Thursday, October 7, 2010

Annette Laing on Invisible History

From Annette Laing's Goodreads blog:

So there I was, sitting comfortably in a comfy chair at Starbucks, amply supplied with caffeine, and working away happily on the third book. Everything was going swimmingly. I had a great set of plot twists, interesting new characters to work with, and a story set in the historical period I know best, the 18th century. Finally, I could use that PhD in early American history writing something people would want to read!  But I digress...

Out of the blue, the book went wrong. I finished a chapter, only to realize that I had already used up the plot points for several chapters ahead, leaving Hannah sitting outside in the piney woods of rural southeastern Georgia in 1752, waiting for a pot of water to boil over an outdoor fire. What was she thinking? I didn't know. Was she bored? If not, what was she thinking about? No clue. All she could see and all I could see were pine trees.

I packed up and went home, deciding it was time to put the writing on hold, and take to reading for inspiration. First, I tried more history. It didn't help. The history of Georgia in that period is a bit thin, so I cheated and started revisiting South Carolina history, hoping for ideas from the state next door. Thinking again about the frontier helped a little, but it wasn't that thrilling. And I really couldn't shake the strong feeling that  I was missing something big...

All at once, it came to me.

You know, for someone who claims to be an historian of religion, I can be pretty oblivious. In planning and writing Book 3, I had ignored invisible history. What I mean by that is the religious beliefs and the folklore  that livened up what to modern outsiders might just seem like a tedious landscape. The people of the past populated those spaces with ghosts, spirits, miracles, and mysteries; with tall tales and sad stories.

Native Americans would surely have had the best-developed  folklore of any group in the rural South in the mid-18th century, but they were being chased from their lands. Meanwhile, Africans and Europeans had begun weaving their own stories and beliefs around their new American homes, often drawing on the traditions of their Indian neighbors, friends, and family members. There was, of course, much exchanging of stories among these ethnic groups.  

Meanwhile, wealthier and educated settlers (who were the smallest group, but the best represented in history) were abandoning many of their supernatural beliefs. Instead, they developed a keen interest in buying and owning stuff: Houses, clothes, china, carriages, and so on. Boy, that sounds familiar, doesn't it?

My modern time travelers, however, mix with poor people in my story, and the trick now is to get them not only to witness folklore, but to believe in it.  First, I need some folklore for them to hear. So I'm reading again, and planning a trip to the Okefenokee Swamp, a rich source of spooky atmosphere and home of some of the best storytelling tradition in Georgia...

Wish me luck as I hunt ghosts and seek out tall tales. And if any of you have some cool stories from your own families, pass them along. I can borrow them outright if we both like, or rewrite them to suit!

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Annette Laing is the author of The Snipesville Chronicles, the misadventures of three kids from the most boring town in the Deep South who become reluctant visitors in British and American history. Don't Know Where, Don't Know When and A Different Day, A Different Destiny are available from your favorite bookseller; you can also find them -- and learn more about Annette's commitment to Non-Boring History -- at her website:


  1. Great Post. I was recently wandering through the GA backwoods looking for a house circa 1795 that was part of a Quaker settlement. How easily our folklore and history is lost....

  2. I'm sharing a book with Annette that my family wrote four decades ago (printed and stapled together, this book) that tried to put to paper some of the anecdotes, tall tales and ghost stories my family traded in. It's interesting to see the oral tradition on a page.