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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