Writing Historical Fiction: Imagination and Logic
I recently received this from a reader:
I was quite fascinated to see, on page 89 of your book, mention of my 5th great grandfather, Robert Lindsay (c.1735-1801). The page reads in part,
Robert Lindsay, who had purchased the property from the Buis heirs, like the inn’s former owner, appeared to be a loyalist. Everyone was aware of his political views, and he knew that most of his clientele were of the opposite persuasion. But he was smart enough to keep his ideas to himself and not to do anything that would jeopardize his good name and business. He eventually changed his political views, became a Whig, joined the Guilford County Militia, and fought for the independence of the colonies.
… I had no idea that Robert Lindsay was [a loyalist]. In fact, I had exactly the opposite impression of him, since he served in the first independent NC legislature ….
I’d love to learn more about your … research and sources.
Although I responded to this reader privately, I thought others might like to know how I research and write historical fiction. I write about ordinary people, individuals who aren’t in the major history books. So I have to dig through courthouse records, genealogy files, and historical documents in libraries and private collections. Sometimes the information is very limited.
That’s when I use a combination of imagination and logic to write my stories. I write historical fiction based on actual historical events and known facts, but when the facts aren’t known, I figure out the most reasonable scenario based on what is known. I include my primary resources in the back of the book so readers can see exactly where I got my information.
I have not done any genealogy work on Robert Lindsay. He came to my attention in research on the famous Buis Ordinary, one of the first taverns in what was originally Rowan County, NC and which later became Guilford County. Lindsay purchased the inn from the Buis Family and applied for a tavern license in 1769. (Source: Fred Hughes map supplement of Guilford County, available from Guilford County Genealogical Society)
Identifying Robert Lindsay as a loyalist is an assumption on my part and not from any published source.
William Buis, who originally owned the inn was the first Justice of the Peace of Rowan County in 1753, a time when pretty much everyone was loyal to the British Crown. Mr. Lindsay bought the tavern sometime before 1769, just shortly after the repeal of the Stamp Act of 1766. It seems somewhere that I read that Robert Lindsay worked for Mr. Buis prior to his buying the inn, but I haven’t been able to find where I read that. Regardless, Mr. Lindsay acquired a tavern license on August 8, 1769 (Rowan County Court minutes). He would never have been able to acquire a tavern license had he been in opposition to Governor Tryon.
Most business people during this Pre-Revolutionary War period who were prospering from government appointments, contracts, and other business from the Crown were content with the status quo, thus making them loyalists. My intent in Chapter Eight of Spring House was to describe to the reader a change in the colonists’ way of thinking using Lindsay’s inn as my stage, his fictional barmaid as a character, and Thomas Paine’s Common Sense as the tool to carry the story of the American Revolution forward.
In Chapter Eight of Spring House, Mr. Mac (John McMachen), my real ancestor, read the pamphlet Common Sense to the illiterate bar maid. After a long silence, she said, “Those words are beautiful, Mr. Mac. Just exactly what do they mean?”
He answered “They mean, my dear child, that the author has most eloquently described that the time has come for the colonies to say farewell to the mother country and to chart our own course—the destiny of the colonies of this continent is now and forever in our hands.”
Whether Robert Lindsey became a Whig at this point or earlier, we may never know. What I do know is that he enlisted in the Guilford County Militia prior to March 26, 1779. (Source: Hughes Guilford County Muster Roll and National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution Patriot Grave Index)
It is reasonable to assume that he was a loyalist before that time because he was issued a tavern license. And that’s how I use known facts, imagination, and logic to write The Westward Sagas.