I work in an archival respository and utilize primary sources on a daily basis. You, as a writer of historical fiction, also use primary sources but in different ways than I do. How do you go about deciding when and how to take “aristic license” with the historical record?
—Susan Welsch, Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina
I’d like to quote from the end of the Suite Harmonic acknowledgments to begin the answer to this question, Susie. Here it is: “The vast majority of the characters, places and events in Suite Harmonic are real, not fictional, but the subtitle of the book—A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery—is as true as anything it contains. Starting with John Given’s handwritten letters, my first goal was to reconstruct his world with as much fidelity as possible. My second and equal goal was to internalize the facts of that world in order to make the shimmering story implicit in them emerge with all the force of imagined life.”
From the very outset of my work on Suite Harmonic, which as I’ve said elsewhere, is really the only work of mine I would classify as historical fiction, I was committed to sticking to the facts of John Given’s story as reported in his letters. Though mostly written by John to his sister Kate in the years of the Civil War and starting with a letter dated Georgetown, Missouri, October 11, 1861, the whole cache of letters includes several to his parents, one likely from his father, a couple from Harry Beal and several to Harry (two during the war and the rest after). one from Kate, one from Caroline Thrailkill, several to Mollie Given and one from a McAuliffe cousin in Chicago in 1898. This correspondence contains a lot of material that, like any letters—particularly a soldier’s—is sometimes scant on orienting information. It meant quite a challenge in piecing together the itinerary of John’s war and life and, in effect, the letters were my starting point to a particular scavenger hunt in which the letters offered the clues and the whole eastern part of the country, plus Ireland, were the search area.
I had concerns from the start about how I would shape the book. I knew I wanted somehow to chronicle John’s whole life, with the war at its center, but with the background of his Irish boyhood and a sense of how his life unfolded given the strands of immigration, war, and the unique character of New Harmony. I think I suspected what a challenge it was going to be when I had an early interview with an archivist—a grumpy one—who began with the question, “Why are you wasting my time?” When I told her I was doing research for a novel that would imaginatively explore those three strands, she told me I should just edit the letters and be done with it. I also had people in the publishing world say I should forget my fidelity to John’s actual experience and focus on writing a slimmed down version of his story with a plot thrust that took generous liberties in terms of what actually happened.
These doubters actually hardened my resolve to write the book I wanted to write. However, I did have their voices in the back of my mind, and they reinforced my sense I had to do everything I could to take advantage of the opportunities the letters offered for story. It also meant that each time I returned to a manuscript draft to do a revision, I approached it thinking of the story I was telling, of its themes and of the development of the characters and their relationships. I also wanted to tell the story of the war from the perspective of the western army, who were Grant’s troops, and later Sherman’s. In the end, I simply let the chronology of John’s life shape the book’s structure and, since the war was its defining element, I gave it the bulk of the pages and made certain it echoed through to the end of the book.
I think I can divide my research into two focuses—the one on what John Given’s letters contained, the other on what gave them their fuller context. I really took a microscope to the letters, trying to grasp the network of John’s families and friends and the officers and enlisted men he served with. Most of the names and events in the stories became a project for me as I attempted to discover who the people were and what their role was in the larger story. For instance, for a minor character like Felix Edmonds (and dozens like him), I checked company and pension records, census forms, and what I could find of marriage or death certificates, perhaps wills or deeds. There are many resources on line, but much of this was work I needed to do in archives and libraries and other repositories, or in some instances, with the help of researchers I hired for things like pursuing some files I had been unable to find on trips to the National Archives.
One of the biggest challenges was trying to track John’s family, both in America and in Ireland. With much searching, I was able to make contact with many of his direct descendants, descendants of three of his siblings, and a wider net of extended family in America, and also in Ireland, Canada, and Wales. It was always like putting a puzzle together, and, I suppose, not that different from the research I did as a history grad student when I was trying to trace the connection between political and religious affiliations in the Revolutionary period. That, too, was work with a lot of local sources, particularly newspapers. But for Suite Harmonic, I also did extensive searching in state and national records. And I read many secondary sources to help me get a sense of things like the famine in Ireland and the conditions in 19th century Dublin.
I couldn’t find the answer to every single question I had. The one that plagued me most concerned John’s education. The family lore was that he studied for the priesthood at Trinity College in Dublin. But, of course, Trinity isn’t and wasn’t a Catholic college, and not a seminary. When I found descendants of the Mulherns, they told me John’s cousin had studied at the Training College in Dublin, and it occurred to me that John, who had a classical education, might have studied there, too, and that an Irish accent (or a little teasing blarney) might have made Trinity and Training indistinguishable. I intended to drop the idea of Trinity altogether until I spoke with the archivist of the diocese of Raphoe. He gave me an in depth account of how boys and young men were trained for the priesthood and where. Then he mulled over the family story and told me, to my surprise, that I shouldn’t discount it, that it was entirely possible one of the tutors at Trinity might have taken on a bright Catholic lad, allowing him to read with him. He also told me many of the people and schools I should contact for school rolls. It was a long pursuit, and there was never a moment when John’s name appeared in a school or seminary record, so this ended up being a particular area in which I was forced to take “artistic license.” I used the facts that I had in order to speculate on what his schooling was, to put something together that would have been plausible under the circumstances and, ultimately, to add dimension to his story.
When it came to writing battle scenes, I tried to make everything as accurate as I possibly could. I sat with print-outs from the Official Records, which are available on CD, something I discovered after months of working off and on with the actual volumes. I had reports spread out all over my desk and on my lap and had Shelby Foote’s history of the war near at hand, and a whole library of other books, and spent a lot of midnights trying to figure out exactly who did what when. But, of course, I was writing scenes, and a lot of that meant interpolating from the facts I had and trying to imagine what the experience of those facts meant to the soldiers, particularly John. The same thing was true for the scenes with family and friends. The letters gave me reports of events, but I had to dramatize them on the page, which is why Suite Harmonic is truly a novel even though I sometimes felt I should give it a new category that indicated its closeness to local facts, something like docufiction. I settled on “novel of rediscovery.”
In writing scenes, my guide was always what the letters reported, what information I’d gathered to flesh them out, and my own sense of the characters and their relationships. I focused on keeping my characters in character. It was a challenge, though a useful template, working with the grid of facts I had or discovered, but it was great fun when fact and imagination fit together. In going back to the letters, which I did repeatedly as if they were some sort of sacred if obscure text, I sometimes found what I’d just written based on one letter, actually explained what I encountered in the next. I felt triumphant in those moments: Ah, John wrote that in his letter because of what just happened in that scene I wrote with Ann Bradley!
So of course I took liberties, and many of them. In the end, I wasn’t writing a biography and didn’t intend to, but writing a novel. But it’s a particular kind of novel, and perhaps a unique one in its verisimilitude. If you’re reading about whether somebody was wounded in a battle, lost in a steamboat explosion, had a child, moved somewhere, or did something as simple as going berry picking, you can pretty much take it to the bank.