Category Archives: Writing Historical Fiction

Zion: Theocracy on the Prairie

For the next few months, I will be writing about various utopian communities that I have been researching as background for my next historical novel. One of the many reasons for my interest in this topic is that I happen to live in a community that was founded as a religious utopia at the turn of the twentieth century. Zion, Illinois, was founded in 1901 by a faith healer named John Alexander Dowie.

Dowie was born in Edinburgh in 1847 to a religious family. His father worked as both a tailor and minister. In 1860, the family moved to Australia to better their economic situation. The young Dowie became interested in the spiritual aspects of healing at an early age. An experiment with his father’s pipe at the age of six made him feel so sick that he swore off the use of tobacco or alcohol. He developed digestive problems once they moved to Australia, a condition that he claimed to heal by praying and trusting in God.

When Dowie was 21, he returned to Scotland to enroll at Edinburgh University, where he studied theology and English. His father called him back to Australia before he obtained his degree, but once there, he was ordained as a minister in the Congregational Church, a denomination he served for nearly ten years. During this time, he published an anti-Catholic work called Rome’s Polluted Springs.

He became an independent minister once he began to preach divine healing, the belief that he could cure people through prayer and the laying on of hands. He was briefly involved with the Salvation Army and later got in trouble with the Melbourne, Australia, authorities for leading unauthorized processions. Fire destroyed his church under questionable circumstances, bringing the suspicion of arson down upon Dowie. He used the insurance money to pay off his debts and then moved to the United States.

He held services up and down the West Coast for a couple of years and then visited Chicago in 1890 for a convention on divine healing. A successful experience healing a woman with a fibroid tumor convinced him that God wanted him to stay there. During the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, he rented a nearby property and held services of “Divine Healing.” Many scholars believe that the majority of the healings that took place were entirely staged, although there is some evidence that Dowie was able to relieve people of psychosomatic illnesses.

He continued his work in Chicago after the fair, gaining quite a few followers—and substantial opposition from those who thought he was a fraud. In 1896, he founded the Christian Catholic Church in Zion. (At this point, Zion was a reference to the mountain in Israel, not the later community in Illinois.)

Because of the continuing controversies about his work, Dowie secretly bought 6,000 acres of land in far northern Illinois (45 miles north of Chicago) on the shore of Lake Michigan. On that land, he founded one of the only completely planned communities in the world. The streets were laid on a grid with a circular drive surrounding the church at the center of the town. All north-south streets except two were given Biblical names. (The two non-Biblical names were chosen to honor his native Scotland.) East-west streets were numbered, starting with 1st Street on the Wisconsin-Illinois border and going south. A great deal of land was reserved for parks, a feature that continues to distinguish the city today.

The government of Zion was a theocracy, controlled by Dowie’s church, which prohibited consuming alcohol, tobacco, and pork, or practicing modern medicine. Dowie owned all the land in town and offered settlers 1,100-year leases.

The town, supposedly built as a community where believers could lead a perfect Christian life, turned out to be a giant economic fraud. Dowie’s followers were required to deposit their money in Zion Bank, which was not a legitimate financial institution but was wholly under Dowie’s control. He also sold worthless stocks in various Zion businesses. The town was continually in financial trouble, and in 1905 when Dowie traveled to Jamica for health reasons, he was deposed. The town came under the leadership of Wilbur Voliva, Dowie’s lieutenant. An investigation discovered that somewhere between two and three million dollars were missing.

Gradually, the church’s hold on the town diminished. Other churches were founded in Zion, as were new businesses. It remained a dry community for nearly a century, but in 2000, the city council passed an ordinance allowing liquor to be sold within the city limits.

Dowie’s fame, however, will live on as long as people read great literature. James Joyce was so intrigued by the man that he made him a character in his novel Ulysses.

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10 Questions with Ruth Hull Chatlien

Ever wonder what I think of Henry VIII? What historical period I’d like to visit? What historical figure I’d want to be in a past life?

You can read the answers to these and other questions in my interview on the Pittsburgh Examiner.

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Outlining Historical Fiction

It feels as though I’ve been very slow at starting the new novel, mostly because of the distraction of cancer treatment. This week, however, I finally felt like I was getting somewhere. That’s because I stopped just reading about the historical background for the book. I actually started on the outline.

My method is pretty direct. I start by listing chronologically the main events from the life of the woman I’m writing about—at least, the ones that pertain to the period of the novel. Unlike The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which covered a time span of more than 30 years, the next book will cover only a few months. Once I have my list of actual historical events, I’ll start adding fictional episodes as needed: events that fill in the gaps of motivation and character development. The third and final step will be to sort those roughly into chapters.

I still have a lot of reading and research to do yet, including a trip this summer to the area where the action of the novel took place. But as a writer, I’m happiest when I’m juggling research and more creative activities.

I also received some really terrific news today. I heard from a state historical society that they have three photographs of the interior of my main character’s house (taken before the attacking Indians burned it). And I can purchase copies. That’s going to be an invaluable help to me as I write.

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Writing Historical Fiction: Organizing Research

flags

This past week, I started doing serious research for my next book. For some reason, I’m finding this upcoming project more intimidating than The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, which is odd because the new book will cover a much more condensed time period. Maybe I’m nervous because I have a better idea now of what researching a historical novel actually entails. Last time, I went into it with a certain naïveté.

At any rate, I want to organize my research more efficiently than I did last time. One thing I’m doing is to highlight the books I read. You have to understand that I’m someone who NEVER marks up books. This time, however, I’m highlighting important facts and details in yellow highlighter and even writing an occasional comment on the side–so far, mostly connections to other events or questions about the author’s objectivity/interpretation.

