11. May 2023 · Comments Off on The Shape of Research To Come · Categories: Random Book and Media Musings

So, now that a number of items off the 2023 to-do list have been checked off, I have to apply myself sternly to the next item on the list, which is to complete the Civil War novel That Fateful Lightning. Which at this point is about half completed … the half remaining though, is about Miss Minnie Vining’s journey through the Civil War as a battlefield nurse, after the previous decade and a half as an Abolitionist campaigner.

I have been reminded once again, how small was the circle of intellectuals and campaigners for the Abolitionist cause, especially when it came to the female personalities. They all knew each other, or at one or two connections removed, and many of them continued in various other causes – notably for the rights of women with regard to legal matters and the vote. So, now the deep, deep dive into the American Civil War; on one side, Shelby Foote’s massive three-volume history, a fair number of Bruce Catton’s books that I have on hand (since my mother had an abiding interest in the Civil War and had nearly all of his books) a volume of Alexander Gardner’s photographs, and sixteen or seventeen of the Time Life series on the war, which is useful to me for the pictures more than the scholarship involved. I need to be able to visualize scenes, places, and people. My father once asked me how I went about describing a scene, and I told him it was almost like building a miniature set, only I built it in my mind: picturing the room, the place, the people in it, how the sunlight poured through the windows, what they could see from those windows, imagining the way that the place smelled, the little details of dust, sounds from outside,  and small things in the corners.

So, I need to be able to build a picture in my mind of the characters; how they would have moved, spoken and the words they used, acted towards each other. I won’t go much into the battles and personalities of all the ‘big’ players of the war – it’s just the little hints, details and insights that I am snorkling after. Like the death of Elmer Ellsworth, the first officer to be killed in the war – taking down a Confederate flag from a building in Alexandria, just across the Potomac from Washington. He was a handsome man, a minor celebrity and personal friend of Abraham Lincoln. (Huh – Sam Houston once described Jefferson Davis as ‘ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard’. Not that this will have a bearing on the story, but that Sam Houston found Davis to be a ‘dislikable man’ … interesting.) And Lincoln himself was so very much the odd fish, as a president; scorned as ignorant backwoods, uncouth yokel, a hick from the sticks, who didn’t understand how things were properly done in the ruling chambers and corridors of power among those who were bred and educated suitably to rule… hmm. The contemporary political cartoons lampooning him, and the editorials about him were positively vicious, especially in the European newspapers. The English magazine Punch was especially poisonous. I’ve wondered if the viciousness was precisely because he proved to be a better and more able man than he appeared at superficial glance and the carpers and cartoonists were embarrassed by their inability to see this. I’ve already written a scene where Miss Minnie meets him and is wholly charmed.

But a lot of the details I am after, aren’t in the significant histories of the war itself – they’ll be buried in the memoirs of various women and men who volunteered for the Sanitary Commission in various capacities, especially the women who were moved to volunteer as front-line nurses and after the war was done, wrote about their experiences. Fortunate I am that a lot of them were available online – including one that I am still pursuing, since it gives me the personal link between the Bostonian Minnie Vining and the Chicagoan Mary Bickerdyke … who was apparently an irresistible force to be reckoned with; WT Sherman allowed that Mary Bickerdyke outranked him, in the general scheme of things. My general plot has Minnie joining up with Mary Bickerdyke, and the Union Army in the west.

The specific plot depends on what I discover in this. Pray for me as I venture forth…

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