Category Archives: Research

World War I and the Power of Story

I planned to write quite a different blog post, but then the Internet reminded me that today is the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I, so that other post will have to wait.

All I can really remember about how I came to my interest in World War I is that sometime in middle or early high school, I saw a picture of some soldiers and thought that was the last time guys looked truly hot in uniform. Tell me, who doesn’t love a man in puttees? My mom told me my great-grandfather, who fought in France and spoke of the war only in reference to French girls in order to annoy my great-grandmother, would have appreciated that.

Also, I think it partly came down to a question of fairness. I’m an American. Americans can talk World War II all day long, but we’re kind of lost when it comes to World War I. That’s partly because we weren’t in it very long, but I think there’s more to it than that. World War II calls up more emotions Americans are comfortable with: clarity of purpose, a solid win. As a culture, we don’t like to dwell on the past, no matter how much it affects us. And what’s the use of a war no one could really win? I became interested in that neglected war because I saw that it was neglected, overshadowed by its bolder, more triumphant offspring. All wars are sad, but World War I seemed to me especially so, not as if the events were sad, but as if the war itself—insofar as wars have a consciousness—were sad.

World War I will always appeal to storytellers because it’s such a perfectly constructed tragedy, almost too perfect to have occurred naturally, as if it were scripted to wring the audience’s hearts. For a century, World War I has provided the raw material for excellent works of literature. It’s sometimes called the most literary of all wars, and maybe that also piqued my interest, because the military and diplomatic history of the war doesn’t interest me any more than military and diplomatic history ever does. (Not much).

I’ve grown out of my high school belief that F. Scott Fitzgerald was The Best Writer Ever to Live (Sorry, Dr. Bruccoli. Please think I am still smart.), but his take on the war in Tender is the Night rings truer to me than any other:

“This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. The Russians and Italians weren’t any good on this front. You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”

“General Grant invented this kind of battle at Petersburg in sixty-five.”

“No, he didn’t—he just invented mass butchery. This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Undine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Wurtemburg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here. This was the last love battle.”

You see what I mean about why World War I appeals to writers and other artists? Half the work is done for you before you get there. I’d love to write about World War I, but I don’t know if I could do it right. Perhaps I am too American, too ready to grin into the sunlight, too unwilling to look back and grieve properly, to walk purposely into the darkness of a time which brought no real triumph—and indeed no satisfying conclusion.

What period of history draws you back time after time? Why do you think that is?




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Wednesday Words: Anything is Possible

As you know if you’ve been following the blog for any length of time, my current work in progress is loosely (and I do mean loosely) based in the 14th century. I had every good intention of writing a more detailed blog post on it yesterday, but alas, this is a week with many deadlines, so that has been postponed until next week.

Today, I’d like to share a quote from one of my favorite books on this time, Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. For some reason, the different understandings of knowledge and truth people held in different historical contexts often comes up in my conversations with my husband. It’s easy to make fun of them now, but one reason I love the medievals is that they weren’t as cynical as we are, that they really believed anything was possible. Four tombs of Mary? Sure! Three severed heads of John the Baptist? Why not? Of course, this often led them to do some pretty messed up things, but uh, we do some pretty messed up things, too, so who are we to talk?

Here’s one of my favorite passages from The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England. It makes me proud to be human:

There are rationalists and scientists in medieval society, but you will find their writings even more outlandish than the prophecies. The most extraordinary and famous example of this is a passage in the works of the great thirteenth-century scientist and philosopher Roger Bacon. In a text in which he tries to show how many supposedly magical things are really quite normal, he writes:

Ships may be made to move without oars or rowers, so that large vessels might be driven on the sea or on a river by a single man, and more swiftly than if they were strongly manned. Chariots can be built which can move without any draught animal at incalculable speed…Flying machines might be made in the middle of which a man might sit, turning a certain mechanism whereby artfully built wings might beat the air, in the manner of a bird in flight. Another instrument could be made which, although small, will lift or lower weights of almost infinite greatness…Again, instruments might be made for walking in the sea, or in rivers, even to the very bottom, without bodily danger…And very many things of this sort might be made: bridges which cross rivers without pier or prop whatsoever, and unheard-of machines and engines.

It is not exactly what you expect of a Franciscan friar living in superstitious medieval England. We might even wonder if some other time traveler has told Bacon about modern ships, cars, airplanes, cranes, diving suits, and suspension bridges. But think about this passage, as you pour scorn on the credulousness of the people. It is from the same belief that anything is possible that the greatest discoveries are made. “What others strive to see dimly and blindly, like bats in twilight, he gazes at in the full light of day, because he is a master of experiment,” says Bacon, praising a contemporary. The same could be said of Bacon himself: when anything is possible, experiment is essential. As for his flying machine and diving suit–if Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings come to mind, it is not surprising. Roger Bacon’s name appears in Leonardo’s notebooks (77-78).

