Friday, February 21, 2020

Taking Leaps in Historical Fiction

Sebel's gravestone in Patterson, NY

As we begin our new series in “taking leaps,” I’m focusing on the leaps that historical fiction needs to take in order to be a complete story. I’ve discussed elsewhere how challenging a task it can be. Historical fiction is the coming together of two opposing elements: fact and fiction. The controversy is grounded in conveying the ‘truth’ of history. Other popular genres have distinct rules that govern basic premises. Dystopian fiction, for example, features a futuristic universe in which the illusion of a perfect society is maintained through corporate, technologic, or totalitarian control. Using an exaggerate worse-case scenario, the dystopian story becomes a commentary about social norms and trends.

But nothing about history is obvious and facts are often open to interpretation. Once upon a time, it was considered fact that blood-letting was the proper way of treating disease. It was considered a fact that women were emotionally and physically incapable of rational thought. It was illegal for women to be soldiers and to vote. In 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he didn’t discover America. In fact, some would say he was less an explorer and more of a conqueror. History tends to be written by those who survived it. As such, no history is without its bias. The meaning of history, just as it is for the novel, lays “not in the chain of events themselves, but on the historian’s [and writer’s] interpretation of it,” as Jill Paton Walsh once noted.

So it is with my newest project, in which I explore the events surrounding Sybil Ludington’s midnight ride.

Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of a lovely feminine Paul Revere
Who rode an equally famous ride
Through a different part of the countryside,
Where Sybil Ludington's name recalls
A ride as daring as that of Paul's.
--Berton Braley, Sybil Ludington’s Ride. Published in The Sunday Star: This Week's Magazine. Washington D.C. April 14, 1940. Sybil Ludington; The Call to Arms, by V.A. Dacquino. 2000, Purple Mountain Press.

The trouble is, not every historian believes that this event happened. There’s no reliable historical evidence that suggests Sybil made her midnight ride, according to one study in the New England Quarterly. Nor is this ride referenced in any contemporaneous writing of the era, nor in books about women’s contributions to the Revolutionary effort. Still, since her story first appeared in the 1880 History of New York City by Martha Lamb, Sybil has become an iconic figure. In the 1950s, as the decade was engulfed by Communist scares, Sybil became the symbol of a pro-American youth. She was the ahead-of-her-time feminist icon of the 1960s and 1970s. Sybil Ludington, the lone teenager riding for freedom, became the symbol of courage and individuality that is appealing to young readers.

But who was Sybil Ludington? That’s the million-dollar question.

Her father, Henry Ludington is quite the historical figure. He began his military career as a royalist. Eventually he became a Colonel for the continental army. He was an aide-de-camp to George Washington.  His good friend was John Jay, the founding father who was also instrumental in developing Washington’s spy network. Much of what is known about Sybil comes from Ludington's memoir, published by his grandchildren in 1907. We know, for example, Sybil is the eldest of 12. They lived on a relatively successful farm and gristmill in what is now Putnam County, New York, not far from the Connecticut border. Beyond that, there are many inconsistencies in her story. As a result,  I had to make lots of leaps in order to re-create her story.

For example, in a 1838 letter to her brother, she signs her name as Sebel. The census report of 1810 uses Sibel. The pension record she filed in 1837 refers to Cybal, which is then crossed out, and replaced with Sebal. Lamb, in her 1880 text, uses Sibyl. In 1907, the Connecticut Magazine called her Sibbel. Her gravestone in Patterson, NY, erected by her sisters, uses Sibbel.

For my story, I opted to use the name she signed herself: Sebel.

In order to understand her life, I had to explore the larger contexts of her story: as the daughter of a royal military officer, living on the (then) frontier, during the time of a profoundly changing political and social upheaval that ultimately led the revolutionary war. Some facts, such as dates of specific events and troop movements (and so on), are fixed points in time. Much of what happened has been glossed over, reduced to dates in a textbook. Other facts have been ignored. But history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate. In my story, The Young Rebels, Sebel's ride is only part of the story.

Many historical figures are attached to the story. Besides John Jay, the founding father who helped establish George Washington’s spy ring, Enoch Crosby was another family friend, and one of Washington’s first spies. Ichabod Prosser was a notorious Tory. I had to make leaps of imagination to develop these historical figures into fully realized characters.

Staying true to the times and the people, I did imagine discussions, often extrapolating from their own writings if I could find them. Lucky for me, John Jay and his cohorts are particularly long-winded about their ideas. Also, I didn’t want to oversimplify the contradictions of a war that focused on independence for some, but not for others. And here, the record is even more sparse. Women and the enslaved were not often included in revolutionary records. For this information, I read the records that explored the history of slavery in Connecticut and New England. I read Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, the Slave Narrative Collection, and the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784).

Some of my research.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, the master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

My interpretation of the famous unknown ride features two perspectives -- Sebel and her sister Rebby -- who struggled to make sense of these up-ending contradictions surrounding them. The plot weaves together the fates of these sisters, their friends, in a tapestry that reflects their humanity, heartache and heroism in a war that ultimately defined a nation.

It's still a work in progress.

-- Bobbi Miller


Yvonne Ventresca said...

Bobbi -your WIP sounds fascinating!It's great to learn about your process.

Joanna said...

I sooo hope some publisher scoops up this story. And thanks for the meaty blog post so relevant for all writers!

Carol Coven Grannick said...

Bobbi, this is fascinating! I look forward to reading it once it's not a W-I-P. Thanks for sharing it!

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Yvonne, Joanna and Carol for your kind words! I'll keep you posted, hopefully with good news!

Margaret Simon said...

Historical fiction is a favorite of mine to read but can be tricky to write. I know readers expect some degree of creative license but how much is too much. Staying true to the story is important. Good luck with this endeavor. Sounds fascinating.

Monica Kulling said...

It may still be a work in progress, Bobbi, but a mighty fine one I'm certain. I look forward to placing this book proudly beside my other BOBBI MILLER historical fiction offerings. Thanks for this wonderful post! ~ Monica Kulling

Esther Hershenhorn said...

Leap away, Bobbi!
Sebel and her story NEED to be told.
Thank you for introducing me to a woman - I - needed to know - and - for sharing how you're coming at this story.
I can't wait to read it.

Carmela Martino said...

What a marvelous story idea, Bobbi! I wish you great success in molding it into a novel we'll all be able to read one day.

Julie Phend said...

Thank you for this post. As a writer struggling with how best to tell a fascinating historical story, I really appreciated the peek into your process and your thinking. Can't wait to see the book when it's finished.

Bobbi Miller said...

Thank you, Margaret and Monica, Esther and Carmela, and Julie, for your kind and wonderful words of support for my work. I'll keep ypu posted on The Young Rebels!

Mary Ann Rodman said...

Way to ride that (historical fiction) horse, Bobbi! I remember the picture book from a few years ago, Sybil's Night Ride by Karen B. Winnick, so I look forward to reading more about this woman of the Revolution. Historical fiction rules!

Edi said...
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