Writing an Historical Novel :the Underground Railroad

I am having a new experience. That alone is a joy at the age 70. I am writing an historical novel! (One of my sons said I am so old my three memoirs are now historical.) It’s a big undertaking but it keeps my mind alive. I did, in fact, already write somewhat of a historical novel in 1985 called SEDUCTION about Darwin and Freud. Although it was placed in a modern setting, it explored Darwin and Freud through their letters and writings. In this novel it is truly historical as it is about the Underground Railroad and takes place years 1815-1860. I don’t have a title yet. I was thinking of UNDERGROUND since it works for everyone in the novel—both slaves and abolitionists. We all have feelings that have gone underground as in unconscious things and secrets that we won’t reveal as well as the actual Underground Railroad. So that title would work on many levels.I have wanted to write this book since I was a little girl. I grew up in Lewiston, New York, which was one of the hubs for the Underground Railroad since it is a border town on the Niagara River. It was the last stop on the Underground Railway since it was on the American border.  All that was left was to row across the river to freedom in Canada. I could see Canada from my U.S. home when I was a child.New York State has dedicated a statue to Lewiston’s work on the Underground Railroad and placed it at the spot where the slaves crossed the River to freedom. This statue is one block from where I grew up. (See the picture below of me standing in front of the statue on the riverbank.)

The house I grew up in was built soon after the revolutionary war and billeted soldiers in the war of 1812. My relatives lived there for over 200 years and were active in the Underground Railroad in its heyday.  On some of the timber beams in the basement people, presumably slaves, who were hidden there, have etched their initials. I grew up with these stories and their embellishments that have turned into Lewiston legends.When I started the book I had no idea how hard it was to write an historical novel. In my memoirs I could write almost everything from memory. (My husband calls me an idiot savant since I can remember what I wore to my 8th birthday party but not my present cell number.) Remembering the local and national politics was a piece of cake since I lived through them from the 50’s to the present.My protagonist, named Lydia, is going to run the Frontier House Tavern and hotel in Lewiston as a cover for her Underground Railroad work. She is a partner with a black woman named Hazelon. One is the cook, the other works the bar and together they own the hotel.Lewiston, now a sleepy town, was bigger than Niagara Falls and Buffalo in the 1800’s. So anyone who was anyone (as my mother would have said) who wanted to see Niagara Falls had to stay in Lewiston at the Frontier House. (See picture of Frontier House. The records show Mark Twain, Dickens, De witt Clinton, Lafayette, Henry Clay all stayed there—and the who’s who goes on.) James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Spy in Lewiston and included the Lewiston barmaid as a character. It is a daunting but fascinating task for me to find a way to tie all this history into one novel. (The Frontier House was built in  1824 and is still standing. See picture. This is only the upper half.)

As I began writing I realized –oh my God these people at the bar have to have conversation! What will they talk about? I had to read history books to know what happened in the antebellum era.  In order to have chatter at the bar and to reveal the characters in the town, I had to know this history enough to make banter. That means I had to know it as though I’d lived through it.  America grew to four times it size, slavery was debated, Indians were run off their land and “Jacksonian Democracy” (ironic term since it didn’t include women, blacks natives, or landless whites) took over.Also how did people get around? Does my protagonist jump on a horse or what? In 1830 she took a stage coach, by 1840 their were no stage coaches and she took a train.What did she wear? I have had to go to costume museums and study what undergarments were worn and what was in style and what was out of style.  If you want to describe someone as out of date in their apparel, you have to know what year men stopped wearing breeches. I know exactly what the 1980’s shoulder pads looked like but the corsets of the 1830’s threw me. I had to learn women couldn’t take deep breaths in them and had to pant shallowly so their breasts would flutter.  With the smallest exertion you could feel faint. You had to carry smelling salts in small vials that were covered with the same fabric as the dress.In my ignorance, I, As Blanche said in A Street Car Named Desire, I had to “count on the kindness of strangers.” I went to Lewiston nearly sixty years after I left there (I now live in Toronto) and knocked on the door of the Tryon House that was the most famous station on the Underground Railroad. It is located on the steep bank of the river and there are three hidden basements that go down to the river’s edge where slaves were hidden.  Often run-aways were hidden for months until the ice broke on the lake. Remember there were whirlpools and strong currents as it was not that far from the falls. It was less than a kilometer to get across and only fourteen miles away in St. Catherine’s lived Harriet Tubman. (See picture below of back of the house with all the basements to the river.)

This is the first time I have had to collaborate. I have probably lived in my own head for way too long. (Only child writes in her Third floor garret for 50 years. Picture a white haired loony like Mr. Rochester’s wife in Jane Eyre.)  Three things shocked me in this collaboration. I was surprised by how much information there is on every tiny thing that ever happened in the past and how much controversy there is over every historical event. Secondly, I was taken aback by how many people are fascinated by local history. For example one amateur historian has sent me all kinds of information on trains used to get up the steep escarpment. Another couple dressed in period attire and enacted a short play with abolitionist dialogue for me down by the river. Thirdly, I am bowled over by how kind people are in the donating of their time. People have opened their historical homes, their minds and have given unflinchingly of their time and copy machines. The local historians have researched all the transportation for me, and the town council members and history volunteers have unearthed reams of data. The Lewiston Librarian knows every pertinent document available from the 1800’s. When I arrived she had it all packaged for me. She even has the deeds to the original family homes. People who have lived in the village for generations have passed down tales to their children and their children have gotten wind of my  project emailed their lore to me.I think Hillary Clinton was right when she said, “It takes a Village.”

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