Thursday, October 31, 2013

Friday's Focus: How a Story is Born

Ever since I studied about the Civil War in school, I've been fascinated by it. As a kid, I couldn't understand how family members, friends, and neighbors could disagree over a difference in philosophy to the point of being willing to go to war and possibly kill each other. That fascination continued into my adult life, although by then I knew that differences in philosphies are usually the cause of war.

Somehow, I knew that one day, I would write a novel about the Civil War, or about some element that was pertinent to that era. The Freedom Thief is the result.

Slavery was a long lost concept by the time I was born, but unfortunately, prejudice against African Americans was still alive and well. My mother was a first Generation American of French born-and-raised parents, but she was born in Texas at a time when the Southern thoughts and traditions were still prominent, and so was the belief that, in its day, slavery was acceptable. She tried to instill those same thoughts and traditions in me, but it didn't work. Looking down upon African Americans, at that time still called "Negroes," and believing them to be inferior was one of the concepts she believed in, and until the day she died, she could never understand my way of thinking, nor could she accept it.

In 1998, my husband and I took a barge trip down the Ohio and up the Mississippi Rivers. It was an awesome trip, with all the gorgeous autumn reds, golds, and browns in full bloom along the river. We went through some of the biggest locks I've ever seen, and at times, had to tarry along the river's edge, waiting for one or more working barges, loaded down with merchandice, to enter and finally exit the same lock we needed to go through. We were on River Time, like no other time in the world, and clocks and watches were of no use to anyone.

Our barge traveled slowly down the Ohio, before turning into the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi. It was exciting to see how the beautiful blue of the Ohio fought to maintain its color for almost a mile, before giving in to the powerful muddy brown waters of the Mississippi.

Along the way, we nosed our way slowly and carefully into tiny inlets full of water flowers, heavy vines trailing out into the river, and large tree roots hidden beneath the shallow water. These inlets allowed us to visit some of the oldest and most historic towns in the US, most of which were small and related in some way to the Civil War.

Murietta, Ohio, is a small town that played an important part in the Civil War as it was a major station in the Underground Railroad. Here many people, Abolitionists and Quakers, offered their homes with hidden attic or basement rooms as "safe houses" for escaping slaves. We visited a few of those homes, and in one, the basement was pretty much as it was in 1862...full of boxes and barrels that still contained the stench of rotting fruits and vegetables the owners had left there. They hid the slaves in the very back of the basement room, and the vicious smell of rotten food kept the slave hunters from going any deeper into the basement. The slaves who were hidden there over many years were never found by the slave hunters. When we were in Murietta, it was still a small town, but charming and friendly with unique shops with names like Mad Hen, Needful Things, Two Peas in a Pod, Turquoise Spirit, and Twisted Sister.

This basement, and the rotten food stored there, plays an important part in The Freedom Thief.

All of these small towns had museums with everything from spent shells from cannons and muskets, to the weapons themselves, to still-bloodied and torn uniforms of both Confederate and Union soldiers. There were dirty and wore diaries and journals, printed in faltering writing and English, all hand-written by slaves who were either still enslaved or who had been freed, either by escaping or by the end of the War. It was fascinating reading.

We visited the remnants of slave dwellings on the property of historical mansions, some still occupied, and often these occupants were descendents of the original plantation owners. We went through the narrow hallways and small rooms of forts, even climbing up to the parapets of one that had a magnificent view of the Ohio River. We saw all kinds of farm wagons with false bottoms that had been used to transport runaway slaves. I sat in one of the 'death coaches' that had carried many slaves hidden in coffins inside their glass interiors. We saw tiny hiding places in ramshackle barns, and walked up shaky staircases to hidden attic rooms. We gently fingered the terrible instruments, such as the iron collar and the Cat o'Nine Tails whip, used to punish disobedient slaves, or those who had escaped and been found by hunters and returned to their 'owners.' There were times when I was sure I could hear the screams of those being beaten.

When we returned to our ranch, I told my husband that I knew what I was going to write. That barge trip had turned into the perfect gem of an idea for a story about the Civil War. But, as so often happens to us all, life got in the way of my writing, and it was not until 2006 that I began to write for publication. I began a story, titled Escape on the Train Without Tracks, for my last assignment of my first course at the Institute of Children's Literature. It was a great story, but it didn't come to fruition until 2012, and over the years, it changed greatly. Today, only the characters I created for that first novel are left, and The Freedom Thief is vastly different from Escape...

The single most important aspect of Thief is that almost every single thing and place we saw and visited on that barge trip so many years ago is incorporated into the novel. Drifting down the Ohio and up the Mississippi Rivers on a funny little barge is not only the greatest vacation my husband and I ever took, but it is also perhaps the most important trip I ever took.

The Freedom Thief will be launched on Friday, November 8, 2013. I hope you will read and enjoy the dangerous journey Ben McKenna took when he arranged the escape of three slaves: his best friend and the boys's parents. The link to buy the book on or after Nov. 8 is:

Until next time,
That's a wrap.