Friday, August 13, 2010


Historical fiction requires diligent research. Get sloppy with a fact, and like a date who catches you in a lie, a reader's trust is gone and everything else you say is scrutinized.

In the past five years I've probably spent over 1000 hours conducting research on people, places, clothing, battles, guns, churches, ships. . . you name it. Today I spent an hour researching the history of the C-section for a scene. It was fascinating!

I've stumbled upon some informational gems in the public collections. My favorites are the minutes of the congressional hearings from the Revolution through the War of 1812, old maps, and my very favorite--personal correspondence.

I love to read the writings of great men and women in their own "voice." It makes the hair rise on my arms to see their penmanship, to read the beauty of their rich vocabulary, to see the gentility with which they handle even the most bitter exchanges. There certainly was something lovely and elegant in the way they respected and regarded one another, at least on paper.

Today I wrote a scene regarding Thomas Jefferson's offer to sell his exquisite personal library to the nation to replace the volumes lost when the British burned Washington. (The top photo is a view of the book room in his study.) Among the vast colllection of his personal correspondence are several letters he wrote to various individuals as he worked out the details of this transaction. These letters are among my favorite "finds."

The first letter was written by former President Jefferson to his dear friend President James Madison. Even though they were very familiar, with Dolley Madison having served as Jefferson's hostess during his term, he addresses Madison as "Dear Sir," honoring his office. It is my most favorite find.

Dated September 26th, 1814, it was Jefferson's first communication with his friend after the loss at Bladensburg, the burning of Washington and the banking crisis sweeping the country. I love the gentle way he comforts Madison in an hour of extreme national need. Madison knew he had nearly lost the government, and that he was hated by many of his own people, and Jefferson bolsters and encourages him as he advises his friend on how to deal with these events. It is a beautiful glimpse in time.

Dear Sir,

It is a very long time since I troubled you with a letter. . . in the late events at Washington I have felt so much for you that I cannot withhold the expression of my sympathies. . . All you can do is order . . . execution must depend on others. . .I know that when such failures happen they afflict even those who have done everything they could to prevent them. . .

The other two letters were written to Samuel H. Smith, another friend and government official at the time of the destruction of the Capitol. It is to Smith that Jefferson makes his initial proposal. Couched within the letters are tidbits that reveal much about Jefferson's personality and point of view. In referring to his collection of books, he writes:

I do not know that it contains any branch of science which Congress would wish to exclude from their collection; there is, in fact, no subject to which a member of Congress may not have occasion to refer.

Maybe I'm just a history geek, but I thought some of you would enjoy reading these gems. Follow the links and you'll see other wonderful trails to follow another day.

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