Writing Historical Fiction with a Family Flair: Blog Hop Day #5

Thanks for joining us for day #5 of A Log Cabin Christmas bloghop!

You can read the official rules page, for those of you still trying to figure out this bloghop contest, here.

I’m the author of The Dogtrot Christmas, based on events in my family history. In addition to being a novelist, I’m also a well-known genealogist in some of the more obscure corners of the Internet. I self-published my massive family history, Pioneer Stock,  in 2000. You can find copies in genealogical libraries around the country and in the big mama of them all, The Library of Congress.  If you’re related to me, you ought to take a peek, otherwise, I wouldn’t bother.

I’ve already described how I “used” my family’s story in a number of places in cyberspace. You can read about my writing this book here, here and here.

But what is the draw of historical fiction, whether you’re related to me or not?

“They” say that if you want to know facts, you should read history books. But if you want to know social history as well as sensory reactions to events, you should read historical fiction. I’ve thought long and hard about that statement and when I came to finally putting all my genealogy down into one fat book, I determined to write a narrative history of my family, not just charts and diagrams.

A lover of history, I wanted to understand my family’s life within the context of their times. I gained no insight when I wrote the dates 1770-1815 for someone’s life until I realized that native of Maryland lived through both the Revolutionary War AND the War of 1812. Surely those events affected her in some way or another?

And, worse, did she own slaves?

That detailed look at what happened during my ancestor’s lifetime came to fruition when I wrote The Dogtrot Christmas. While I was delighted to learn the Rev. Thomas Hanks was a circuit riding preacher into Texas (who suspected such a thing in the family I grew up in?), the reality of his life didn’t make a lot of sense until I learned he was riding into Mexico long before the Republic of Texas, much less Texas as a part of the United States. His forays into the wilderness out of Tennessee, meant that when he baptized people, married them or preached over their funerals, he was breaking the law.

Rev. Thomas Hanks was a Primitive Baptist preacher, not a Catholic priest. In the 1820s, the only religion recognized in Texas was Roman Catholicism.

But he was a good man, so 10 years later, once the Republic of Texas established itself, he rode around to all the farms where he had presided over illegal nuptials, and remarried everyone. This provided a humorous story in one setting.

After Rev. Thomas Hanks explained his visit to the tired, harried, worn-out housewife, she looked at him with sunken eyes while the children screamed and whooped about her.

She sighed. “Well, I’ll do it, but only because it’s you that’s doing the asking, Pappy Hanks. If I had known then what I know now, I never would have married him.”

People come alive with stories like that one, and it gives us insight into their personalities–plus enables us to connect with them as people just like us.

Sure, the bustle may have come and gone and hoop skirts never sounded like a good idea to me, but if I can relate to a shared emotion or reaction, I  see historical characters in their humanity. Whether they’re my ancestors or the heroine of my story, I can relate to hunger, fear, the excitement of a new surrounding, a handsome man to love me, a dog to protect me, a fire to warm me. It’s the human elements that resonate within that make historical fiction approachable and enjoyable–whether you know the people or not.

Of course the best moments as an historical novelist and a genealogist is when you find an authentic photo of your character. Try as I might, none of the Hanks genealogists had a photo of Rev. Thomas Hanks. But I have got a picture of his odd brother Elijah Hanks, as well as his son, my great-great-grandfather, James Steele Hanks. You also can compare them to a modern day Tom Hanks (an extremely distant cousin, he and my brother compared notes). See if you can imagine what the real Rev. Hanks looked like.

What do you like best about historical fiction? Can you  name some of your favorite titles?

The bloghop will rest this weekend, and return on Monday with Margaret Brownley’s comments at Words of Encouragement.

For a look at the first three chapters of my original proposal for The Dogtrot Christmas, see my posts here and here.

Happy reading!

Leave a comment

34 Comments

  1. Donna Johnson

     /  November 11, 2011

    I look forward to reading your story! I love historical fiction! Some of my favorite authors so far are Jane Kirkpatrick and Brock & Bodie Thoene! I’m loving the bloghop!

    Reply
  2. My SIL has done a complete and long genealogy of one side of my husband’s family, so I know that it takes lots of effort and determination to do what you have done. And look at the interesting facts you uncovered. I will definitely be looking for A Dogtrot Christmas for some good Christmas reading. Thanks for a very interesting post!

