I am delighted to welcome Sheila Myers back to my blog. Her latest novel, ‘The Night is Done’, the third book in the Durant Family Saga was published in paperback and as an eBook last year.
Sheila has written a wonderful guest post about research which I really hope you enjoy reading.
Enough Already! When do Historical Fiction Authors Climb out of the Research Rabbit Hole?
By Sheila Myers
I was recently interviewed on the History Author Show podcast about the Durant Family Saga, and the interviewer asked me a question that had me stumped:
If you could fill any gap about this fascinating family after three novels, what would you choose?
Of course, there’s more I could have uncovered about the Durants to extend my trilogy into a series. I had been receiving emails from extended family members who were reading my books and blog, offering me tidbits of information, leads to follow, contact information of descendants with interesting histories of their own. But for me, enough was enough. I’d spent five years of my life researching this famous family from the Gilded Age. I had traveled to several libraries and museums on the east coast of the U.S., visited the Isle of Wight in England, and all on my own dime.
At some point authors of historical fiction rely on conjecture, the lens we use to offer our interpretation of events given the information we have on hand. Indeed, at the end of the trilogy, I have one of the narrators, a historian, remark:
I’m sure that in the future, someone will come along and find gaps in my research. It’s the historian’s curse. Our job is to sift through the tall tales and determine what’s worth including and what’s best left as fodder for others to chew on. The truth is found in the abyss of the unknown.
If my readers believe it’s me, the author saying these words, they aren’t far off. I put myself in the head of the narrator, a historian, tracking down and interviewing an elderly member of the Durant family, and by the time I was done writing the last book in the trilogy, it was how I felt. But still… there’s one piece of information waiting for somebody to get their hands on: a civil court case between William and his wife Janet, thrown out by the judge in 1898. News reports at the time included juicy testimonials from servants and friends about cruelty and adultery (the only two ways to obtain a divorce back then). The record is ensconced in an uncatalogued collection at the New York University Library. I tried, but I couldn’t get access, which was unfortunate because it was a precursor to the divorce case between two of my main characters. (I was able to find the final case and unseal it after 100 years of sitting in a Manhattan Court old records division).
Historical fiction is fascinating because we read it to discover history in an interesting, entertaining fashion. Authors of this genre are all too aware that some research could take up a lifetime and if we wait for all the facts to be known, the stories would never get written. This is especially true as libraries and museums digitize their collections making them more accessible to the public.
For example, Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY is now digitizing the biographies of the 560,000 people buried there (there is a saying that there are more dead than live people in Brooklyn because of all of the cemeteries). Since 2009, the staff and volunteers at Green Wood have been digitizing the archives: family trees, last will and testaments, and family correspondence. In fact, the characters of my story, the Durant family, have a mausoleum at Green Wood. I took a picture of the Durant mausoleum on a visit to Green Wood and used it for my cover of the last book in the Durant Family Saga trilogy titled: The Night is Done. The title is from a Kipling poem called The Dawn Wind:
At two o’clock in the morning, if you open your window and listen,
You will hear the feet of the Wind that is going to call the sun.
And the trees in the shadow rustle and the trees in the moonlight glisten,
And though it is deep, dark night, you feel that the night is done.
And when I finally hit ‘the end’ on the last book in the trilogy, so was I.
William and Ella Durant, heirs to a bygone fortune, are recounting the events that led to the Durant family downfall during the Gilded Age. In 1931 William returns to visit the estate he once possessed in the Adirondacks to speak with the current owner, copper magnate Harold Hochschild, who is writing a history of the region and wants to include a biography of William. Simultaneously, Ella is visiting with an old family friend and former lover, Poultney Bigelow, journalist with Harpers Magazine, who talks her into telling her own story. William recounts the height of his glory, after his father’s death in 1885 when he takes control of the Adirondack railroad assets, travels the world in his yacht and dines with future kings. However, his fortune takes a turn during the Financial Panic of 1893 and amid accusations of adultery and cruelty. Ella’s tale begins when she returned from living abroad to launch a lawsuit against her brother for her fair share of the Durant inheritance. The court provides a stage for the siblings to tear each other’s reputation apart: William for his devious business practices and failure to steward the Durant land holdings, and Ella for her unconventional lifestyle. Based on actual events, and historic figures, The Night is Done is a tale about the life altering power of revenge, greed and passion.
‘The Night is Done’ can be purchased from:-
About Sheila Myers
Sheila Myers is an Associate Professor at a community college in Upstate NY. Her Durant Family Saga is available at all major online retailers. Visit her website for more information.
Twitter – https://twitter.com/SheilaMMyers
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