Doing research to write a historical novel can be a mixed bag of great moments when just what you need for your story shows up right in front of your eyes or frustrating times when you find out that unless you change history, your character cannot possibly do what you want him to do in the story or be where you thought she was going to be.
Years ago when I was a young writer embarking on my first historical story, I was a little dubious whether I could be successful since history was not my favorite subject in school. Far from it. But I soon discovered that history can be fascinating when you’re reading about people and events you choose to study. Now, with many historical novels under my writing belt, I look forward to the research when I begin fleshing out a new idea for a story. Immersing myself in the history of whatever era and/or event I want to use in my books has a way of opening my creative mind to possibilities about my characters and plots that I might never have imagined until I started doing that vital research.
My new historical novel, These Healing Hills, is no exception. The story set in 1945 in the Kentucky Appalachian Mountains has a background history of the Frontier Nursing Service. This service was founded in 1925 by Mary Breckinridge to bring better healthcare to mothers and children in the mountains. The nurse midwives rode up the mountain trails to care for their patients in their homes.
My research led me to Mary Breckinridge’s autobiography, Wide Neighborhoods that tells the story of how and why she established the Frontier Nursing Service. So then the next step was visiting her Kentucky home, Wendover. Her house, the central headquarters for the FNS while she was living, is now a National Historical Site and operates as a bed and breakfast inn. A beautiful one at that. I liked walking the same paths as Breckinridge and her nurse midwives had done. I saw the river they had to ford on their horses and read about the swinging bridges they sometimes had to cross to get to their patients.
One of the recruitment posters I came across in my research promised every nurse midwife who came to the mountains her own horse, her own dog and plenty of adventure while keeping the mountain children healthy. What nurse could resist that! Certainly not my character in These Healing Hills. And she did get her own horse, her own dog and all that adventure.
A memoir of one of the nurse midwives helped me better understand the trials and yes, adventures the women had in the mountains. One thing they had to learn was the mountain lingo. For example, the mountain people said the nurses came to “catch babies.”
Those kind of unique mountain expressions were wonderful discoveries to slip into my story and perhaps what I enjoyed most in my research. I embraced the poetic sound of the “edge of dark” when people spoke of night was falling. Getting a “soon start” meant beginning early in the morning. Sick children were said to be “punying around,” while a woman in labor might be said to be “punishing bad.” Vegetable gardens were “sass patches,” while a flower bed was a “blossom patch.” These and more like them took me to the mountains to hear the people talking and that helped bring my characters to life.
Then the folk cures were a window to the past when the people had no doctors to treat them and had to come up with their own ways. Some of them were more than a little strange while others made sense. Here’s a quote from a mountain healer I came across in The Wolfpen Notebooks by James Still who spent many years recording the unusual expressions of his mountain neighbors. “There was put here on this earth at the beginning of time all the herbs needed to cure every illness. Hit’s up to us to tinker and experiment and learn what cures what.”
That is sort of what a writer has to do when she is digging back into history to come up with the background and perhaps plot of her story. You have to tinker and experiment and learn what works for your story. I’m glad I was able to do that with mountain ways for These Healing Hills.
More about These Healing Hills:
Francine Howard has her life all mapped out until the soldier she planned to marry at WWII’s end writes to tell her he’s in love with a woman in England. Devastated, Francine seeks a fresh start in the Appalachian Mountains, training to be a nurse midwife for the Frontier Nursing Service.
Deeply affected by the horrors he witnessed at war, Ben Locke has never thought further ahead than making it home to Kentucky. His future shrouded in as much mist as his beloved mountains, he’s at a loss when it comes to envisioning what’s next for his life.
When Francine’s and Ben’s paths intersect, it’s immediately clear that they are from different worlds and value different things. But love has a way of healing old wounds . . . and revealing tantalizing new possibilities.
ANN H. GABHART, the bestselling author of over thirty novels, has been called a storyteller, not a bad thing for somebody who grew up dreaming of being a writer. In addition to her popular Harmony Hill Shaker novels, Ann writes about family life in novels like Angel Sister and Love Come Home as well as cozy mysteries (as A.H. Gabhart) set in small towns like the Kentucky town where she grew up. These Healing Hills is her first historical novel set in the Appalachian Mountains. She and her husband have three children and nine grandchildren and enjoy country life in Kentucky.