    Reply
  3. Beverly

     /  November 11, 2011

    I love to think what was it like to have lived then? Well with Historical fiction you get a great picture of what it was like to live then.
    One of my favorite series..and I love series: The Tender Ties by Jane Kirkpatrick
    A Name of her own
    Hold Tight the thread
    Every Fixed Star
    Also a Tapestry of Hope, A Love Woven True and The Pattern of her heart by Traci Peterson & Judith Miller

    Reply
  4. Jackie Tessnaie

     /  November 11, 2011

    I wander if we had to live like back in those days if we could survive,after having all the modern conveniences we have and are use to.I love reading stories about those days.thanks….

    Reply
  5. Orita Kirkman

     /  November 11, 2011

    Historical fiction is usually very well researched by the authors, I have many favorite, two are Frontier Doctor Trilogy by Al & Joanna Lacy and Desert Roses Series by Tracie Peterson.
    By: Orita Nov 11,2011

    Reply
  6. I don’t have a particular favorite but I have always enjoyed history. I remember having to do reports on historical figures in school and that was usually interesting.

    Reply
  7. Renee Jackson

     /  November 11, 2011

    I love reading historical fiction because I love to learn. Also, I like to be able to put myself back in time – how best to do this, but to read! There are so many books, it’s hard to name just one. But I love to read Jane Kirkpatrick’s writing.

    Reply
  8. Gabby Sprenger

     /  November 11, 2011

    Historical fiction bring whatever period the writer is covering to life for me. History books are good for the facts and dates but don’t do any justice to how the people of the time felt about what was happening around them.

    Reply
  9. Gilda Weisskopf

     /  November 11, 2011

    I am really looking forward to reading A Log Cabin Christmas and becoming acquainted with 8 new authors (to me). Some of my favorite historical fiction books/writers are: The Widow of the South by Robert Hicks; On Agate Hill by Lee Smith; Daughter of the Loom & Tapestry of Hope by Tracie Peterson & Judith Miller. Probably my all time favorite is Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Oh my, I think I have opened a can of worms. I could go on and on. I have already read many of Jane Kirkpatrick’s books (wonderful!). But not to worry, I have 8 new (to me) authors that will be added to my must read author list. Sorry to go on for so long, but as you can tell, I love historical fiction.

    Reply
  10. Alice G

     /  November 11, 2011

    The best part about historical fiction is the entertaining manner of learning history. Any book by Jane Kirkpatrick is wonderful. I love the way Jane researches to add a degree of authenticity to her writing.

    Reply
  11. I agree with your assessments of Jane’s writing–I was thrilled when I discovered my story would appear in a book with hers!

    Don’t you love how characters and personalities come alive no matter what century or generation they lived in? We’re all the same under the skin, with similar hopes, dreams and desires. Pass the chocolate? 🙂

    Reply
  12. I can’t wait to read A Log Cabin Christmas – Michelle you’re in very good company and I’m sure you’ll measure up. Dogtrot Christmas sounds wonderful! I love geneaology too – too bad though, I don’t think we’re related. Be fun to share notes!

    Reply
  13. Pam K.

     /  November 11, 2011

    My favorite historical books are by Jane Kirkpatrick. She researches her topic so well and has such a lyrical voice that her books become works of beauty even when the subject matter may be difficult. I’ve read several of her series and enjoyed them all, but my absolute favorites were “A Flickering Light” and “An Absence so Great,” based on her grandmother’s life.
    I’m looking forward to reading “A Log Cabin Christmas Collection” and would be very happy to win a copy.

    Reply
  14. i enjoy historical fiction. It enables me to imagine what life was like for the brave, hardworking men and women of yesteryear who founded our country. I think it’s neat when writers are able to work in real people as you’ve done in your story, Michelle.

    Reply
  15. joanbscott

     /  November 11, 2011

    Reading historical fiction takes me back to when I was a youngster, reading and wondering – always wondering what it must have been like for those who came before me. As an adult I find that looking into family history connects me with the past and with people who paved the way. Jane Kirkpatrick’s “A Flickering Light” and Lauren Belfer’s “City of Light” are two of my favorites. Hmm, is there a theme there?

    Reply
  16. I enjoy reading books by Jane Kirkpatrick and from what I saw on you’re blog I am going to look forward to reading The Dogtrot Christmas.Thanks for being a part of the blog hop.
    D. Ingbretson

    Reply
  17. Marea

     /  November 11, 2011

    Jane’s Tender Ties Series is one of my favorites. I have Indian heritage myself and often wonder about life “back then.” Whenever I have picked up an arrowhead I have found on our farm, I want to meet the person who made it. These stories put you there.

