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Tea Party Winners: Carla Gade's winner is Becky Dempsey, Andrea Boeshaar's winner Caryl Kane, Gina Welborn's winner Jasmine A., Carrie Fancett Pagels' winners book copy -- Lynda Edwards, teacup and saucer -- Wendy Shoults

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Curious Life of Historical Fiction Writers

We have a plethora of information on Colonial Quills dealing with historical facts, people, places, and even recipes.  As a Colonial Quills reader, are you interested in the curious life of historical fiction writers? How do we come up with our stories, scenes, and characters? What sparks inspiration?

One afternoon, while working on a manuscript at my computer, I happened to glance out the window to see a young couple walking along the sidewalk. The sidewalk is beyond my back garden, behind a row of evergreens.

I watched him sweep her into his arms in one quick movement. She cradled her head against his forearm. Then he whirled around with her down the sidewalk. He was smiling and she was laughing. I thought, 'They must be so in love'. As a writer, these are the things I love to see, things I notice. These are the kinds of things that I write down, and will put in a novel. It isn't often you see this kind of affection out on a public sidewalk. . .that old fashioned courting kind of affection.

It got me thinking, how writers are observant people. We pick up on a conversation while in line at the grocery store, or what a client next to us at the hair salon is saying. We watch the body language of people. We observe the depressed housewife as she reaches for apples in the produce section, and the anxious parent waiting outside the principle's office.

How about the homeless man sitting outside the Rescue Mission? How about the elderly couple taking a walk in the park, holding hands? How about the woman in the church pew praying, or the lonely teenager sitting outside on the front stoup?

I observe places much the same way. There's the old plantation house atop a hill, now surrounded by roads, and an assisted living home . Every time I see Prospect Hall, I wonder about the people that built it. Who were the people that lived in it down the years, and what are their stories? 

Then there are the rows of old brick townhouses in the historic district, the house that always has the blinds closed, the curtains drawn across the windows. The farm with horses in one meadow and black Angus in the other. The abandoned stone house and log cabin way out in the countryside.


Historical fiction writers are captivated by people and places, not just historical facts. The large plantation house above is Prospect Hall in Frederick, Maryland. It was built around 1787 and completed by 1810 on the highest hill outside the city called Red Hill. So much of its history has been lost in time, but we do know George Washington spent time there. 

Prospect Hall is about 1 mile from my home. Whenever I drive past it, I envision horses and carriages moving up the lane. There is a stone wall surrounding the front built by slaves. Parts of it are crumbling. The property became a Catholic school for many years, and is up for sale. Thankfully it is on the historic registry. However, it is sad to see the paint is peeling on the house, and is beginning to look neglected. But what a house of historical richness it is. If only the walls could talk!

Rita Gerlach lives with her husband and two sons in a historical town nestled along the Catoctin Mountains, amid Civil War battlefields and Revolutionary War outposts in central Maryland. Her historical romance 'Surrender the Wind' gained four and five star reviews. In February, Abingdon Press released the first book in Rita's historical drama series, 'Daughters of the Potomac' entitled 'Before the Scarlet Dawn' which won high praise from USA Today Book Reviews. Two more books in the trilogy are forthcoming. 
Her website:
http://ritagerlach.blogspot.com/

21 comments:

  1. I agree! What a shame to see historical building come to ruin! They should be preservedd and honored.

    The life of a writer is unique. Being inspired by different things, watching shows and movies differently, pondering past events and things, and wondering how it can/will fit into your own story.

    Thanks!

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    1. Not sure why the time for this comment says 9:46 pm. It is 11:48 now. Strange.

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  2. I agree, the strangest things will spark ideas and inspiration in my mind. A stone wall, an old run down shed, a dormer in a historic home, an older woman walking contentedly down the aisle of Wal Mart - I wonder what story lies beneath each one. Old newspaper are amazing for inspiration and ideas, as are magazines and pictures. So many stories to tell!

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  3. Lovely post, Rita, and spot-on for the mind of a writer! You are surrounded by so much history. That in itself can spark the vivid imagination. But it truly is the lives and expressions of those around us that feed the hearts of our characters. Thanks for a great post!

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  4. I see so many old barns falling down around where we live. The cost to repair them is more than most people can afford. But I hate to see them gone. They are such a part of our history.

