Monday, January 6, 2014

Monday's Musings: The Backstory of The Freedom Thief, Part Three

In other posts, I've talked about the barge trip my husband and I took down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, and the many historical Civil War sites we saw. When it came down to the rewriting of this story, I went back to the voluminous notes I had taken during that trip, and began citing the things we saw that I felt added to the historical accuracy of the story.

One of the most interesting...and smelly...cites we visited was a cellar in what had once been a safe house. Outside of the kitchen, you walked down a short path to a small, ramshackle building. It was one room, dim, dank, with a large table in the resting unsteadily on three legs...and crumbling shelves built along each of the four walls. This had been the larder. In the middle of the room was a rag rug, once bright in colors, now more 'rag' than rug. Under it were steps leading down a short ways to a cellar. This room was larger, and filled with old boxes and barrels now falling apart. You could barely breathe in this room, because of the odor of rotting fruits and vegetables which still lingered, long after the food had completely deteriorated.

Abolitionists had lived in the house with this outbuilding, and had sheltered runaway slaves here in this cellar. They had piled blankets and quilts in the very back, behind piles of boxes and barrels where they had stored the rotting foodstuffs. When slave hunters came to their home, they allowed them to go down to this cellar, but at that time, the horrific odor arising from the cellar had always thrown them off. They would start down the stairs, begin to smell the stench and refuse to go further.  The runaways remained safe.

This was one of the elements of my story which was true and historically accurate. I used several of these sites in my story, as well as the kinds of transportation used to move slaves from one safe house to another. Another interesting one was a huge farm wagon we had seen. It looked like any other wagon built to carry large barrels and crates, or perhaps loads of hay and straw, but it was different. It took several men to lift off what appeared to be the bottom of the wagon, only to reveal a false bottom where slaves could lie flat. When the real bottom was lifted back on, and then covered with whatever load the farmer was carrying, the slaves were safe from discovery. However, it was a tiny space, from false bottom to the real bottom, and no heavily built slave would be able to lie there. For my part, it was so claustophobic I can't imagine how humans who did fit there could lay as still as they would have to for such long periods of time, to journey from one safe house to another. This farm wagon I also used in my story.

The historical research I did in the library and on the Internet was far more time consuming, and not nearly as much fun as the barge trip. There was so much to read! I contacted historical societies in Kentucky, read newspaper accounts, found diaries and journals written by Abolitionists, Quakers, and the slaves themselves. Yes, many slaves did learn to read and write, some during the slavery, unbeknownst to their masters, and many after their years of servitude ended. It was fascinating reading, but many times the most exciting stories needed to be verified by other sources. I couldn't afford to take something as "true and historically accurate" just because it was great reading, only to find out later that it was mostly the writer's imagination...or just what that person had wanted so badly to really happen.

Thus, the research became tedious and time-consuming, over two years' worth of time and effort. It was a huge job, and I know that many times my husband and family wondered if I would ever emerge from behind a book or my computer, and become a wife, mother, and grandmother again.

In the end, it was worth it. The Freedom Thief was historically accurate, and such a much better story than Escape on The Train Without Tracks had been. One of the best things to come out of my research was the title of the final manuscript. In reading about Quakers, the beliefs they held and how they incorporated them into their daily lives, I came upon something that became my title. One of their beliefs, of course, was that about slavery, and how it consumed the very soul of the person. They maintained that slavery was more than "just" that of physical containment and hard work: it enslaved the element of freedom of thought,  heart, soul, and spirit, as well as the freedom of action. Freedom became the buzz word for me:  If Ben was going to help Josiah and his parents escape from slavery on his grandmother's plantation, he was, in fact, stealing them from the plantation.  Therefore, he was a thief.

Behold! The Freedom Thief was born!

In next week's post, my last on this backstory, I'll tell you a little about why I decided to begin this story the way I did, why I chose the setting, what my editors had to say and what I had to do to get their final approval for publication. I hope you'll stay tuned.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.