As someone who writes historical fiction myself, I wonder what it is about a particular historical period that attracts you?
I’ve been curious in thinking about this question if there’s a generally accepted definition of historical fiction and just how far in the past something has to be set to be considered historical. The broadest definition might only require that fictional characters be placed in actual events that have already taken place. With that much latitude, even a story like “Watching Oksana,” though it only dates from the 1990s, might be labeled historical fiction since it has the world events of the Soviets in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, Americans in Vietnam as elements of the story and, most prominently, the events of the 1994 Winter Olympics. But I think we generally consider fiction historical only if it’s set in a period that’s at a significant remove from the present. If all of Time Stamp were set around 1911 when its opening chapter takes place, I’d be more comfortable thinking of it as historical fiction. But the second chapter is set in 1997, which isn’t really that long ago.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s say it is historical fiction. The biggest draw for me in the story, aside from the characters and their immediate dilemmas, is what might be called its politics—the big societal themes of race and war and displacement, which are things of bedrock importance to me. And those really are the drumbeats of much of the twentieth century, particularly its first half, which is when much of the book takes place. It was a big century in terms of events—the world wars, the break up of empires, the great internal migration within the United States that sent so many African Americans to the North or the West. I think it’s compelling when big things are happening that end up shaping people’s lives. The Wheelocks in Time Stamp are very much in the thick of history—Will growing up in a place where lynchings occurred, his son lost in a war, he and his wife in conflict over political issues and his having a judgeship that means he has to make important decisions, potentially even ones about war and peace. Then Maddie, his daughter, documenting refugee camps around the world as a photographer.
Of course Suite Harmonic is absolutely historical fiction. Though I was actually more interested in the revolutionary period when I studied American history than I was in the nineteenth century—maybe because everything was so formative—Abraham Lincoln has always been the compelling historical figure for me. There’s something about his physical presence in pictures and the way he seems to wear the war in his features, and of course his amazing use of language. In some ways, it’s hard to picture the Civil War as the riveting event it became without Lincoln at its center. The stakes might have been the same, but I think it would have all felt different with a Millard Fillmore or James Buchanan as president.
So Lincoln is really the face of the period I was drawn to in writing Suite Harmonic, even though John Given is my main character. Lincoln represented the conflict and angst, the determination. Even the poetry. I was also interested in millennial, sometimes crazy America with its various utopian experiments, such as the ones that shaped New Harmony, Indiana, the book’s homefront, and very much attached to the idea of Ireland, where a number of my ancestors had lived until they crossed the ocean in terrible ships before and after the Potato Famine. There was also the always disturbing founding sin of the country—slavery—and the great sectional rivalries that led the country to war with itself and those immense battles that took place on American soil. For a person with any interest in historical forces it’s hard not to stop and stare at this particular time in history, particularly if you have family letters that take you directly to all of it.
I want to take a bit of a left turn here. I don’t think it’s possible for those of us who’ve grown up with the movies and their sweeping pictures of historical epochs not to think about historical fiction without the full panorama of its settings and clothing and music and décor. That’s also part of the attraction for a writer. I liked imagining the young Reeve in Time Stamp looking like a 30’s movie star or wearing a Mrs. Miniver dress in the 40’s. I like the Model T’s that show up when Will Wheelock is young. There’s a bit of a period feel to that. But in Suite Harmonic, I had the full scope of a past era to work with. There was the world of encampments to draw—tent cities and huts. There are men on the march, men in battle, men watching cities burn, people arriving in cities for the first time—Dublin and New York, and Memphis—all of them with their nineteenth century buildings and look.
The domestic world has its own color. In my mind, and often on the pages of Suite Harmonic, it is full of horses and chickens and dogs. Food is local. Women make homemade bread and preserves and men do back-breaking labor with scythes. When a man has a good suit it likely has sleeves that were set imperfectly by his wife. Women’s dresses are long, some elegant with lace trim and intricate undergarments, some plain and very worn. Music is always live, theater and parlor games regular small town fare. Everything is a challenge. Childbirth is fraught; illness is often life threatening.
There is something large to put on the page when the time is large in all these important ways, and that was certainly a big part of the attraction for me in writing about the Civil War period. But it’s just occurred to me what may have drawn me particularly to that time rather than to, say, ancient Egypt or Elizabethan London, which would have certainly had an exceptional fascination for their vividness. While some of my short stories like “Treasures” and “Things” can drift into the realm of fancy or dream, I like to create worlds that are real and accurate in detail. It’s a major thing I strive for as a writer and something that stirs me as a reader. I’m not absolutely positive about this, but I must have sensed early on that, if I dug deeply enough, there was a sufficient historical record to let me create a pretty good facsimile of Abraham Lincoln’s time. And of John Given’s. It was something I could actually do.