Tuesday, January 13, 2015
Historical writers love it when their research reveals a truth that is stranger than fiction…unless the truth they discover is one of their own buried secrets.
A few months ago, I was deep into the edits of Return to Exile, the second book in my Carthage Chronicles series. The plague in third-century Carthage was ramping up. People were dying. My frantic heroine, Dr. Lisbeth Hastings, didn’t know what to do.
I was editing a paragraph about measles (the mysterious malady I’d chosen to inflict upon the inhabitants of this series and had researched meticulously) when it suddenly hit me. Staring at the computer screen, I broke out in a sweat.
I was writing about a virus I’d had as a child … and I had almost died. How could I have forgotten?
Suddenly, I was eight years old, lying on the couch and burning up with fever in our drafty old Kansas farmhouse. The sights, sounds, smells, even the foul, wet-chicken-feather taste of my blister-coated tongue came rushing back. Every lost detail was now painfully vivid.
It was Christmas Eve. In the corner the blue lights of the tree twinkled. My mother and grandmother hovered around me. They placed a cool cloth on my forehead and tried to coerce me into drinking hot tea. Deep racking coughs ripped from my raw throat. I struggled for air but couldn’t catch my breath. Mom plastered menthol rub all over my chest while my grandmother constructed a breathing tent she made from an old sheet draped over some stretched-out coat hangers. All night my family boiled water on the stove, carried the hot pot to my bedside, and fanned the steam toward me. I could hear the adults discussing whether or not I should be taken to the hospital. I remember my mother’s frantic voice. I remember being very afraid.
How could I have blocked this memory from my mind? Even more unsettling: how could I have written nearly 300,000 words about this deadly virus and NOT remember something this traumatic? The implications left me shaking. What other memories or feelings were buried deep inside of me?
As I writer, my job is to go deep into the minds and memories of my characters; to discover their secrets and capitalize upon their fears. This incident, however, taught me an important lesson: all of my characters carry a little part of me. My fears, my dreams, my flaws show up as various traits in them. For example, in Return to Exile, Dr. Lisbeth Hastings is desperate to save those dying of measles. As I was writing, I could hear the panic in her voice. Without access to modern medicine, what could she do? In a last ditch effort, Lisbeth and her mother built vaporizer tents and placed warm poultices on the chests of those struggling to breathe. Now I know where I got the idea to research homespun medical remedies. I know why I could see the little vaporizer tents in my head.
Curious if I’d plagiarized any other memories from my past, I carefully searched my Return to Exile manuscript. I discovered the bull chase scene is fraught with the exact same terror I experienced growing up on a dairy farm. The one animal I knew to avoid was the bull. Holstein bulls have dangerous temperaments and a reputation for causing serious injuries. One day I went to the pasture to herd the cows in for milking. Less than a hundred yards away, our bull issued a deep, braying bellow that scattered the herd. His head went down and in a split second 2,000 pounds of pure aggression charged straight at me.
I turned and scrambled toward the fence. I don’t remember how I did it but I managed to shinny up those wooden slates and hurl myself over the top board. I fell to the other side a split second before the bull’s massive head hit the fence with the force of a freight train. I stood totally paralyzed and unable to move as he rammed the fence again and again.
An author’s experiences and memories can’t help but show up in their stories. We bring our pasts with us. This revelation into my past has taught me two important writing lessons. First, as a writer I must dig deep into my past and discover the secrets buried in my memories. Second, I can’t be afraid to live and experience new things. They are exciting fodder for future characters.
Lynne Gentry has written for numerous publications and is a professional acting coach and playwright with several full-length musicals to her credit. She likes to write stories that launch modern women into ancient adventures, such as Healer of Carthage (2014), which was the first in The Carthage Chronicles series. Return to Exile is the second, and Valley of Decision is expected September 22, 2015. Gentry loves spending time with her family and medical therapy dog.