I love this. It gets me all choked up every time at how beautiful people are, at how we’re connected across time and space, at how this man in the 13th century is responsible, at least in part, for the fact that I can get in my car and drive over a bridge and fly somewhere in very little time at all. I often think we owe it to the people who made our lives possible to see the past as clearly as they saw the future.

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Wednesday Words: Feast of Many Meats

Lina Dog and I have been reading Barbara W. Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century on and off since January. I include Lina because she’s basically my only coworker, and I always read her things I find funny or interesting in my research. It’s about 600 pages of tiny print, and it is awesome! However, I’ve realized I probably should have been blogging about it chapter by chapter because there’s just so much there. For” our first “Wednesday Words,” we’ll share Lina’s favorite part, the description of a feast given by Charles V, King of France, in honor of his uncle, Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, in December 1377.

Here ’tis:

The state dinners drew on all the resources of the 14th century to delight, amaze, and glut the guests. So many torchbearers stood like living candlesticks against the pillars of the great stone hall that “one could see as well as if it were day.” So many courses and dishes were served that for once there were “too many to tell,” and indeed too many for the ailing guest of honor. The King had ordered four courses of ten pairs of dishes in each, but thoughtfully eliminated one course of ten to reduce the time the Emperor would have to sit at table. As it was, he would have had to partake of thirty pair of such dishes as roast capons and partridges, civet of hare, meat and fish aspics, lark pasties and rissoles of beef marrow, black puddings and sausages, lampreys and savory rice, entremet of swan, peacock, bitterns, and heron “borne on high,” pasties of venison and small birds, fresh- and salt-water fish with a gravy of shad “the color of peach blossom,” white leeks with plovers, duck with roast chitterlings, stuffed pigs, eels reversed, frizzled beans–finishing off with fruit wafers, pears, comfits, medlars, peeled nuts, and spiced wine (310).

Hungry yet?

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Why Are We All Mad Here? (Part 2: I Say It With Love)

For Part 1 of these musings on Eternal Mysteries I Solved While Researching, click here, or scroll down.

I wrote last time about how I figured out a few things about my native land of Upcountry South Carolina while researching my forthcoming young adult historical novel. I finally came to the conclusion that many of its charming eccentricities (I say it with love) could be traced back to the idea of threat.

South Carolina was not an easy place to live in the mid-eighteenth century, for a variety of reasons, and people throughout the colony lived with a lot of fear from a lot of different sources. Due to the climate, South Carolina had an extremely high rate of death from infectious disease. A settlement plan designed in London and based on that of the British Caribbean colonies meant the colonial government was philosophically isolated from its neighbors to the north and geographically isolated from those to the south. Wealthy white South Carolinians in the Lowcountry lived in constant fear of slave uprisings, while the impoverished Scots-Irish in the backcountry formed a literal human shield between the more prosperous Lowcountry and the frontier.

Part of my inspiration for the book came from the prevalence of dystopian young adult books in which the protagonists live in constant fear for their lives. But that happened, I thought. That was real. At least in a sense. Most eighteenth-century South Carolinians did not expect to live long, and many anticipated violent deaths. As I researched the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-61), I discovered how far the violence went: few left alive and not a building left standing west of the Congaree River. Many of the causes could be traced to the Charlestown government, which, ever fearful of a slave uprising on its own turf, refused to send help to settlers on the frontier once the war began. I’m generalizing about complex situations, of course, but it seems to me that the conflict between the Lowcountry government and interests and the needs of what became the Upcountry could go a long way toward explaining that characteristic distrust of government intervention and a tendency to guard local interests at all costs.

Quite unintentionally, I also learned a lot about the history, and thus the charming eccentricities (I say it with love) of the Presbyterian church. I am a Presbyterian by marriage, so I don’t take the way we do things—”decently and in good order, without undue haste or undue delay,” as I’ve been told many times—for granted. I did not mean to spend so much time on the history of Presbyterianism, but it happened completely by accident. I discovered why we must vote on everything, including at what height the tornado shelter signs may be placed and what Sunday shall be deemed worthy of the church picnic. I discovered why we must all vote on everything, sometimes many times. I discovered why we split every three seconds so that there are eighteen different versions of Presbyterians, many of which resemble each other in one way only: form of government. Constant voting. I’ll give you a hint: it goes back to the bottom-up organization of the Scottish clan system, even as the top-down organization of many denominations born in England can be traced to feudalism.

