Research Serendipity: McMinnville, Tennessee

L.Virginia French markerI’m just back from a trip to the Midwest to attend a conference. Since I was headed in that direction anyway, I stopped off for a couple days in Middle Tennessee for two days of research on my Civil War project–the one that keeps getting set aside so I can write other things!

I’ll write more about the exciting things I found related to my particular characters in a future post, but for the time being I have, as usual, another story in research serendipity. This one involves late night prowling on the Internet, among other things . . .

A couple nights before I left, I began to plan what I wanted to see and accomplish in the days I had. Since my characters honeymoon in McMinnville, Tennessee, I thought I’d drive out there and get a feel for the landscape and perhaps see some Civil War-era homes.

Lucy Virginia Smith French was a well-known Civil War diarist of Middle Tennessee, and she entertained my characters during that time.  L. Virginia French’s War Journal 1862-1865 details the dinner party she threw and includes a bit of catty gossip as well–all of which are perfect for my backstory at the very least. So I goggled her and discovered she had an historical marker placed in front of the property where she lived.

But it’s tricky to track down those things and I couldn’t figure out where it would be. I had sketchy directions: a few miles outside of McMinnville. I figured I’d just ask when I got there.

As I sped down the lovely road toward town last Tuesday, I hit the brakes hard. There it was! I got out and took the photo, breathed in the clear air and heard the slight singing of insects. It was humid in Tennessee last week and I marveled anyone could live in such heat–particularly when you had to wear seven petticoats to make your dress stand out properly!

But fun though that “chance” meeting was, it wasn’t the only one.

In that late night prowl, I typed in my word choices and found a painting of her house on Google books. Further research determined it had been torn down but a local artist, Monty Wanamaker, had painted it from a photograph. He also painted the house where my couple stayed on their honeymoon. (It was torn down long ago to make way for an addition to the local Church of Christ).

L Virginia French's Forest Home

Monty Wanamaker’s drawing of Forest Home

He’s a fine watercolorist. That’s his drawing of Lucy’s house, Forest Home:

So, I had an idea of the house where the dinner took place, I knew the spot, and when I googled Civil War in McMinnville, it advised me to visit a museum downtown, open from 2-4 on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Perfect.

The drive from Murfreesboro was through tree-covered rolling hills and studded with lush farmland. I thought a lot about the drama of early spring 1863 in Middle Tennessee. Horses were foddered for large distances around McMinnville as the Confederate forces struggled to regain strength before the big push they knew was coming. Every tree and fence were cut down and burned as firewood.

When I reached town, I stopped at the library, where the local authority was not in. The librarian suggested I visit the two museums further down the main street.


They were a block apart, so off I went.

The one I had traveled so far to see was closed. That was disappointing. I continued down the block to The Southern Museum and Galleries of Photography, Culture and History.

A nice man behind the counter greeted me. I explained I’d come from San Francisco and told him what I was doing, what I was looking for, and about finding the marker.

He said the houses I sought all had been torn down long ago. “But I have this calendar that has watercolors of what they looked like. We were fortunate to have pictures I could draw from.”

He turned to September, I smiled and then looked closer. “Yes. I’ve seen this picture.”

He stepped back. “You have? Where?”

“On the Internet the other night.” I paused and looked around a little more. “Wait. Are you Monty Wanamaker?”

He was.

Serendipity? A woman in northern California looks at pictures late one night and three days later steps into a little shop in a small town in Tennessee and meets the artist?

You have to laugh.Monty Wanamaker

I did.

Monty gathered the materials he had on my subjects. We had a spirited conversation. He showed me his pictures. I bought his book (which he autographed): Images of America: McMinnville. He gave me permission to use pictures on this blog post.  (In the photo on the right, he’s holding the calendar page featuring the honeymoon cottage.)

It was really fun to talk with him.

You cannot make up these stories of research surprise. You just have to follow where you’re led and laugh with delight.

Thanks, Monty!

Have you had any fun experiences while doing research?


Research serendipity: You just follow where you’re led and laugh. Click to Tweet




Leave a comment


  1. How fun, Michelle! Did you go by yourself? How about writing a book about Sicily and researching it? I’ll go with you and together we could try to figure out what they’re saying in dialect. I have family in Marsala, Trapani, that’s been after me to come for a visit. I’ll bet we could stay with them. 🙂 Oh, btw, I finished Bridging Two Hearts and loved it!

  2. Michelle Ule

     /  September 17, 2013

    I’m glad you enjoyed Bridging Two Hearts, Julie.

    I was in Tennessee by myself on that end of the trip, but staying with friends in Murfreesboro. My Sicily adventure is probably a long way off–I have a story idea, but it’s historical and I have a lot of other things to write in the meantime! BUT I will be visiting soon with my young friend Hillary who is a missionary in Catania.

    Voglio un dia en la futura . . . (Did I say, I hope one day in the future?) 🙂

    Ciao, bella!

  3. Not bad, but it sounds like you got a little Spanish mixed in there. Better: Vorrei andarcene un giorno nella futura.

  4. So glad you met Monty. He’s a great artist, historian and friend. I gather you’re writing a novel about Gen. John Hunt Morgan and his bride Mattie. We do a history based show for tour groups at Falcon Rest Mansion in McMinnville called “The Honeymoon Ball of Gen. John Hunt Morgan. See details at http://www.falconrest.com/morgan.htm. It would be fun to compare notes. Let us know when your book is done.

    • Michelle Ule

       /  July 5, 2016

      The novel has been on a back burner for a couple years as I’ve worked on publishing projects, but I hope to get back to it within the year. I’ll keep in touch and thanks for your comments!

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