Suite Harmonic-Q&A

All Things in Moderation

From lmsinca: Considering all the research and sources you used, how long would you say you actually worked writing the book? Did you do all the research first and then write or were they concurrent in some way?

From Emily: I spent about four years doing nothing but research before I really started writing. That was tough for me because I missed writing and friends wondered what was taking me so long. There was just so much to hunt for and learn. Once I began to write I still had to search for more information. That was particularly true when I was working on the battle scenes. Though there are just two big battles, Ft. Donelson and Shiloh, that the reader goes through from start to finish with John, every skirmish or siege or part of a battle meant poring over both primary and secondary sources. I sometimes wrote with print-outs from my CD of the Original Records of the War of the Rebellion (OR) on my desk and a giant book of reprinted Harper’s Weeklys on my lap. I wanted to get the troop movements correct–what unit was where, what officer was in charge. I wanted the war history to be good history and that meant constantly referring to sources while I made the particular experience John’s.

All in all, I probably spent seven plus years on the book. Some of that involved later revisions after my first completed draft, though I always revise a lot as I go.

From lmsinca: I thought it was interesting how the Irish immigrants were sort of thrown into this war with not much of a stake in it, other than proving their loyalty to their new home. I kept wondering if they had settled in GA, would they have fought for the South.

From Emily: I’ve never looked at Southern infantry lists, but I’m sure they must have had lots of Irish names. I think our allegiances are usually shaped by what’s out the front door. When and if they change, it’s a major psychological event.

From okiegirl: You may or may not remember [from an earlier discussion] that I too of am Irish heritage, but much different in where they settled. My father’s family seems to have settled in Kansas, although my father was raised in Chicago. Their experiences, such as I have gleened so far, seem different from yours although from roughly the same time period.

From Emily: I do remember the Irish connection. I think we concluded some of the difference was due to small town vs. city.

From okiegirl: What I may not have known at the time is that most of them settled in rural KS, not the big city. But the stories still seem different. If not, as we both thought before, a difference between small town vs. city, then what?

From Emily: As far as the differences between Kansas and New Harmony, New Harmony would likely have been more settled. And it was unique as small towns go because of its history.

From Michigoose: Is Feiba Peveli a real game? I spent the better part of a weekend a couple of months ago trying to deduce the rules behind it and couldn’t figure it out at all (very frustrating! ).

From Emily: Yikes! But here we go on Feiba Peveli. I’ve been hunting around in notebook indexes to try to see what my sources were for Stedman Whitwell’s latitude and longitude scheme and not having much luck. But I found a link that will give you some basic information, though I find some of it pretty incomprehensible: The main source listed is William E. Wilson’s The Angel and the Serpent. I’ve just looked at the Stedman Whitwell pages in that book and it mostly just gives the vowel substitutes and consonant substitutes, which are the same as in the link. But for someone who wants to track this down, the full Whitwell plan is in The New Harmony Gazette for April 12, 1826, which is probably available in archives in Indianapolis and certainly at the WMI in New Harmony.

For people who are wondering what this is all about, Feiba Peveli was one of the communities Robert Owen set up during the 1820s after he’d purchased New Harmony from the pietist Rappites. It was an utterly confused time, and communities keep forming and disbanding and splitting off. The name Feiba Peveli came from Stedman Whitwell, a Brit who was briefly in New Harmony. Apparently he thought it was confusing to have so many towns named the same thing (Washington, Springfield), and thought it would be sensible to create names based on latitude and longitude so that people who understood the rules of his scheme could read a place name and easily find a town on a map.

From MarkinAustin: The New Harmony background is what I am guessing made it possible to find so many preserved documents, right?

From Emily: That’s an interesting question. I spent a lot of time looking at archival documents in New Harmony and many of them helped shape the story. If the town had been less historic, many of those documents wouldn’t have existed or would not have been preserved. But I did research in all sorts of places. Certainly the battle scenes were informed by the wonderful reports I found in the OR. And I found both public and private documents in all sorts of archives and libraries and also in genealogical sources on line.

My main source was the letters, most of them written to Kate by John. They were preserved by Kate and then ended up with my grandmother, John’s youngest child, and eventually came to me. I spent years trying to track their various references. I actually struggled for a long time with how to structure the book. My goal was to make it as factually accurate as possible–a real excavation of the past–and I finally decided to let the letters themselves, including the few from after the war, create the narrative, while always making the war the central experience–from the intense moments of battle to the lingering effect of injuries, to the memories that in many ways shaped lifetimes.

