photos of these were too dark to be worth sharing, but the displays were wonderful; they had mannequins of officers as well as enlisted men, British as well as American, and showed all the supplies that they would carry (as well as how they stowed it).  Again, I took copious notes and went right back to my manuscript to make sure Deborah would be properly attired.  The amount of equipment was considerable and heavy, and some of it would have been strange and unfamiliar to her.  For instance:

These are examples of muskets, bayonets, and cartridge cases similar to those she would have used.  It seems unlikely that she ever would have handled a gun prior to her service (and thus she would have been "behind" the other recruits who most likely would have).  Seeing the gun in person allowed me examine the mechanics of it and also get a sense of how unwieldy it might have been.  These guns are about five feet in length.

We drove to Newburgh, site of Washington's last winter headquarters of the war.  It was being heavily reconstructed and wasn't open, but the spot allowed terrific views of the Hudson.  Deborah would have visited it in her capacity as a messenger for General Paterson.  Another such site was Vails Gate, General Knox's Headquarters (both Vails Gate and Newburgh are slightly removed from New Windsor, though an easy horse ride).

I liked this site not only for its natural beauty, but also as a contrast to the cabins at New Windsor... as well as the small houses in which Deborah had grown up.  What did she think of what must have seemed to her to be opulence? Seeing these spots made me realize that her time as a soldier was transformative on so many levels, opening her eyes to worlds she had never imagined.

We went on to West Point and toured the museum there, seeing more uniforms as well as an exhaustive set of musketry.  Deborah trained and spent many months at West Point, but it isn't easy to get access to the parts of West Point where she was active.  Likewise, our jaunt through Peekskill and Tarrytown -- other spots where Deborah served and fought -- didn't yield much concrete information.  The Revolutionary War Sites had largely been lost (there was a delightful grist mill and an old manor that we visited; these provided pleasant atmosphere, but didn't relate much to the novel).

But more than any specific historical detail, the roadtrip gave glimpse after glimpse of the terrain itself:

The river, the mountains... I hadn't realized how different it all was from New England until I spent some time walking around. The slopes are so much more abrupt than the hills around Middleborough.  And the Hudson is wider -- both mightier and slower (seeming) than the rivers that flow through Deborah's hometown .  We stopped often along the routes, and I found myself understanding how shocking and delightful the scenery must have seemed to a person who had never before left the stonewall, apple tree, and bog-filled woods of Southeastern Massachusetts.

I returned home with a stack of jotted notes and set about revising.  I had anticipated that I would tweak some details of setting and terrain.  But I ended up going back and recasting whole aspects of the plot (particularly the time at New Windsor) and many scenes (especially those of the skirmishes) in order to reflect what I had seen.  Even so, I'm glad that I went after I had written a full draft: it felt better to have let my imagination have free rein before making it fit into reality.

In similar spirit, I set out the following year to take a look at Middleborough and Sharon Massachusetts... and that's what I'll post about next.
Back to Contents

Part 2: Where She Lived

In the first drafts of this novel, I had a long sort of "warm up" to the main story (of Deborah joining the army and serving as a soldier in disguise), which featured plot lines in her hometown of Middleborough, Massachusetts as well as jaunts throughout the area (New Bedford and Boston in particular).  As I wrote these sections, I felt no particular urge to visit the environs: I'd been through there before (even raced a triathlon in one of Middleborough's ponds!) and had a sense of what the terrain was like.  

For those early stages of writing, getting the plot and the characters established seemed like the most important things.  As with other sections of research, I had the basics in hand and figured I could go back and work on the details after I'd sketched out the main narrative.  Now that I've finished the manuscript (or so it seems), I've spent some time reflecting on whether this strategy worked or not, and I do have mixed feelings.  When I took these road trips, I said to myself: why didn't I do this earlier?  Yet, I also know that it was crucial for me to get through the writing and not let research get in the way of that.  In the end, I do think that the approach I took was the most profitable for me.  I strongly feel that there are stages to research, and that I needed enough to get me grounded and confident in the era... and then let the writing take center stage.

That's all to say that I took a road trip to Deborah's hometown(s) well after I had finished my initial (and secondary and tertiary) writing stages.  I took it almost as an afterthought, wanting to do it just to be able to say I'd been there.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find out how valuable visiting these sites felt.  It sounds cheesy, but being able to imagine Deborah and other characters in these places made them more alive and made me imagine them in new ways.

The first spot I visited that gave me this sense was at the Middleborough Historical Society, where they had managed to preserve a "necessary" (the 18th century term for outhouse) from Sproat's Tavern.  Here it is:

There I am for perspective on its size.

The necessary has been relocated to the grounds of the Middleborough Historical Society. (They have a bizarre and wonderful collection of buildings and things.  In addition to Deborah Samson, Middleborough was home to Tom Thumb!)  Sproat's tavern plays a large role in the opening of the novel (larger in earlier manuscripts) as it was the spot where Deborah frequently worked and sometimes stayed.  The necessary of the tavern even makes an appearance... and other necessaries get mentioned.  As you can imagine (and even in society today) bathrooms are a gender-defining moment and their use often comes with some risk.

It was stunning that the building would be preserved for so long, and I was struck by its size (it's a four-seater, I believe, with two of the seats being designed specially for children) and the worthiness of its construction.  The tavern itself is long gone, and the site bears no mark of its history.  We drove by, and in passing by what is now a nondescript lot, I felt glad that I hadn't visited prior to writing: I was able to invent and imagine as I wanted to.  But knowing that this link to the past remained was pretty remarkable.  Deborah was here!

