Periodically over the past seven years my friends and family would ask, “how’s that book coming along? Are you still writing that violent battle scene? What happened to the mutilated slave? Is that runaway slave based on a real character? Did those brutal things really happen inside Elmira’s POW camp? Why is it taking so long to write your book?” I would nod my head, smile and reply, “Research. It takes a long time to write an honest and truthful historical novel.”
I lived near Elmira, New York for almost twenty years, fascinated by its historical participation in the Underground Railroad as well as its little-known involvement in a Confederate prisoner of war camp. It was almost eerie to drive by the tree-lined neighborhoods in the southern section of town and try to imagine what bravery, courage and horror had happened in those places one hundred and fifty years before. It seemed so peaceful and bucolic until I looked down at the partially caved-in sidewalk where an underground tunnel had once been carved inch by inch by desperate prisoners. A neighbor showed me a dirt hidey-hole in her basement where years before runaways had been hidden. I wondered what it felt like to remain curled in the hole waiting in terror for a slave catcher to find me. There were stories that wanted to be told.
I have been an avid reader all my life. Like many book lovers, it was through the printed word that I vicariously experienced violence, courage, poverty, hunger, and the loss of liberty. As a history buff, I read many fiction and non-fiction works that dissected every aspect of the Civil War. It is, in fact, the most written-about event in our country’s history. Intrigued, I discovered that only a small percentage of that massive body of work focused on the controversial issue of the POW camps, in particular the large one located in Elmira during the last year of the war. It was a puzzle. Several non-fiction books detailed the events in that area, but there was no researched, fictionalized account of the POW camp as viewed from the lens of real and imagined people. It was their history. I wanted to tell that fascinating story through the ordinary people whose everyday lives, beliefs, and emotions were interwoven with unbelievable suffering, disease, and commitment to impossible causes. It had to be a truthful narrative.
How does anyone write about characters who lived in the past? I have traveled through most of the U.S and Europe, and some parts of the Far East, Africa, and the Arctic. In each of those foreign places, I tried to imagine what life was like in the everyday lives of the people who had lived there years before, their preoccupations and beliefs, their work and play, their vastly different worlds. History for me is not just about battles, politics and stately buildings; history is everyday life. Once I decided to write a historical novel I spent a long time reading deeply into the period of 1800-65, fascinated by the patterns of their everyday lives. That historical era was an amazing chronicle of vast changes and disappearing verities. In particular, the standard of living for the rural citizens of Elmira, New York had begun to change as their canal and newly-constructed railroad system began to bring goods and services from urban areas. The citizens were in a dramatic transformation as the Civil War began. They were looking towards the future.