The seed that sprouted to become my first manuscript, More Precious Than Gold, was no more than a footnote in the historical account of my hometown. During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, an agent of the Freedmen’s Bureau was sent to investigate a hate crime. The victim was a nameless African-American boy, and it struck me what a shame it was that no one remembered his name.
I began to imagine what it would have been like to live in my town 150 years ago when it was torn by such hatred. How would the loss of war affect my trust in God’s goodness? How would anyone get past their grief to make a new start? As I developed my main character, I discovered more and more tidbits of history–fascinating stories, not the kind that usually makes it into the history books. I began to weave them together, and voila! A novel happened.
Some of my favorite authors write historical fiction. Bodie and Brock Thoene. Francine Rivers. Often they base books on marginal characters fleshed out and set into actual historical events. The tales that unfold are rich with meaning.
Stories drawn from historical footnotes do not necessarily have to be historical fiction. I noted with amusement that this last Wednesday, 27 June 2012, was the day Marty McFly arrived from the past (26 October 1985) in Back to the Future 2. A flying DeLorean may not be legitimate history, but the movie is, and the date is a footnote. Think how many SciFi elements have been based on experimental science and later became a self-fulfilling prophecy! And how many time-travel fantasies are rooted in some actual historical event?
When you come across a bit of history that niggles at your imagination, jot it down! In time, it may take root and grow into a fine story.
And that nameless boy? After my novel was finished, I still could not get him out of my mind. I dug through historical documents and followed the trail to a federal archive of government documents preserved on microfilm. I spent one surreal afternoon scrolling through Lieutenant Manning’s journal, written in 1867, and I found him! Tony McCrary. After 144 years, I was able to give him his name back. That felt really good.