Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction
Illuminating History’s Shadows Through Fiction

I see dead people . . .

April 14, 2024

For me, this iconic phrase from the movie The Sixth Sense pretty much sums up what it’s like writing Biographical Historical Fiction. You spend your days (and many nights) seeing dead people – in brief, animated imaginings, based on what was unearthed and the story you are stitching together.

If the people that populate your book were once living beings, participating in historical events, their ghosts have already left something behind in what is left of the historical records. Although the onus to pay proper fealty to true events is heavy for the author, once the research is acquired, assembling the parts imbues a breath of life into each character, each event, as well as into scenes in the story.

Words have often resurrected the long dead for me. My ‘character’ visitations come in reels and clips, rising up from the stew of my research, my story roadmap, and the million pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of the ‘who, what, when, where’ woven into a structure. Little movies appear in my mind’s eye – about the times the people lived in, how they lived, what they read, ate, wore. What their influences were, their likes, dislikes, their human and often super-human struggles, played out in enough detail so that words they left behind can be put into the actions on the page. At least that’s how it works for me.

I often hear other writers talk about voices talking to them, or their characters ‘taking over’ when the author intended to write something else, but that has never happened to me either. Maybe that’s because in writing Red Clay, Running Waters, I was blessed with a wealth of original material, the challenging Antebellum vocabulary (so rich in nuance), from the time the events occurred; I was gifted with the voices of the people I was writing about.  Lucky Me!

With such bounty from the records, (accompanied by so much eloquence, and often verbosity – especially from the politicians), my inspiration often came from what was really said or done, buried in the tantalizing tiny print of 1800s newspapers, or miraculously delivered by ‘some research searching for me’, as Tommy Orange said recently.

I guess you could call that cheating in a way. Not ‘making things up’ as many writers do, perhaps not really ‘Fiction’ as many know it, so much as connecting the historical dots. But from the start of RCRW, reading words spoken by John Ridge, Elias Boudinot, Major Ridge, and many famous others, moved me, inspired me, intrigued, and perplexed me, rousing my curiosity, empathy, and certainly sympathies.

Calling across two-hundred years of American History for resurrection from newspapers, journals and speeches – from traces and encounters of all kinds – a body formed, in the shape of a tale of personal triumphs and tragedy, in a time of national rebirth in the grip of divisions leading to a fracture, of promises made and broken, of a tyranny that ultimately created the Cherokee Trail of Tears. When those elements became ‘personal’ to me, I knew there was a story that hadn’t been told, and I wanted to write it.

Now this all may sound like a bit like a nod to Frankenstein, and you would be right. Frankenstein and Mary Shelly play their part in the Ridge’s story, another artifact of the Antebellum influences in the cultural air when John and Sarah lived. The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts. Letting them ‘speak’ for themselves revealed personality, letting me ‘see’ (she whispers breathlessly. . . it’s alive!).  Luck allowed me to know some people’s features, from paintings (nod to Thomas McKenney) and the development of photography. *

As Dr. Frankenstein probably could have identified which parts came from where (or what), I know real quotes from my own fabrications in RCRW. As with any creation, the artist’s hopes may be ambivalent…does the reader know which is which? Splicing and weaving recorded history beside imagined ones became its own Fiction, filling in the connections where history has left only parts of what was once there.

Breathing life into Red Clay, Running Waters had me spending lots of time in the company of dead people, assembling the fragments they left behind – people like the Ridges, to whom history has not been kind, whose footprints I saw, and who gave me ‘the visions’ to reanimate their story in my mind’s-eye – the story of the Trail of Tears, from a different side.

The people you come to know in Red Clay, Running Waters possessed the power to make their words resonate with timely, universal truths. I thank them all for leaving something tangible behind. It’s because of them, I admit, like the boy in the film — ‘I see dead people’, and gladly have mingled my life with theirs.


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