We visited the byroads of Middleborough; the houses where Deborah lived or served are largely gone or renovated beyond recognition.  Still, I have to imagine that the pine forests, the little rises, the course of the Nemasket River, and the plethora of ponds in the area remain the same.  

On to Sharon, Massachusetts, where Deborah lived after she returned from the war.  This landscape does not feature prominently in the novel at all, but two modern landmarks interested me.  As with Middleborough, almost every trace of original buildings is gone.  However, there is a statue commemorating Deborah outside the town library.

The statue was created in 1989, and makes several interesting interpretations.  First, Deborah is clothed in a dress, primarily.  She has all the accessories of a soldier's life: musket, powder horn, tricorn, and jacket.  Then (see the shot from behind), there's an interesting addition: her hair is long (like a woman's) but tied up in a queue (a prominent men's hairstyle of the revolutionary era).  At first, I had mixed feelings about the statue, feeling that Deborah might well have preferred to remain clothed as a man for as much of her life (or afterlife) as possible... certainly there are some legitimate indications of that.  There is no doubt that she was proud of her service and, long after the war was over, could still be found dressing up in her military costume.  Yet, for all that, the truth is that she lived her life mostly as a woman.  She was a soldier for only a year and a half.  It may have been the year and a half that defined her life, but for the rest of her span, she did wear a dress.  Studying the statue, I grew to like the compromise it struck: her hair bound up, as if she might try to "pass" again... and the coat there, half draped on her, suggesting an impermanence or, again, that she might just put it on one more time.

Last... I couldn't resist visiting Deborah Sampson Street.  There's no reason -- that I could discover -- as to its being placed where it is, but I thought it not only made a lovely picture, but also showed that Deborah is still remembered and celebrated in her hometown.  And this for a woman who initially feared her reputation would be destroyed by her exploits!

So, that's the photographic sum of my road trips.  I admit, this one didn't count much as research towards my writing.  But it was absolutely worthwhile for making me understand my subject in a wider context, even if that information never makes it into the manuscript.  

Next week, I'll wrap up my posting in this section of the blog with some final reflections on the balance of fact and fiction in historical fiction.  Of course, if any one has particular interest in hearing more about an aspect of research, just let me know, and I'll be happy to expand.  Leave a comment!

Back to Contents

Section 6: Finding the Right Balance

Long after I finished drafting and revising, after I signed with an agent and sold the manuscript to Simon & Schuster, after I'd rewritten and worked over the novel with my editor, the question of history, of factual basis, still bothers me, raising doubts and sending me back to the bookshelf or internet to look things up.

Why is this?  The fiction must be more important than the fact.  As an author, I tell myself I should be much more concerned with character and plot, with pacing and dialogue, with the finer points of craft.  These were the aspects I sweated over in my revisions, no question about it.  But now that the manuscript is off my desk, it's the history that bugs me.

Maybe it's because there's always more research that could be done.  Or maybe it's the sting of the mistakes I've made.  When an early reader pointed out that I'd gotten the mechanics of weaving incorrect, it somehow made me wince much more than the same reader's comment on how a character appeared flat.  The latter, just an opinion.  The former, a basic fact I could have nailed.  

Even more, I know that many readers will be drawn to comment on the historical accuracy.  I’ve seen the sorts of reviews that are written, read the author interviews, and know that I can expect a certain amount of pickiness.  The genre prides itself on this after all.  And so, as I wrap up my posts on research, instead of talking about the how, I thought I’d consider the why.

Why the obsession with historical accuracy when the reader knows that the novel is, at heart, a work of fiction? 

I don’t want to dive too deeply into philosophy, but I do want to assert a clear claim.  We value the truth.  Not just as readers, but as humans.  We don’t like to be misled, we don’t want to be lied to.  This seems basic.  But scratch the surface a little, and it becomes more difficult to explain.  Why the insistence on truth?  What value does it have, compared to, say, happiness?  (For good movie considerations of this question, look no farther than The Matrix or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  As a reader of historical fiction and – more particularly – as someone who has shared a historical fiction manuscript with others, I can say with confidence that some part of enjoyment of reading this genre is derived from the fact that the information is true. 

In fact, that’s the most common question people who’ve read (or heard me read) ask: “Is that part true?”  And if I say, “No, I made that up,” there’s palpable disappointment.  We, humans, value the truth – it is worth something to us.  Like the sonnet writer, who is constrained by the rules of meter and structure in her composition, the historical fiction writer chooses to be constrained by the “rules” of historical fact.  Therefore, it isn’t quite right for the HF author to cry:  But it’s fiction!  whenever he misses or ignores a fact.  It is, but it isn’t.  At least part of the resonance of good historical fiction novel comes from its tacit agreement to abide by reality.

Which is all to say: the research is important.  If you don’t want your novel to be governed too much by history, then you are best choosing a protagonist who hasn’t left much of a historical record (no diaries, few letters, etc.).  Deborah is somewhat of that protagonist – she’s not constrained by precise dates and events though the general nature of her life is known.  But if you choose to write on someone truly famous, you’ll find that every day, and sometimes every moment of that day, is accounted for. 

Don’t expect to be able to skirt the truth.  It might make your writing easier, but it makes the final product less credible.  It is from the truth, the fact, that historical fiction derives its power.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting and informative. We have very similar method as far as maintaining historical integrity in fiction. I am in the beginning phases of a screenplay for a feature film about Deborah Sampson Gannett. I have read Young's biography, and (attempted), Mann's, as well as a few other fictionalized accounts. I really look forward to reading your book (which I should be receiving in the mail tomorrow), and discovering your interpretation of her story as a decedent as well as your personal experiences as a transgender scholar (if I may be so bold in mentioning).

    Thank you for sharing your process with us!