From lmsinca: So John was your great grandfather. I love that all of those letters were preserved and handed down for someone to write the story. I have a scrapbook from my grandfather from WWI, a diary of my father’s from WWII and love letters from my father-in-law to his soon to be wife also from WWII. Perhaps someday a writer will come along in our family and do something with them.

From Emily: It could happen that your family stories trigger the interest of a family writer. I was in high school when my uncle returned John’s letters to my mother. My dad wouldn’t let me read them then, probably because of John’s letter to Harry Beal and his vivid description of the events with the women who came to Camp Stoneman late in the war. I always thought John’s story was remarkable because of the nexus of immigration, war, and New Harmony’s connection to America’s utopian tradition. It elevated it above family stories for me, which is one of the reasons I don’t advertise it upfront that John is my great-grandfather.

From Michigoose: Minor rant here: Kindle makes it incredibly difficult to go back and find the specific place where I made notes to mention to you/ask you about! I’m sure it’s because I’ve never bothered to read the instructions, but at least with a regular book you can dogear the page or something! /endrant

From Scott: If you have the original Kindle (ie not Kindle Fire) all you have to do is open the book, then press “menu” and choose “View my notes and marks”.

From Michigoose: Have you ever walked any of the Civil War battlefields? During my Officer Advanced Course we studied the Battle of Chickamauga (second highest death toll in the War and most significant Union Army defeat in the western theater) and went to the battlefield to walk it–absolutely an eye-opener for all of us 20th century officers! They packed thousands of men shoulder-to-shoulder and front-to-back on what would now be considered a narrow one-lane road. I get the impression that you either have or have found graphic descriptions of what they looked like, because that was the first thing that came to mind when you were writing about Major Foster’s letter to his father about the retreat at Shiloh, and how he felt it was better to expose his men to the Confederate crossfire rather than risk being trampled to death by their own Army.

From Emily: I have gone to several battlefields and tried to conjure the armies in my mind. The Major Foster letter was real and appeared in the Evansville paper, just as the book says. It is amazing, that Napoleonic-style warfare. The incident when a shell cuts off several marching legs at the same point comes from an actual battle report, though possibly not the one I used it for. Certainly, brave as the 25th was and tactically brilliant as Col. Morgan was, the blockhouse defense by their remnants against Van Dorn’s 10,000 men could hardly have succeeded without those mass formations. I was fascinated as I made my way through the war to see the changes in warfare–Sherman’s raze and burn tactics, of course, but even more, the change to siege warfare.

From Mark: The changes in warfare could be the subplot of another novel. The changes were fantastic. The Spencer, Henry, and Sharps carbines enhanced minie ball long guns for the Union. The Insurrectionists had Maynards. No one else in the world had carbine equipped infantry and cavalry by 1866. The Union had steelclad ships before the end of the war. By the end of the War, the Gatling was a terrifying field weapon, found nowhere but in the Union Army. The railroads, telegraph, and trench warfare, as well as slash-and-burn total war, were precursors to WW I. The Civil War left the USA exhausted, and unknown to itself, militarily the strongest nation on the planet. Grant knew that Europe feared us, however, and his FP initiatives as POTUS reflected that. It seems as if no one gave that much thought again until TR.

From Emily: Not only did the instruments of warfare change during the Civil War but there were real differences at the time it was fought in terms of what kinds of weapons were available to different units. This is not something I made a study of except as it pertained to a particular action, but in a place like New Harmony, someone like Robert Dale Owen could try to get more sophisticated weaponry for the local units. In the Achilles Fretageot journals I mentioned, at one point Achilles says that Richard Owen, who was a colonel of one regiment, had heard from RDO, his brother, that he’d secured revolvers and sabers. In another entry, Achilles says RDO had been appointed (probably by the governor of Indiana), to go to England for the purpose of getting arms. A lot was done at the state and local levels in terms of equipping troops. It meant for a real discrepancy.

From markinaustin: [In terms of] uneven matériel in the units, I know that was a real big problem [and still is]. When the NG [National Guard] units were called up for duty in Iraq the DOD did not supply them with body armor, b/c the NG was not in the DOD’s budget for body armor. So families bought body armor for their sons and brothers, and probably for daughters and sisters, as well, although I am guessing as to the latter and have knowledge as to the former.

From okiegirl: I was enthralled with the descriptions of the conventions and mores of the time. Where did the research for those types of things originate?

From Emily:
That’s a very big question about where the knowledge of conventions and mores came from. I’ll emphasize again that the group of family letters was my main source for everything (and I should add here that letting them dictate much of the book’s structure and chronology, meant that at least the story of the war years was very much like a picaresque novel). I made a real study of them, returning to them over and over again and trying to internalize a sense of the different people who became characters in the book and the sorts of things they did and the expectations of their society. I pretty much had John’s voice implanted in my head.

