Writing an Epic Family Saga by Novelist Linda Spalding

Posted by January 10th, 2014

The Purchase 2

The following is a guest post by Linda Spalding about her historical novel THE PURCHASE, winner of the 2012 Governor General’s Literary Prize for Fiction. The book tells the story of Quaker Daniel Dickinson and his family, and their new life at the Virginia frontier – where slaves are the only available workers and where the family’s values and beliefs are sorely tested. 

Here Linda talks about intertwining the story of antebellum America with family history to create an epic family saga. 

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Every family is an epic. Even a single generation has so many stories tucked away that ten thousand pages would be required to tell them all. A family is the perfect proof of chaos theory – the one where a butterfly causes a blizzard in Florida or an airplane crash in the arctic. Your mother tickles you on your left foot while you snooze in your cradle and you develop an allergy to walking barefoot on grass in your middle age.

So… how do we go about this epic task of writing an epic family saga? One of the things I like best about writing is coming upon strange facts. Even when I’m working on fiction, there is research to be done; Locale. Weather. Trees and wildlife. History! And of course, clothes and habits. Writing THE PURCHASE was a special treat in this regard. The story is based on a few facts I knew about my grandfather’s grandfather, a Quaker abolitionist who became a slave owner in 1798. In order to research his time and place, I found myself collecting all kinds of second-hand books. One of the best came from my mother’s library and involved life on a farm in southern Missouri before the Civil War. I figured southern Missouri wasn’t a lot different from south-western Virginia, so I read up on corn husking and winter amusements and what kinds of work children did on farms. It was in that book that I learned that nobody wore coats in the winter! This really surprised me. I read a book about superstitions and another about herbal medicine and another about African religion. I read all the old Foxfire magazines I could get my hands on. But the most surprising source was Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. It amazes me to think a man as hugely busy as Jefferson could have the time and patience to learn about and then write about every weed and flower and animal and tree and river in his state along with all the laws and the factories and the public revenues and expenses and the minerals and the aborigines, as he called them.

The hardest thing for me, because I am the most disorganized of writers, was keeping the timelines straight. If Daniel made the trip in 1798 and Mary was thirteen, how old was she when she married Wiley and how does that affect her relationship with Bett? I kept making notes in the margins, but things never seemed to match up properly. How long does a horse live? How long did a horse live in the nineteenth century? Every time I changed a date, the whole stack of cards fell apart.

And of course there was the problem of mixing fictional characters with real, historical people and fictional events with real ones. Two murders, for example. And there are lots of stories about Daniel Boone in that place at that time, even one that has him visiting the real Daniel for chats. How could I use that wonderful story without making it sound pretentious? How could I make the historical people feel as real as they must have been and as real as the fictional characters I could freely invent?  And those murders… they must ring true. Of course, there was fact-checking involved. I was horrified to learn that cotton didn’t grow in southwestern Virginia, after writing several chapters about it. Then I found a source that revised that fact, explaining that short grain cotton was planted there after the invention of the gin. Thank heavens! I thought, since I was attached to that part of my story. In fact, without the cotton gin, slavery might have disappeared long before the Civil War, but the new machine caused a great demand for more and more slaves to  grow more and more cotton for the British mills. That was another surprise – another strange fact I learned along the way.

But facts can weigh a story right down to the level of bog. Careful, careful we must be with our use of those nifty things we learn, like the bit about not wearing coats, or the old way of topping corn or the fun of turning sap into sugar in a fireplace on a cold, cold night. I tried to keep a light touch, remembering that while human beliefs have changed radically, our feelings are not very different from those of our ancestors. The minute we move away from home, we find ourselves overwhelmed by uncertainties: new customs, new expectations, new social signals we don’t understand. Daniel was no exception. He and his new, unloved wife and five children were determined to build some kind of life in the wilderness, where there was no town, no Quaker neighbor, no one who understood their habits and concerns. The decisions he made, for better and for worse, affected my family for generations. Which is why THE PURCHASE is an epic any way you look at it. The ripples in Daniel’s little pond travel on and on.

About Linda Spalding:

nicer-linda-pic-smallLinda Spalding was born in Kansas and lived in Mexico and Hawaii before immigrating to Canada in 1982. She is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, Daughters of Captain Cook, The Paper Wife, and (with her daughter Esta) Mere. Her nonfiction includes The Follow, Riska: Memories of a Dayak Girlhood (shortlisted for the Kiriyama Prize), and Who Named the Knife. She has been awarded the Harbourfront Festival Prize for her contribution to the Canadian literary community. The Purchase received Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award and its Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. Spalding lives in Toronto, where she is the editor of Brick magazine.

Visit Linda’s website at www.lindaspalding.com.

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