Dear Historical Fiction Writer: How Much Is True?
That is the question historical fiction writers are most often asked. It takes a huge amount of time researching the characters and documents for a historical fiction novel. The obvious items are names, dates, and places, but the not-so-obvious are social questions. What was going on in the world at the time? What about the town? The family? Fashion? Industrial? Politics? Agriculture? Relationships? Economic status? These specifics are very time consuming. There are too many questions to speak of generally, so let’s narrow it down a single person and see if we can make sense out of the documents of one person’s life.
In the historical fiction novel I am currently working on, “An Orphan’s Heart,” we know the following about Ellen Rodgers. She was born in 1853 in Mississippi. In 1860, the census shows her living with her parents and four siblings in Mississippi. Her parents died within a month of each other in 1862. Ellen was nine. The 1870 census shows her living with her aunt Elizabeth Rodgers Graham in Alabama. The 1880 census shows her back in Mississippi, living with her two sisters. There is no 1890 census because it was burned in a fire, but I did find a relative who sent me a copy of Ellen’s 1890 obituary. Ellen died at the age of 37 in Texas.
There are a few social ideas we can deduce about the above facts:
1) Children at that time in history would usually be left in the custody of the eldest male family member. Ellen’s parents died in the middle of the Civil War. Since Ellen ended up with her aunt, we can assume any male who would have taken custody, if there was one, was probably off fighting in the war.
2) Travel to Alabama and back to Mississippi would have probably been by wagon. Her locations were 110 miles apart. Ox-pulled wagons traveled 10-15 miles per day, making the trip 7-10 days. Horses moved faster, perhaps 6-8 days. Indians were not too apt to steal horses in the area like they were out West, and there was a river to travel along to have a fresh water supply, so it they had them, they probably used horses.
3) The most logical way to get to Texas in the 1880s would have been by train. Travelling the route from Meridian, MS to Mobile, AL, to New Orleans, LA, to Houston, TX, and then up to Runnels County would have been probable through a combination of three lines; The Mobile and Ohio RR, the Louisiana Western RR, and the Houston and Texas Central RR, and would have taken about five days. It would have involved changing trains, staying over in towns, layovers for supper, and sleeper cars.
There are more than a few personal questions:
How did Ellen end up in Alabama in 1870? Why did she go back to Mississippi? Why and when did she go to Texas? Why did she die so young?
Those answers lie in other members of the family.
Probate documents show Ellen was indeed in the custody of her uncle Hays Rodgers. He returned home at the end of the war in 1865. About 1866/67, he moved his family to Alabama. His sister, Elizabeth, was already living there. That’s how Ellen ended up in Alabama. She arrived at about age 13 or 14 and was 17 in the 1870 census. But why did she go back to Mississippi?
That answer lies in Aunt Elizabeth’s records. Elizabeth died in 1875. There is it. Ellen has now lost another adult she probably considered a mother. Sometime before 1880, she went back to Mississippi. Perhaps her uncle escorted her, perhaps she traveled alone.
Also, back in 1866/67, her two brothers went on a wagon train to Runnels County, TX with their maternal uncles. That is Ellen’s connection to Texas. But, when did she go and why? And, how did she die there at the young age of 37?
The answer to that lies in Mr. Sam Meek and Pleasant Hill Cemetery in Bell County, TX.
Ellen’s brother was married to Sam’s sister. When Ellen went out there, either to visit or to live, she naturally met Sam. They were married in 1885 (making her arrival there about 1884ish). Ellen and Sam had twin boys who were stillborn in 1887. They had a daughter in 1888. And they had a second daughter on August 5, 1890. Ellen died eight days later on August 13, 1890. Since there were no medicines to fight off infection in those days, she more than likely died of complications or infection following childbirth. Sadly, the baby died a couple months later in October. They are all buried at Pleasant Hill Cemetery.
Now, we can weave together the life of this young woman. Here’s where the “fiction” part comes in. What kind of personality would you give Ellen? Would she be strong? Shy? Bold? Reserved? As the author, it would be your choice. How about her aunt Elizabeth? What kind of house did they live in? How about her relationship with Sam? You can examine his family and come to your own conclusion about what kind of man he was. You can look at the historical time, locations, house styles, economy, but the final call is yours. Who stood vigil at Ellen’s death bed? What happened to the surviving daughter? That question requires more research. Would you research further or would you end the story with Ellen’s death? Is there a moral to the story, something to be learned, a reason for her short life?
So, there you have it. How much is true? All of it…and none of it. Was she strong? Shy? Bold? No one will ever know. Does she have an interesting story? Yes. Is it worth giving her a personality to tell her story? Yes.