Someone asked me how I came to write a historical fiction book, what sparked my interest in the main character? I had been working on my book for eight months, so I kind of lost track of how it all started. At the same time, I was also asked to do a talk/reading/book-signing in February, and I spoke with my husband about the important points of my impending talk.
He said, “You should let them know how it all started. Why did you write it?”
So, I put my thinking cap on and tried to remember…
She was just a name in my family tree. Mary Ann Rodgers. My third great grandmother. I discovered that she lost her husband, Rice Carpenter, in the Civil War in 1862. How sad to lose the one you love, but hey, it’s war, people die. After he died, she remarried in 1864. I looked at the 1870 census and found she was married to William Jolly and was living with his children, her children, and three children they had together. It was a house-full! But at least their three children were proof they must have liked each other, right? That’s good. I was interested where William came from, so I traced him back and looked at his 1860 census. In 1860, he was living with his wife Harriet, their four children, and a woman named Nancy Carpenter who was 69 years of age.
Nancy Carpenter? The only Nancy Carpenter I know is Rice’s mother, whose maiden name was Nancy Rice. Why was Mary Ann’s mother-in-law living with her future husband?? Were they neighbors? Was she their cleaning lady? I clicked on Nancy Carpenter and saw her relationship to the “head of house” was listed as “mother-in-law.” She was William’s mother-in-law? What?? She was Harriet’s mother?
So, I went back and looked at Rice’s family, and sure enough, his sister Harriet was married to William. Rice died 31 Dec 1862 and Harriet died a month later on 30 Jan 1863. Their spouses, Mary Ann and William, brother-in-law/sister-in-law, married in 1864. Well of course they did. They had known each other for many years, hadn’t they?
The more I looked at the Rodgers and Carpenter families, the more I was amazed by the sheer number of family members they lost to war and typhoid. At the time of my research, I remember counting SEVENTEEN, but I’m sure there were many more I missed. I couldn’t wrap my head around that kind of heartache and quickly became impressed with Mary Ann’s strength. How would you react if you lost two or three family members this year? You would probably need Prozac. How would you respond if you lost a dozen? I wouldn’t even be able to get out of bed. Seventeen in one year? I can’t even fathom that.
Years, numbers, and names from census records are just that – years, numbers, and names – unless you put yourself in their shoes. Then they become tears, children, and heartaches. We all come from those strong women. We are the living proof of their strength. If the boat sank, the story would be over. But it didn’t, and we know that because we are here. We are the survivors. I dug deep down in my heart and soul and decided to tell her story, a story she would be proud of. I wanted her to know that she didn’t go through all of that in vain. I am here. I am her legacy. Her story has been told to make us all stronger. We are the products of strength, fortitude, and integrity, as well as tears, heartache, and pain. We are the children our grandmothers fought so hard for, and I want Mary Ann to be as proud of me as I am of her.
That’s where my book came from.