Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween Musings or The Haunted Character

As we celebrate All Hallow’s Eve it seems appropriate to share the story of my character who insisted her name was NOT Elizabeth but Sarah. Elizabeth is the protagonist in my Civil War novel, and like everyone else in Elizabeth’s family, she has been given a first name of an ancestor of mine who lived in the area of Tennessee where my novel takes place. But for the first few weeks that I was imagining my story, every time that I thought about Elizabeth’s character the name Sarah came to mind, as in “Oh, Sarah will do this, or say this, or encounter this problem.” I would have to stop and remind myself that there was NO Sarah in my story, but after days of this I started to have a very hard time thinking of Elizabeth as Elizabeth. The name began to seem unwieldy; it just didn’t feel right anymore. By the third week Elizabeth thankfully reemerged, and all was right with the world. Or so I thought.
While imagining the plot, setting, and characters I was feverishly researching my book. A stack of books began to grow, websites were being bookmarked, and Civil War reenactments were attended. My stack of books included, among many others,  Mary Chestnut’s Diary and Sarah Morgan: The Civil War Diary of a Southern Woman. While the Mary Chestnut diary is a classic, and often quoted in Civil War books, the Sarah Morgan was more useful for me, as she was a young woman about the age of my Elizabeth. One evening, weeks after the Sarah debacle, I was casually flipping through the Sarah Morgan book, and came upon photographs taken of her later in life. These pictures were taken after she was married. Morgan had been her maiden name. When I saw her married name on the picture captions my spine tingled, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. After marriage Sarah Morgan became Sarah Dawson. Elizabeth’s family is the Dawson family, and had been since the day I began to envision my story. (Dawson is also a family name, though from a few more generations back.) Had I listened to the Sarah who had the audacity to insist I name my protagonist after her, her name would have been Sarah Dawson. And there was already a Sarah Dawson,  one who had actually lived and breathed. Cue Twilight Zone theme music.
Though Sarah was quite audacious, and the discovery of the real Sarah Dawson rather unsettling, I have since heard stories from two other writers who have written Civil War books and both of them had strange coincidences occur while writing their books as well. The best story comes from a writer who had written a character and had the character die on a particular day. Some time later she was visiting a graveyard near the setting of her novel only to discover a tombstone with her character’s name. This tombstone listed the day of death as the same day her fictional character died. The third author, upon hearing both of these stories, and who had a story of her own, mused that perhaps there is something about the spirits of those who lived during the Civil War, an unrest perhaps, that makes them want to reach out to those of us writing their stories. I don’t know. That isn’t an area I know much about. But…who knows?
 Now cue Halloween music.
Happy Haunted Halloween!!


P.S. Still Halloween-ish: Check out the new show Grimm on NBC Fridays. Imaginative new mix of detective and fairy tale genres, and filmed here in beautiful Portland, Oregon.

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