Many historical novelists prefer to make our main characters those about whom we know less than the key historical figures that dominate the pages of textbooks and biographies. Charles Frazier’s beautiful Cold Mountain, for example, follows the journey of an ancestor about whom all he basically knew was that this great-grand uncle deserted the Confederate Army and made his way on foot back to his home in the Western North Carolina mountains. Frazier has said they he was glad he didn’t know more than that of his ancestor because it freed him up to imagine his story from there. In the case of my novel A TANGLED MERCY, I became fascinated with the Denmark Vesey slave revolt, though less with its leader Vesey than with a fairly obscure member of the uprising, the urban blacksmith who initially refused to become involved in the rebellion. This blacksmith, Tom Russell, ultimately agreed to craft the weapons for the revolt, but insisted on only receiving cash payment for his labor—perhaps saving up to try and purchase his own or someone’s freedom, just as Vesey had done years before?—and keeping his name out of all lists of the revolt’s leaders. That was more than enough to send my imagination into overdrive on all sorts of back story for why he initially balked at joining, and what made him shift course to become the central weapon maker and what happened to him during the hunt for revolt instigators and the city’s brutal aftermath.
One interesting challenge for any historical novelist is not to overstep historical attitudinal boundaries of the time. For example, many contemporary female (and male) readers appreciate a novel with a strong and feisty woman protagonist—Scarlet O’Hara with a social and racial conscience. And, clearly, every era of history has had its Joan of Arc or Catherine the Great or Elizabeth I, but to put pronouncements on women’s right into the mouth of a random peasant in eighteenth-century Russia would probably strain the reader’s credulity—and the novel would sound a false note. The movie version of COLD MOUNTAIN—if I’m recalling correctly— includes at least one scene not directly from the book in which a main character gives a marvelously enlightened mini-monologue against slavery, and while we modern readers would applaud the racial sensitivity of the speech, it comes across in that moment as an insertion of modern perspectives into the mouth of a Civil War-era mountain man, who very well might not have gone off to fight for slavery, but probably wouldn’t spout a fully articulated treatise against it. Frazier, on the other hand, is meticulous in his novel to adhere to historical attitudes, so that his female protagonists are strong, courageous and determined, but don’t sound like modern women discussing their rights.
I had to walk a fine line with A TANGLED MERCY in “hearing” the speech of the various historical characters. For example, I chose not to use the N- word, despite the fact that it would have been historically accurate for various white characters in nineteenth-century Charleston to utter. But in thinking I would call a number of close African-American friends (whom I can ask most anything from professional decisions to child-rearing challenges) to see what they thought of my including the word in dialogue, I finally couldn’t even bring myself to make those calls. Which answered my question for me. And I read an article Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on the subject of white speakers or writers using the word. That confirmed what my gut had already told me: that especially as a white writer, that word—for me, at least— falls into a whole different class of vulgarity that I choose not to include, realistic or historically accurate or not.
And tempting as it was to make the two white young women of the historical story come off as brave and unflagging abolitionists, that would have been too easy, too superficial. Instead, I tried to show what the real Angelina Grimké (who did later grow up to become a leader in abolition and women’s rights) might have experienced as a seventeen-year-old that could have made her question her entire culture and upbringing—but it had to be showing that process of realization. And because I’d read so many archived letters and diaries of white slaveholding women for my doctoral dissertation, I knew the other young woman, Emily Pinckney (fictional but based on a number of actual women of the time) might have been rattled, horrified and deeply disturbed by what she witnessed in 1822, but probably would not have entirely rebelled against her culture, since the Angelina Grimkés of the time were extremely rare. So Emily Pinckney’s process of enlightenment goes only so far, and that’s part of what makes her character tragic: because she sees the horror of the system all around her, but can only bring herself to be quietly and secretly subversive, whereas Angelina, as a dazzling exception to the rule, would go on to be a public disrupter.