    Reply
  18. Becky W

     /  November 11, 2011

    My favorite historical fiction series is the Tender Ties series by Jane Kirkpatrick.

    Reply
  19. Michelle, I could listen to you tell stories about your ancestors all day long! And Tom Hanks? Who knew, right? 🙂

    I bought Log Cabin Christmas as a gift, but I’m getting dangerously close to keeping it for myself and buying another copy! Oh, who am I kidding? I knew all along I’d keep it!

    Reply
    • You don’t know the half of it, Jill. That James Steele Hanks? Colonel, CSA at the same time his second cousin, Abraham Lincoln, was president of the United States!

      And in our family, we have this story as definition of our Hanks family “hard headedness.”

      President Lincoln was visiting injured soldiers in an Army hospital when he came across a very young man–maybe 19?–with the name Hanks. Lincoln paused and asked the kid about his family and recognized the parents’ names.

      Pa had been killed in the war, so the boy enlisted, leaving Ma behind with six young ones and a farm.

      Lincoln nodded and said, “I’ll parole you home to take care of your ma and the family if you will swear to never take up arms against the Union again.”

      Kid looked the president square in the eyes and said, “No, sir, I can’t make that promise.”

      He spent the rest of the war in prison.

      I, fortunately, don’t take after that side of the family . . . except for those thick Lincolnesque eyebrows . . .
      🙂

      Thanks for all your comments!

      Reply
  20. I love the way historical fiction brings history alive! I can ‘see’ the events instead of just reading the facts (as you write in your post), My favorites to read are ‘Old West’ era books, maybe because I live in Oregon, maybe because I grew up in a rural area. I just really like history too!

    Reply
  21. I’d like to hear more about Rev. Thomas Hanks’ odd brother Elijah Hanks!

    I prefer historical fiction and is genre I select books from because I like to learn about time periods before I was born, or prior to my age of 12 when I began reading in earnest. I am of Irish, German and Norwegian descent so enjoy reading about the immigrants coming to America. Our German grandfather died before I was born, but two of my cousins have done our Irish and Norwegian genealogies. It has brought us all together for family reunions. I really enjoyed your post here today! I have enjoyed Jane Kirkpatrick’s Oregon Trail stories, too. I like detail and the research authors do that the stories are built around.

    Reply
  22. Carole Estby Dagg

     /  November 13, 2011

    Your statement about historical fiction as a better medium for social history than straight histories is so true! Since I’m a retired children’s librarian and now write YA historical novels, I’ll add to the kudos for Jane with some authors of YA and middle grade historical fiction:
    Jennifer Holm, Katherine Paterson, Jennifer Donnelly, Kirby Larson, Patricia MacLachlan, and Karen Cushman.

    Reply
    • I like Ann Rinaldi’s YA historical fiction, particularly since at the end she tells you what is true and what is made up. Donna Jo Napoli is also very good.

      Reply
  23. Kayce Phillips

     /  November 16, 2011

    I love historical fiction mainly because the people come alive! SO much better than just learning about facts and dates.

    Reply
  24. Renee Jackson

     /  November 16, 2011

    I love to read historical books because it gives me a sense of where we came from!

    Reply
  25. Margie Mijares

     /  November 18, 2011

    I am a huge fan of Jane Kirkpatrick and have read every one of her books I can get my hands on! margie at mijares dot net

    Reply
  26. Can’t wait to read this book. This blog hop is such a good idea!

    Reply
  27. I love historical fiction. I can really relate to the characters – plus enjoy learning about the living conditions and issues of that time. My favorite historicals are those that I know have been well researched and lead me to research on my own.

    Reply
  28. I love reading historical fiction because I love history. It’s wonderful getting swept away in another time/place. Not sure I can name favorite titles, but definitely anything by Tamera Alexander 🙂 She’s one of the few authors that if she has a book out, I’m buying it, no matter what!

    Reply
  29. Sandi Schwab

     /  November 19, 2011

    The first historical fiction I ever read was by Gilbert Morris. I loved hid civil war series of books. Then a friend introduced me to Jane Kirkpatrick’s A Sweetness to My Soul, and Love to Water My Soul. I became hooked on Jane’s books after that. I’ve loved her Altogether in One Place series.

    Reply

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