Bringing People (Back) to Life

Lea Wait, here, very close to celebrating the publication (April 4) of my latest historical for young people ages 8 and up, Uncertain Glory. As people have heard about the book (the latest in the books I’ve written set in 19th century Wiscasset: Stopping to Home, Seaward Born, Wintering Well and Finest Kind) the question I’ve gotten most often is: how do you write about real people?!cid_5DD80D18-4277-43A2-92BE-A87ACD38DB1B@maine_rr

Before Uncertain Glory, although I’ve always had both fictional and real people in my books for children, my main characters and their families were fictional. It was the minor characters who’d really lived and worked in Wiscasset in the years I set my stories.

My books focus on children, women, and ordinary men … I once told a class that George Washington would never ride through one of my books. I wanted to focus on the everyday life of Americans in different eras.

I first broke that self-imposed rule In one of my Shadows mysteries (Shadows of a Down East Summer,) in which Winslow Homer is a major character. I loved the challenge of focusing on HIS every day life … his daily schedule; what he ate; who he was surrounded by; where he lived. My fictional characters in that book borrowed the identities of two young Maine women who posed for Homer in the summer of 1890. (I apologized to the actual women in my acknowledgements.) And now, in Uncertain Glory, the major character is also a real person. Not as well-known as Winslow Homer, certainly, but a major figure in the world of 19th century Maine newspaper publishing.

Joseph Wood came from the small town of Wiscasset, where he published his first newspaper, a weekly called the Wiscasset Herald, for almost a year when he was a teenager. Later, after apprenticing a few years in Portland, he returned to Wiscasset and published the Seaside Oracle from 1869-1876.  After that he published newspapers in Bath, Skowhegan, and Bar Harbor. He remained involved with Maine newspapers until he died in 1923. The idea of a teenaged boy who published a town newspaper intrigued me. I wanted to share his story.

But I needed more. Joe Wood actually published his newspaper in 1859. I set my first draft of Uncertain Glory then, in the dead of winter, when ice and snow were daily challenges. I added in Nell, a 12-year-old girl who was a traveling spiritualist. Her character is fictional, but based on the lives of several well-known spiritualists of that period.

But I needed more. I knew the story was too thin. I put the manuscript aside for several years, but it was always in the back of my mind. Then, checking dates for another project, I realized that 1859 was close to 1861. (Sometimes I’m really focused …!) How much more exciting would it be if Joe not only had personal issues, but also was trying to cover the beginning of the Civil War? I hesitated a little —  but then remembered what one of my editors had once told me when I was similarly stuck on a point of history versus fiction. She reminded me I was writing historical fiction.

I went ahead and did all the research I could on what was happening in Maine in April of 1861, and was thrilled to discover a group of letters that described what happened in Wiscasset at that time.

I added another character: Owen, a nine-year-old African-American boy who helped Joe at the newspaper, and I modified the role of Joe’s (real) friend Charlie Farrar. Finally, I was ready to write my story.

So — Joe and Charlie are actual people. So are many of the minor characters in Uncertain Glory. Nell and Owen are fictional, but based on people who lived in 1861. And Joe really published his paper in 1859. I cover all of that in my historical notes to Uncertain Glory.

The only thing I changed was the year. I didn’t change the personalities of the characters, or what they did, or what was happening in the nation or the state.

Uncertain Glory. And, yes: it is historical fiction.

And I invite everyone to join me and my editor for refreshments at a launch party for Uncertain Glory on Sunday afternoon, April 6, from 4 until 5:30 p.m. at Le Garage, a restaurant on Water Street in Wiscasset. I’ll be talking a little about my research process — but, I hope, not long enough to bore anyone! Just enough for you to know what it was like in a small town in Maine, far from Fort Sumter, but changed forever by what happened there 153 years ago.


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