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September 21, 2009

Gretchen's PhotoIn her recent blog, “Writing What You Know,” Joan Barth discusses her fascination with New York City in the 1880s. This fascination, in part, is because her grandmother emigrated from Ireland at that time. I understand Joan’s interest in this era. My young adult novel Grace Rising is set in Philadelphia during the 1918 influenza pandemic. My interest in this Philadelphia time has similar personal connections.

First of all, my mother was born in 1919 in Chester, Pennsylvania, not long after a sibling had died from the flu. As is usually the case, a dead sibling haunts one’s life, at least a little. Almost every family in the Philadelphia area lost someone in that terrible epidemic. Several years ago and shortly before she died, my mother’s best friend told me of how irrevocably her life was changed by the loss of her father to the flu in 1918. Rose King’s mother never remarried. Instead the family – Rose and her sister – moved in with Rose’s strict grandmother and her mother had to go out to work. Rose never knew her father. She was well into her 80s when I last spoke with her, yet that death still loomed over her life.

Places can fascinate as much as facts. My novel begins and ends in the house in which I now live, a parsonage built in the 1870s in Bucks County. When we first moved here almost eighteen years ago, we had the singular honor of meeting a woman who had lived in the house in 1918 when her father was minister of the nearby church. It was a Sunday morning and my husband and I were, as usual, working on the house when we noticed two people staring at us, or as it turned out, the house.

Alice Ramer and her middle-aged son were visiting the church from out of town and Alice, in her 80s at the time, had a yearning to remember. To her delight, we invited her into the house to explore. “It is just the same,” she said of the house – music to the restorers’ ears. Thus began a correspondence that lasted until she died several years later. She wrote me of the deaths during the epidemic, how her minister father could scarcely keep up with the funeral services. But that’s not all she related. She remembered the white hydrangeas beside the road, the corn sheller inside the carriage house, the Oxhart cherry tree in the backyard with its large sweet fruits. My fascination grew. I made my novel’s protagonist, Grace, a minister’s daughter living in what is today my house.

A sense of place is so important to a novel and if the historical writer can channel specifics, so much the better. Most of my novel takes place in Old Philadelphia where my heroine volunteers to help fight the flu. During the epidemic, Grace lives with her aunt and uncle in a tiny colonial-era house that still stands at Fourth and Locust. My mother lived in that house when she was 19 years old. Now 89, my mother still recalls the house’s spiraling pie-crust stairs, the attic bedroom she inhabited, the kitchen overlooking the rear yard. Memories are powerful things. The old ones don’t fade nearly as much as one would think.

Yes, writing the historical novel means lots of dusty research in libraries, but it can also mean connecting with people with living memories, even if that’s through their diaries and letters. For writing historical fiction reinforces our connections to the past, our links to the lives of our predecessors, calling back the places they once lived, the objects they touched, the streets they strode. Almost as good as a time machine.

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