Peter, why do you love history so much? What happened?
For me, history is a hobby gone wrong. My 4th grade teacher lecturing on Laura Ingalls Wilder sent me into another time and place. Since then, I’ve either aced all my history classes or completely destroyed the grading curve. Let’s not talk about my math and Spanish classes, though. History is more than just good stories. It gives me lessons on how and why people chose what they did.
I’ve never been to South Carolina, let alone during the Civil War era. How’d you make it seem so real?
At first, I needed to know the people involved and the raw historical data—from the tools they used, food they ate, to the events locked in time. I learned this from books.
Then I visited the area. I saw what Edward Pierce saw, felt what Laura Towne (left) felt, and imagined what it would be like growing up on the islands. (Pierce and Towne are real historical figures who appear as characters in Peter’s book.) The real secret, though, is one word: Magic. No, really. The time period is magic to me, as are the people involved. I care about them, want to know everything there is to know. So I leave no stone unturned—no detail is too small to put in my head.
This is a great question and I’m glad you asked it. The real characters such as Edward Pierce and Laura Towne feel like friends to me. I spent so much time immersing myself in Pierce’s writing and Towne’s diary that I got to know them fairly well. Their interactions with Tad and Peg (fictional characters) were based on how Pierce and Towne reacted to real children.
Most conversations really happened, especially where Pierce is involved. Sometimes I condensed information for time’s sake, but the overall outcome of the discussion is the same. So, did Pierce get a lashing on the dock by Colonel Nobles? Yes. Did Laura Towne wish to teach? Yes. Did she give the freed slaves tobacco and 50 cents as they were marched to Hilton Head for training? Yes. Did Pierce meet with Lincoln? Yes.
One of the emotional moments in your book has to do with Laura Towne’s school bell. Did you get to touch the actual bell? If so, what was that like?
|Laura Towne and three students|
Finally, when the curator left, I reached out and touched it. I thought—I hoped—I might be transported back to the days when her school was a going concern. But it didn’t happen.
Your website (www.peterleavell.com) describes you in three ways: Historian, Author, Family Man. Why those three? Why, particularly, Family Man coupled with Historian and Author?
I couldn’t be a historian or author without my family. When researching, my two children opened doors for me that I could never have opened without them. Here’s an example: While on the islands, we stopped once to eat. While Tonya (his wife) and I ate, the children were invited to watch an old woman weave sweet grass baskets. While her ancient, black fingers worked the strands, she told them stories. I wanted to sit at her feet as well, but I’m not as easy to trust as the kids. This journey of research, writing, and publishing is a family journey.
What has been the hardest thing about seeing your first novel published? The best thing? The most unexpected thing? What has not happened that you expected would?
The hardest part is knowing I won’t spend the intimate time with Tad and Peg again—they wormed their way into my heart and I loved them. They were real to me.
But the best thing is that they have come to life through readers. That is so unexpected, so amazing. They feel like flesh and blood now. And I do find myself worrying about them.
|Juggling story ideas|
I expected a manual to come in the mail on how to be a published author. I waited, and waited, and it never came. Looking at other published authors, they seem so calm, cool, and collected, I really thought there was a trick to it. There’s not—or at least none of them will tell me what the trick is!
So I’m going back to my writing cave to research a new book, only to come out to speak at writer’s conferences, which I enjoy far too much.
Do you have any other talents—or is writing pretty much it?
I’m not sure you would call it a talent, but I juggle. I can count to 10 in Klingon. Knitting is a new hobby I picked up—because it’s historical. I used to play video games until they completely took over my life, so I jettisoned them and replaced them with more family time, reading time, and researching more history. I think I got the best of that deal.
Read my review of Gideon's Call.
Michael Ehret loves to play with words and as editor of the ACFW Journal, he is enjoying his playground. He also plays with words as a freelance editor at WritingOnTheFineLine.com, where he often takes a writer Into The Edit, pulling back the veil on the editing process. He has edited several nonfiction books, played with words as a corporate communicator, and reported for The Indianapolis Star.