You learn a lot by writing books.

In other blog news, I’m planning something a bit different from here on out. This is the first semester (I still think in semesters and probably always will) I’ve spent as a full-time writer, so I’ve struggled a bit to get my schedule down. When I was teaching, I had a regular blogging day, but now that I can do it any old time I’ve been remiss. I’d also like to post more than once a week, so I’ve decided Tuesdays will be my day for new articles, Wednesdays will be an intriguing quote from something I’m reading, and Thursdays will be for thoughts or questions I’m pondering. As always, I invite you to chime in.

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Why Are We All Mad Here? (Part 1: The Research Kaleidoscope)

They had lived on frontiers, and people who live on frontiers prepare themselves in life for death.

-Ben Robertson, Red Hills and Cotton

We are a hill people, threatened eternally by men from the plains.

-Ben Robertson, Red Hills and Cotton

I’ll be the first to admit I often begrudge the work of research. I’d rather read novels any day. I don’t read much memoir because I have enough issues of my own. And, again, I’d rather read novels.

But you know what is magical about research? Those aha moments when it all comes together and you find connections among things you never would have dreamed were tied together. Those moments when the random crystals in the kaleidoscope come together and form a clear picture, and you’re amazed you ever lived without knowing it was there. Those moments when you discover answers you weren’t looking for.

I slog my way through research, love-hating it the whole way. As a writer, it’s part of my life, no matter what I’m working on. As a person who has always needed to know why things are the way they are, it’s a necessity. Sometimes I think of those kids who love to take things apart and put them back together just to see how they work. I’m like that with people and society, and research and writing have always been my methods. There’s no better way to answer the question why than through historical research.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a young adult historical fiction novel coming out in October 2014. It’s set in my backyard—my real backyard, not my backyard in exile, which barely even counts as a backyard to a person accustomed to acres of wooded foothills—because there’s nowhere better to set a novel than a place where you know exactly how the trees bend, and what the underbrush looks like, and how the creek water feels in winter (because your brother once told you in the middle of February that he had total faith you could jump that creek if you got a good running start off the high bank). I’m going through a terrible phase of homesickness, the kind that clenches my stomach and freezes my heart, and I don’t mind admitting it to anyone, wherever they live and whatever their interest in convincing me that one place is any better for me than another.

The book is set in backcountry (what we would now call upcountry, though at the time backcountry was anything outside the bounds of Charleston and the Church of England) South Carolina and in Cherokee Territory during the Anglo-Cherokee War (1758-1761).

In the writing, I discovered so many answers to questions I didn’t know I had. Aside from the realities of its setting, the novel is not based in fact. But to make the setting real, I had to learn so much about the people who lived in backcountry South Carolina in the years just before the American Revolution. To learn about them, I had to learn about the people they came from. I’ve said it before: it’s not enough to know only the era you’re writing about. I needed to know what formed that time and those people, and to do that I had to go back several hundred years, up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains to Pennsylvania and the northern port cities, to Ulster and the siege of Londonderry and its blood oath, to the forced removals of people groups from southern Scotland, to Robert the Bruce and William Wallace and the constant threat of the English from the plains—a threat that followed the Scots-Irish to North America.

There’s one question I’ve always wanted to answer about my backyard of upcountry South Carolina: Why are we so weird? As a culture, as a group, why are we so staunch in our beliefs about morality, so distrustful of government intervention, so unapologetically conservative? I can call it weird because I am one of us, because I am weird in enough of my own ways, and because I know we’re all rather proud of our eccentricities, as long as that opinion isn’t coming from outsiders. But why exactly do I grit my teeth when people who hear I’m from South Carolina immediately tell me how much they love Charleston?

In my research, I found the answer in a single word: threat. Deeply ingrained, generational constant vigilance doesn’t go away, even when there’s no longer a need for it. I have been away from this research, working on other projects, for about a year, but a completely unrelated book—a home reference guide, of all things, brought it back to me, and the broken shards in the kaleidoscope shook into place.

In Home Comforts: The Art and Science of Keeping House, a part reference guide/part memoir/part history, Cheryl Mendelson writes:

“[M]y paternal grandmother was an equally fervent housekeeper in a style she inherited from England, Scotland, and Ireland…[Her] home felt like a fortress—secure against intruders and fitted with stores and tools for all emergencies.”

Of course it did, I thought. My grandmother’s home gives off exactly the same vibe. Of course it does. How could it not?

Continued thoughts on “Why are we so weird?” and how history helps us answer the eternal whys in Part 2 of this post, coming next week.

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