Could you talk a little about the experience of doing such extensive research for Suite Harmonic? Did it have an impact on you as a writer beyond providing the information you needed?
—Janet Holmes, Boise, Idaho
I’ve actually been thinking about that experience quite a lot lately, Janet. That may partly be due to my seeing that long list of acknowledgments in print in Suite Harmonic and remembering what a big, multi-faceted project the research was. The most obvious way it had an impact on me as a writer was that it basically meant for three years I really didn’t write. That had a disorienting effect, even an unmooring one. I was totally consumed with a writing project, but it sometimes felt as if I would never get enough pieces in place to start the actual writing. I remember friends asking me how the book was going, as they knew I’d gotten a grant from the NEA to write it. Week after week, month after month, year after year I said I was still doing research. People sometimes looked dubious, and I wondered if they thought I was suffering from writer’s block. What in the heck could be taking so long?
It’s probably a measure of how committed I was to writing John Given’s story that I was willing to deal with the discomfort of not writing for as long as I did. I knew the story I wanted to tell. I also knew I wanted it to be factual in a way that was probably unique. That meant not only going over the letters from John Given again and again to try to understand them more deeply and to identify all the references but also running as many hints and scraps of information to ground as I could. It was a detective’s hunt with sometimes scanty clues.
I’ll give you a couple of examples from thousands. The last letter from John in the 25th Indiana is dated Decatur, Ala., July 29th 1864, which is before the 25th’s non-Veterans mustered out. The letters didn’t stop there, but it was almost eight months before the next letter in the collection, one with this heading: A.Q.M. 1st Brig.,3rd Div. 9th A.C., March 17, 1865. I knew that wasn’t a 25th billet, but I didn’t know much else including where exactly this new army corps was. It took a whole lot of hunting in many records, assisted by the information John was working for a Captain Batty that didn’t surface until a later letter with a different corps designation, before I determined that, on that particular St. Patrick’s Day, he had to have been with the Army of the Potomac in City Point, Virgina. To flesh out how he happened to be there—and I had no clues from family stories—meant digging in a lot of New Harmony records of the period (which gave me the find about the Workingmen’s Institute election and Achilles Fretageot’s trip east), tracking down records related to John Batty and his quartermaster service, and putting together the information I had about Ann Bradley from John’s letters and from her uncle’s will that, of course, was that much more elusive because it spelled his name Kannon, not Cannon.
Here’s another briefer example. The letters include a copy of an October 29, 1863 order for John to accompany Major John T. Walker north on sick leave. Subsequent letters refer to his time at home and the fact he was suffering from a cold. They also have quite a bit to say about Ann Bradley. In order to put together John’s furlough, I looked in the Fretageot diary and the local papers to find the broader outlines of what was going on at the time in New Harmony and also double-checked regimental records to verify who was where when. I’m sure there was research beyond that, but the whole point was to try to determine the likely nature of that trip to New Harmony twenty months after Fort Donelson.
Those examples might give you some of the flavor of what the research was like, though I think you also are asking a deeper question. Did doing the research and working with what I found change the way I wrote or my perceptions, or even instincts, as a writer? The first part of that question gets a definite yes. My imagination had to work in lockstep with my research findings. I couldn’t just picture a scene and write it off the top of my head. I had to keep anchoring it in a factual base. While I’ve always liked the idea that characters can slip right into the events of the day and feel like actual people, this went way beyond that. These characters were actual people. I had to discover the contours of the world I was writing about through research and then fit my characters to them. The strictures on me as a writer were greater. Fortunately, I liked the challenge. I also had to think of the most likely places to look for the material I needed. It was a big imaginative stretch in all directions, with the plodding under-bass of just keeping on with the search through more and more documents and more and more trips. It was a project that felt totally new to me in that way.
The second part of the question—about my perceptions or instincts as a writer and if they changed with the research—is harder to answer. I’m not entirely sure. The one thing I think I can say on this with some confidence is that I felt a real sense of obligation to the characters I was putting on the page because of all I’d learned about them. I wanted to tell a good story about them, but I felt it had to be a truer story than most, not only true at an emotional level but true in terms of the facts of their lives—and that even if the writer part of me had some doubts. I’ll give an illustration. I sometimes wondered if contemporary readers would be dubious about a degree of innocence I found in the 19th century New Harmony story and about John’s personal choices. After wrestling with the issue, I finally decided I would simply believe what I read in John’s letters and other sources, including contemporary records such as marriage and birth records and a Frank Bolton memoir that depicted New Harmony’s young people as basically well behaved. I guess it was an act of writing faith to let trust trump suspicion, but it felt right for the book and fit with my sense that strictures on the middle class were pretty firm in that 19th century town.
Also, my dad helped me. As a very Catholic man who chose going to the ship’s chapel instead of taking shore leave when he was in the navy in World War II, and as someone who’d read John’s letters, he seemed a man who might have some insight. When I pointed to a couple of passages in John’s letters and asked if he believed them, he just laughed and said, “Yes. It’s the priest in him.” That helped me, and it also meant I can now think this: do rest in peace, Dad, but part of this is on you.