But there were many other sources that helped me construct the world and I had my ear out for everything. There’s a journal in the Workingmen’s Institute in New Harmony (WMI) written by Frank Bolton whose family dated to the Owenite period in New Harmony. He talks about his boyhood and about the kinds of interactions in the community over several decades. I learned from that. I also read a great deal in the journals of Achilles Fretageot written during the war. I was always on the lookout for the mention of a Given in those journals, and it rarely happened because their social milieus were different. Essentially, their absence gave me a big clue about the New Harmony class structure. Also, when I was first looking into the history of the Minerva Society, which was very early in my research, I hunted for Kate’s name. I couldn’t find it and the woman who had shown me the records said–embarrassed–that an Irish girl wouldn’t have been a member. I knew from the census that both Kate and Margaret Mulhern were serving girls in the homes of two of the town’s leading families, and John tells Kate in a letter that he doesn’t want his sisters going where they’re not welcome. All these things suggested tensions I could use for dramatic purposes and for depicting life as it was.

As Mark noted in a question, much about New Harmony is well documented. Robert Owen has been pretty widely studied and the social and intellectual interests he passed on to his children shaped the town’s character in many ways. (I’m reaching far beyond conventions and mores here, but we can thank the influence of New Harmony for the U.S. Geological Survey and the Owen sons for the plan and very existence of the Smithsonian.) I found the list of things that Owen’s daughter taught in her school in a newspaper ad, the same way I learned what was sold by Absolem Boren in his store after the war. I believe I learned about the length of mourning periods from an online genealogy newsletter. A woman at the National Library in Dublin told me about the Irish naming practice–first son after the paternal grandfather, first daughter after the maternal grandmother, second son after the maternal grandfather, second daughter after the paternal grandmother. I was able to deduce what happened to some unmarried girls in Ireland through discovering in a cemetery database that James Mulhern of Donegal owned plots in Londonderry where one of his sisters and her daughter, both with the last name Mulhern, were buried. These are just a few examples of sources. I could probably go on for the length of the book, but I think you can get the idea that everything was a source, every new fact something to build on.

From markinaustin: The eventual love stories, after the War are truly sweet.Did the proposal picnic and the prep that went into it during planting season come from the letters, or an oral tradition, or did you invent it?

From Emily: I have info from the wedding certificate, letters between John and Harry that, among other things, indicate Harry’s involvement with other girls after the war, Harry’s service records and various other documents including one that puts him in Grayville as a miller. I also have a friend in New Harmony who planted a labyrinth for his girlfriend, and I encountered a pretty remarkable sculpture woven of twigs in New Harmony. Lots of things went together to suggest the scene. And then just writing a scene can reveal what happens based on its internal logic, what you know of the characters.

From Michigoose: Two more  questions.  Did you ever finish/write Kate’s poem that she didn’t write for the Minerva Society? And is Ann Bradley a real person, or did you decide to make her a compilation of different women in New Harmony and present her as Scarlett O’Hara’s northern counterpart? She has that kind of “fiddle dee dee” kind of personality.

From Emily: All I ever wrote of that poem Kate started is the couplet that appears in the book. She was always going to write an essay to go along with the real Minerva ones such as Lydia Hinckley’s “Appeal to Kentucky.” I just wanted that small bit of poem to illustrate her mother’s admonition about using the Valentine heart in such a bloody fashion. And, yes, Ann Bradley was real and no composite as with the prez’s old girlfriends. I tracked her over years through various censuses and other documents such as Francis Cannon’s will. My son has the John and Kate letters now and he read them after he finished the book because he was curious about correlations. He called me and said, “Mom, even those friggin’ Valentines are there. And Ann Bradley is everywhere.” I was amused at that and at Mark’s reaction to Ann–really wishing John would get over her already. I also sympathized. As Kate wonders to herself at one point, will there always be an Ann Bradley?

From Michigoose:
Thank you for writing such a wonderful and engaging book, Emily, and for taking the time to discuss it with us!

From lmsinca: Thanks from all of us, Emily. I can’t wait to read another one of your books. You’re a fantastic writer and I both learned a lot and enjoyed it immensely, which is often rare.

From Emily: Thanks a bunch. I really enjoyed the discussion. And here’s good news–all the other books are much shorter!

From okiegirl: I don’t know that “all the other books are much shorter” is actually good news. :-)

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