Maysville

Safe house for escaping slaves.
The Ohio River crossing where Jacob Pingrim escaped. 
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Writing and Reading Historical Novels

No novel took so long to write, or underwent so many rewrites as Maysville, which will be published soon by TCK Publishers. I first conceived it in 2000. Its initial version had eight (!) narrators. It was a kaleidoscope of history, parody, metafiction, and sincerity. It was crowded to say the least. Over time, I got those narrators down to three–mostly two–but that, a technical fix, was only part of the solution. I had to find the story in an 1833 novel about abolition, which began with me reading about the historical figure and onetime Vice President of the U.S., Henry Clay. I had wanted to write about him, and then the great historian Robert Remini went and wrote a masterful biography about him, stealing my thunder. The next idea was to base the main character on John Fee, who founded Berea College, a rabble rouser of the first order. Yet I found I could only write him as a cartoon character, lying across a saddle while getting made fun of. So, that was gone. Then, in the University of Kentucky library, I came across a court case that was famous in its day, both tragic and a bit of a soap opera. I knew I was on solid ground when I read about a good-looking mistress of a school for ladies, and a Methodist minister, in my hometown, Lexington Kentucky, who in 1833 got captured smuggling a slave across the Ohio River. The court case was a spectacle worthy of the O.J. Simpson trial. Betrayal! Perfidy! Gossip! Punishment! Flirtation! Double dealing! Even better, the warden got a crush on the lady and she ultimately ended up caring for his children. The slave in question, unnamed, was said to be highly intelligent, and I began to wonder what he might have thought about. I knew enough to get started, and I also didn’t know too much, so my imagination could work on it. When it comes to writing historical fiction, it’s critical to read and research as much as you can–then throw away whatever you don’t need. That’s right. For the most part, you are not there to serve history. History is there to serve you, an author writing a work of the imagination. You will give an interpretation, no doubt, but you are not a historian, and it’s not your job to put a political spin on events. You are tracking a series of individual destinies, and you live history through them, seeing it the way they would have seen it. My eventual protagonist, Dan Baskin, is a slave tracker who also helps with the slave trade on the side. According to him, he’s just doing his job. He doesn’t have a political opinion. However, the novel is about his moral awakening once he relies his role in the abuse and death of a slave. He has to seek redemption. So ultimately, through his life events, he becomes the conscience of the novel. The most critical reason for doing research is getting daily life right. What did people eat? How did they get around? What did their houses look like? I had to know that there were free black in Lexington, who has businesses in town. I had to know that slaves got hired out during the off-season. I had to know the landscape of Kentucky, which was easy for me, because I’ve been all over my home state. Yet I did make a trip to Maysville, to look at the headstone of old graves, and to walk along the bank of the Ohio River, at the places where slaves probably crossed. I had to know about the prison where the abolitionist were put, and a lot about government and politics as they worked out on a day to day basis. When you get the little things wrong, that’s when your reader began to mistrust you. It’s just as important to know about apple butter as it is about the institution of slavery.