Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction
Originally published March 8, 2017
Last week I wrote a chapter I’d been afraid to write for over ten years. It wasn’t exactly that I’d procrastinated. My two Wilder books plus an unpublished memoir, an unpublished novel, and several shorter unpublished manuscripts got in the way. So did my Wilder massive open online classes. But even as I worked in spare moments on this languishing project—another young adult novel about the American Civil War—that one particular chapter weighed heavily on my creative conscience. I dreaded finally coming to the place in the novel where I’d have to write it.
The scene centered on the Battle of Pea Ridge, fought from March 6-8, 1862, in northwestern Arkansas. Could I write about something so dramatic and violent? Could I hold all the historical details together and yet write convincingly from my main character’s point of view? How to balance fact against fiction? How to depict the sights, sounds, and emotions my character would experience on the battlefield? I wasn’t sure I was equal to the task.
And yet last week, I suddenly found my voice and sailed through the chapter. Granted, it’s rough and needs improvement, but once something’s down on paper, I can make it better. The challenge for me is always the blank page.
What Comes Next
Now I’m writing the next chapter—what happened at Pea Ridge immediately after the battle. After writing several pages yesterday, I realized I needed answers to a few questions. What about the Cox family, who owned Elk Horn Tavern, where much of the battle’s heaviest and deadliest fighting took place? I knew members of the family had sheltered in the cellar for three days, listening to the sounds of war overhead, but I knew nothing more about them. Who were the Coxes? Were they Union or Secesh? Where were they from?
I reviewed my Pea Ridge notes, which span over a dozen years of research. They were no help at all. Neither were the traditional Pea Ridge and Ozark Civil War histories on my bookshelves. As a last resort, I decided to research the subject online. Then it dawned on me. After ten years of stewing about my Pea Ridge chapters, I had finally confronted them on the 155th anniversary of the battle itself. The timing seemed auspicious.
Contemporary Technology, Historical Details
Within minutes, I began to uncover what I needed. Contemporary technology giving up long-forgotten details from the past. Ten years ago, I might not have found this information. Or least, I might not have found it so quickly or easily. Historical records, newspaper articles, books, photographs, and maps have been digitized over the last decade; material that would have taken months or even years to track down often is now just a mouse-click away. So what did I find?
Joseph Cox and his wife Lucinda were just seventeen during the Battle of Pea Ridge. They had married the year before, and Lucinda was pregnant—the couple’s first child was born seven months later. Joseph’s mother Polly and two of his brothers also took shelter in that cellar. So did the family’s five slaves—two younger men, William and Samuel; their wives (apparently nameless to history and not legally because Arkansas law at that time prevented marriage between people in bondage); and an older man, who also remains nameless in my current sources.
Slave ownership in Missouri and Arkansas didn’t necessarily mean the Coxes supported the Confederacy. In fact, just a few months after the Battle of Pea Ridge, President Lincoln appointed one of his strongest supporters in Missouri to be the provisional governor of Arkansas. That new provisional governor owned eighteen slaves. So my research didn’t provide a definitive answer to one of my questions; as a novelist, I’ll have to make that decision for Joseph and Lucinda.
But other online discoveries yesterday provided details I hadn’t imagined. A Northwest Arkansas Times article dating from the 1960s revealed that Lucinda wrote a poem about the battle of Elk Horn Tavern; she also was a healer, using herbs and plants native to her part of the world.
The same article also included a vivid picture of the Coxes’ battlefield experience. Lucinda’s granddaughter remembered that “Grandmother told how horrible it was cringing from the cannon’s thunder, hearing the screams of the wounded and dying, and trying to dodge the blood seeping through the crevices of the upstairs rooms.” The tavern had been turned into a field hospital; wounded and dying from both sides were treated there as the battle raged around them.
Different Sources, One Story
Another detail I discovered yesterday fits like a puzzle piece against a somewhat perplexing account of the battle I’d uncovered years ago from a different source—an Oregonian interview in 1926 with a Portland woman originally from southwest Missouri. She recalled that her mother, who traveled from Missouri to Pea Ridge on the second day of the battle to nurse the wounded, saw sheep in a “nearby pasture,” had them butchered, and “began making broth” in big, black kettles for federal soldiers.
It turns out that the Cox family raised sheep at Pea Ridge, and although the patriarch of the family—Jesse Cox—had driven his horses and cattle to Kansas before the battle, he apparently left his sheep behind at Elk Horn Tavern.
As a novelist, I can put Mr. Cox’s mutton into those big black kettles and make my characters serve up the broth. Unlike historians, novelists don’t have to verify every historical detail that finds its way into their books. In fact, some writers of historical fiction reject historical research altogether, thinking that it’s too confining and limits their creative vision.
But for me, having a historical foundation for my characters and their stories, knowing that their actions and emotions are grounded in authenticity—that makes the process of writing historical fiction all the more satisfying.
Truth is, after all, stranger than fiction.