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  5. After I wrote this post, I read an article in my local newspaper about a manor house, Park Hall, being torn down by the landowner without permits. The land was surveyed in 1750 and the house built around 1870. The demolition was halted, but no news on what is to happen to this beautiful brick manor house. Frederick County, MD where I live is dedicated to the preservation of its historical places. A drive through the historic downtown proves it, with homes and churches dating back to the 1740s.

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  6. I'm jealous, Rita. Living out here on the West Coast, we don't have many historical buildings and if we do, they date from the early 20th century. Of course there are the Spanish Missions, which are pretty interesting. Most of the time I have to use my imagination for my stories! Or pictures I find.. or memories from the few times I've traveled out east on research trips. Thanks for the great article!

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    1. You will just have to come back here and conduct some research and have Paul as your driver. It was great fun touring Fort McHenry with you.

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    2. I'd written much the same thing in my comment before reading yours, MaryLu. Sigh. I could kick myself for not being as interested in the 18th century during the 20-odd years I was growing up in Maryland as I am now living in Oregon.

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  8. What a nice post, Rita. Being a 60's child, sometimes when I enter a historic place, I say that I feel "vibes"; almost like a chill as a sense of the past flows over me. I contribute my love of history to my seventh grade South Carolina History teacher who brought the past alive for me and made me realize that learning history was not just about memorizing names,dates, places,and events. I'll never forget her telling us about General Francis Marion, who, because he was unmarried at the time of the Revolutionary War, decided to name his cousin Gabriel his heir. Gabriel was captured by the British, and when they found out who he was, they executed him. It nearly broke General Marion's heart. That story touched my 13-year-old heart and inspired a passion to know more about the past.

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    1. Oh, Susan, that is a heart-wrenching story. I remember hearing about it and that he was called 'The Swamp Fox'.

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  9. On a side note: I am blessed to live in an area rife with history. Down the street from me it is said General Braddock camped with his men during the French and Indian War...though the place is not marked. From my backyard I can see Braddock Mountain.
    When my agent Barb Scott, my then editor at Abingdon Press, and her husband came to visit, we took them on a tour. We toured the historical downtown, then headed through the countryside to the War Correspondents Monument, to Harper's Ferry, Sharpsburg, and the Antietam Battlefield.

    My husband and I take drives through country roads, and it is amazing what we find. In fact last fall we came upon a little place that caught my eye and we pulled over. I won't go into detail, but it was a small family cemetery from the Civil War, and I was inspired by one of the inscriptions on one of the headstones that I ended up using in Beside Two Rivers.

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  10. Rita, I live in a place that is obviously rich in history, Columbia, SC, and Charleston, which is about an hour and 1/2 away. But I don't look at these historical places and have the deep thoughts about them as you do. Occasionally. It's so obvious that you look at buildings and such and imagine all sorts of things about them, b/c out of all the authors and books that I have read, your excellent use of imagery is in the top three. It amazes me, and that is one of the things I so love about your books---I can actually see everything perfectly, b/c of your colorful and accurate descriptions. It's as though I'm watching a movie. Keep up the good work!

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  11. Diana, thank you! You are one of those people that are at the top of my encourager list! You always have something uplifting to say, and I always appreciate it. I hope you read the next two books in the series. They were challenging to write, being from the pov of Darcy in book 2 and Sarah in book 3. I'm working on an Edwardian series and waiting for a contract to come through.

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    1. You HOPE I will read them? I have to, Rita! lol

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  12. I could truly connect with your post, Rita. I've loved the many years I've lived in Virginia partially because I've enjoyed observing so many historical sites throughout the Old Dominion.

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    1. I love Virginia and West Virginia, Janet. One of my favorite places is Harpers Ferry. There is an overlook where the old hotel is that looks down into the gorge where the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers converge that's awesome. My favorite author from the Old Dominion is Mary Johnston.

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  13. I so enjoyed reading this, Rita. Such kindred souls. I love writing historical fiction and feel blessed that it's my passion. Always feel an ache of longing though, when I read you east coast dwellers talking about the historic sites just a stone's throw from where you live and move and have your being. :)

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    1. Well, Lori, you're just going to have to make a trip out here. Paul and I will take you on a tour.

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  14. Wow, I never would have guessed it took 23 years to build that house! Thanks for this post. I have heard a lot from MaryLu about writing, but it's always great to hear about it from a different perspective :)

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