One hundred fifty one years ago, twelve thousand Confederate forces gathered along Seminary Ridge just outside the small town of Gettysburg. Almost a mile away, at the end of an open field, a copse of trees marked the Union line standing firm on Cemetery Ridge. When the signal was given, the men marched across the field. The line had advanced less than two hundred yards when the federals sent shell after shell howling into their midst. Boom! Men fell legless, headless, armless, black with burns and red with blood. Still they marched on across that field.
And in the middle of this gruesome battle, the bloodiest of the Civil War, were The Girls of Gettysburg…
As I was researching another book, I came across a small newspaper article dated from 1863. It told of a Union soldier on burial duty, following the Battle at Gettysburg, coming upon a shocking find: the body of a female Confederate soldier. It was shocking because she was disguised as a boy. At the time, everyone believed that girls were not strong enough to do any soldiering; they were too weak, too pure, too pious to be around roughhousing boys. It was against the law for girls to enlist. This girl carried no papers, so he could not identify her. She was buried in an unmarked grave. A Union general noted her presence at the bottom of his report, stating “one female (private) in rebel uniform.” The note became her epitaph. I named her Annie, and I decided I was going to write her story.
Researching this story was a daunting task because no other battle has been studied so thoroughly. I read A LOT to get these facts right. But then, there’s the emotional truth, the story behind the facts. This became the heart of Annie’s story.
What would motivate a girl to disguise herself as a boy, and then go to war? Annie’s motivation was key to making her life authentic.
The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s similar to her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in.
If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.
As for Annie, it was the grief at the loss of both her brothers that set her off. Along the way, she discovers a deep need to be free, to create a life that she could call her own and find a place to belong.
Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next.
|Abraham Bryan House|
Each of these perspectives, grounded in the social and racial ideals of antebellum America, transcend their limitations as each struggle to survive. At the core of each character’s confusion of right and wrong is her inner struggle. Annie struggles with her grief, even as she yearns for a place to belong where she can be herself. Disguised as a Confederate soldier, she rebels against the social constraints of her gender. She endures the injustices of her fellow comrades in order to earn their respect, desperate to fit in, but all the while careful to keep her true identity secret.
|Fleeing from danger|
Grace struggles with her guilt for running away from her mother, who has fled to safety on the last train out of Gettysburg. Her father has stayed behind to assist in the war effort. It turns out, he is part of the Underground Railroad. She becomes trapped in town, where she discovers two runaways. The three of them together make a mad frantic dash out of town as the rebels march down the street.
Tillie struggles with her sense of social refinement, as she begins to recognize there is no right and wrong, no good and evil, and there is nothing noble about war. There is only life and death. Of the three, Tillie learns the hardest lesson of sacrifice and humanity.
This inner struggle is what the character brings to the plot. It’s there before the story begins. It’s this struggle that is holding her back in life. And she’ll carry this struggle throughout her story.
The key to writing Girls of Gettysburg was finding the soul and voice to each of my three main characters. As I began to piece the story together, I took notes. I outlined everything. I wrote my first drafts in longhand. I find the relationship between pen and paper much more intimate, and demands me to go deeper into the character. Then, I transferred the story to the computer. But even as I edited the manuscript, I had to print the story out, and work with pen and paper again. I use recycled paper, to be sure!
But as we know, stories tend to be organic, and sometimes outlines, research, and all the “great plans of mice and men” need to be tossed as characters take over. In which case, I tag along for the ride. Even in historical fiction, with its challenging blend of story and fact, It’s as much about story-building as it is about story-creating.Molly Hunter explores this process in her book Talent is Not Enough in which she offers:
“The child that was myself was born with a little talent, and I have worked hard, hard, hard to shape it. Yet even this could not have made me a writer, for there is no book that can tell anything worth saying unless life itself has first said it to the person who conceived that book. A philosophy has to be hammered out, a mind shaped, a spirit tempered. This is true for all of the craft. It is the basic process which must happen before literature can be created.”
Thank you for reading!
Gettysburg Battle: N.Y. : Published by Thomas Kelly, 264 Third Avenue, between 22nd & 23rd St., c1867 (N.Y. : Printed by Wm. C. Robertson, 59 Cedar St.). Library of Congress.
Bryan House: Gettysburg, Pa. The Bryan house on 2d Corps line, near scene of Pickett's Charge. Library of Congress.
“Fleeing from Danger” from Tillie’s book, AT GETTYSBURG.
Tillie Pierce. Library of Congress.