|At Bear Pond Books, Montpelier|
Just as an example, consider the building of the great railroads that crossed the United States in the 1800s, including the Canadian Pacific Railway. I've been doing some research the CPR lately, because a student in a nearby town just pulled together nearly a hundred letters exchanged by her family members in the 1870s, and two of the letter authors worked on the railroad -- one on its construction, the other (it appears) as a low-level manager for a bit. And in one of those "coincidences" that happen a lot to writers, my husband and I enjoyed dinner last night with another couple, who brought up a place I'd never before heard of: Revelstoke, British Columbia. Our friend is going there to ski, and mentioned that the Canada government is promoting the little city as a destination for tourists and athletes. It's halfway between Vancouver (which is on the west coast of Canada) and Calgary, Alberta (another major Canadian city). And within half an hour of starting to explore the city's history, I realized it's had a constant relationship with the CPR. Now that it's a "destination" for play as well as work, the connection with the railroad is more important again!
But what is the "history" of the CPR -- and of Revelstoke? Is it the experience of railroad workers, many of them immigrants laboring for less money than appropriate, dying of overwork and disease and homesickness? Is it the exhilaration of explorers and entrepreneurs, of investors -- back then, and now -- eager to see commerce develop from their efforts? Is it the flushed happiness of a skier, exploring a massive mountain cloaked with shimmering snow? And where are the echoes of people who knew the landscapes crossed by the railroad, long before metals were worked in North America?
Good historical fiction gives us room to choose a few of those strands and pair them with stories of the hearts and minds of characters. And although we call those characters fictional -- the least "real" of all the strands being woven into the tapestry of a novel -- they too have meaning. I know they reflect me, as well as the people I've come to know and appreciate. When the effort of writing results in truly good stories, they also become a real experience for the reader.
It's been rewarding to travel around northern Vermont and New Hampshire with The Secret Room. I try to spend at least as much time listening as talking, at author events. And I've heard stories of other lives that involve secret rooms, whether their history is known or not. We all have so many questions about our past, and about our homes. Sharing the stories and questions of our lives helps make us rich with spirit, and I believe it gives us better grounding from which to climb.