I also bought several packages of colored flags, and I plan to use them to indicate the different categories of information. Yellow for plot events, blue for information about my main character, green for details of daily life in the late 1800s, etc. Of course, I’ll do a lot of Internet research and probably set up a system of folders for book marks, maybe using the same categories, maybe others.

I’ve also realized I’m going to have to create a list of minor characters. There will be a lot of people in this book, although most will appear for only a page or so. It can’t be helped because of the nature of the historical conflict I’m portraying. Making a list will help me decide who to include and who to ignore.

That’s as far as my thinking has taken me so far. Do those of you who are writers have any other helpful tips for organizing research?

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What Inspired My Novel

Melinda over at Enchanted Spark invited me to be a guest blogger today. Please stop by her blog and read my post about the inspiration for my novel. And while you’re at it, check out her posts as well. She has some interesting things going on, including a writing contest!

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Writing Historical Fiction: Mimicking Old Books

As I was waiting for the copy edit review of my novel, one of the people at my publishing house had an unusual suggestion for my book. She e-mailed me and said that she had been thinking about my story and wondering if I’d want to consider doing one of those old-fashioned, annotated TOCs (tables of contents) that used to be so popular in the 1800s. Her reasoning was that she thought all the chapters are so meaty (an evaluation I loved hearing!) that it might be fun to give the readers teasers about what’s coming.

My first thought was, What are you, psychic? You see, two of the 19th-century biographies of Betsy Bonaparte that I used for sources had just that kind of TOC.

My second thought was, No way. I don’t want to give away too much of the story.

But I reconsidered and decided to see if I could do it without including spoilers. It became like a word puzzle, . . . and I love word puzzles.

After I finished a version that I was happy with, I sent it to my editor to see what he thought. He agreed that it worked, so we decided to use it.

Here are the first few chapters:

Prologue

Visiting a dying son — The seductive whirlpool of memory

Chapter I

Refugees from a revolution — An early loss — Snowball fights and arithmetic tests — Teasing Uncle Smith — Madame Lacomb’s school — Intriguing prophecy

Chapter II

The Belle of Baltimore — Dreaming of a brilliant match — Rumors about Napoleon — A Bonaparte in Baltimore — Their first encounter

Chapter III

A consummate flatterer — Quick wit and a sharp tongue — Aunt Nancy’s advice — The coquette and the guest of honor — “Destined never to part”

Chapter IV

A shocking discovery — The wedding of friends — Passion awakes — Seeking a brother’s advice — A father’s worry and a daughter’s plea

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Writing Historical Fiction, Part 1 by Meredith Allard

Today, I refer you to a great post by Meredith Allard in which she talks about how to pick the right setting for historical fiction:

Writing Historical Fiction Part 1.

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Check this out!

A couple of my articles about writing historical fiction have been published by Copperfield Review, an online literary journal devoted to historical fiction.

This link will take you to the nonfiction page, but the journal also publishes fiction, which you can access via the tab at the top of the screen.

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And the Real Letter Is . . .

In relation to yesterday’s post, the real Betsy Bonaparte letter is this one:

I shall go to America if you think there is the least necessity for it. Let me know everything about my finances. Do read as much as you can, and improve in every way. I ask you to reward my cares and anxieties about you, by advancing your own interests and happiness. I am very uneasy about you, and almost blame myself for not going with you to take care of you, and shall never forgive myself if you meet any accident by being alone.

The version I use in the novel is actually longer. Here’s another bit of it that I cut from the beginning, which I find amusing:

They have sent me a bill for six hundred cigars you took at Leghorn [the port of Livorno in Italy]. For heaven’s sake spend as little money as possible.

Bo was only sixteen at the time. I just love the idea that teenagers were still the same two hundred years ago; as soon as Mom’s back was turned, Bo went overboard on something he really wanted and had no sense of proportion about how much money he was spending.

Thanks to everyone who participated in my little guessing game. It was very reassuring to find that my letters didn’t stand out as twenty-first century fakes!

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Writing Historical Fiction: Using (and Faking) Old Letters

As I mentioned the other day, Betsy Bonaparte’s life is well documented. Many of the biographies about her quote extensively from her letters, and I include excerpts of some of them in my novel.

But there were also times when I couldn’t find a letter that said what I needed for the story, so some of the letters in my novel are fictional, written by yours truly. Trying to imitate that nineteenth century style was an exceptionally enjoyable exercise.

Below are two different letters written from Betsy to her son Bo when she was in Europe and he was in the United States. One is authentic, the other is one of mine. (I’m not saying which is which.)

This first one was written when Bo is still a young boy:

Being separated by the Atlantic is as disagreeable to me as it is to you, but I must do what is necessary to secure your future. Reward all my cares for you by studying as hard as you can, so that when I come home I will find that you have proven yourself worthy of the Bonaparte name. I love you, and I shall not rest easy until I can be with you again and look after you myself.

This second one was written shortly after Bo has traveled along to America to begin his studies at Harvard:

I shall go to America if you think there is the least necessity for it. Let me know everything about my finances. Do read as much as you can, and improve in every way. I ask you to reward my cares and anxieties about you, by advancing your own interests and happiness. I am very uneasy about you, and almost blame myself for not going with you to take care of you, and shall never forgive myself if you meet any accident by being alone.

If anyone cares to guess which letter is which, I’ll post the answer in the comments sometime tomorrow.

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