We’re celebrating the 200th Anniversary of the War of 1812 this year and to that end I’m showcasing my book, The Other Elizabeth, here in my blog. It’s the story of a girl who goes to Upper Canada Village with her Grade Seven class for a Canadian History field trip and suddenly finds herself back in time to a point just before the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, one of the decisive battles of the War of 1812.
I have often been asked how I got the idea for this book. Writers are always asked that question, aren’t they? Well, one hot and sunny day I took my children to Upper Canada Village on the St. Lawrence River. After a while they tired of visiting the old buildings and decided they had to find food. I was left on my own. I found myself in the old school building, all by myself. At that time there were no guides to the buildings, people were left to roam around and discover their secrets all by themselves.
It was a small, one-room schoolhouse. I looked around me at the black slate boards on one wall, the old, battered wooden desks and stools, the pot-bellied black iron woodstove, the bucket for wood and another bucket for water and then, most particularly, at the slab of wood that served as a threshold to the room. It was a thick, rough-cut piece of timber, and had been worn down smoothly at the center to a depth of a couple of inches at least. I started to wonder: how many feet had crossed that threshold, to wear it down so? How many children had sat at these desks, learning to read, write and master arithmetic?
And then the writer’s magic words: “What if?”
What if a modern day girl, on a field trip with her school, perhaps, walked into this room and suddenly found herself back in time?
In a flash, Elizabeth was born. But in another flash, following hard on the first, came the questions. To what period of time would she go back ? More importantly, why? There always has to be a good reason for a traveller to go back in time.
I poked around a bit and found out that in 1813 the Battle of Crysler’s Farm had taken place right here. That would be interesting, I thought. That would be a good time to take her back to. Then another thought stopped me dead. I had not been brought up in Canada. I knew nothing of Canadian history, nothing of how pioneers lived. I couldn’t write about that time!
But Elizabeth had established herself firmly in my head and she would not let me off the hook, so I gritted my teeth and decided that I would have to do–ugh!–research. At that time I had only written one book and several short stories, but nothing that had required–ugh!–research.
I rounded up my kids, took them home, then came back another day on my own. I found a small research centre tucked away in the Village, not open to the public, but open to people doing serious research. In there I found lists of the names of the people who had settled the area–mostly Loyalists who had fled up to that area after the American Revolution. I found maps of where each family had settled, where orchards were planted, where mills were built, schools erected. I found old newspapers with records of sales of cattle and other goods. I found out that the only building in the Village that stood on the very spot where it had stood in 1813 was Cook’s Tavern, so I decided to make the time transition occur there. All the other buildings were authentic for that time period, but had been brought in from other areas. By the time I left the Village that day my story was bubbling and building up in my head, overflowing with details and ideas.
I carried on researching in libraries, museums, wherever I could find information. I travelled down to the United States to find out more about where the Loyalists had come from, what the situation had been like for them. The more I discovered, the more intrigued I became.
Since that book, I have written many more historical novels. With each one I have learned so much. Research is no longer something to be dreaded, but a fascinating journey of discovery. Like a detective unravelling clues in a mystery. Like putting together the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. The research gives me details for my stories that I would never otherwise discover. You don’t know what you don’t know until you find out about it, do you? My main problem now is making myself stop researching and start writing.