What-Iffing in Historical Fiction
In 1845 near where I grew up in southeastern Illinois, a woman named Betsey Reed stood trial, accused of murdering her husband by poisoning him with arsenic. This is the factual basis for my new novel, The Glassmaker’s Wife, whose publication date is this Tuesday. On Thursday December 8 at 6pm, Eastern time, I’ll be in conversation about the book with Jessica Handler in a virtual Zoom event sponsored by Hub City Books. I hope some of you might join us at this link:
The chief witnesses against Mrs. Reed were the hired girl, Eveline Deal, who said she saw Mrs. Reed put a pinch of white powder in her husband’s coffee, and the local apothecary who said a scorched paper found in the Reeds’ dooryard was the same sort of paper he used to wrap arsenic for his customers. He said he had no memory of Mrs. Reed purchasing any arsenic, but he had no doubt she did, perhaps wearing some sort of disguise to hide her identity.
When I write novels based on true events, I do a lot of what-iffing. In other words, I start with the facts, and then I say, “What if?” When writing The Glassmaker’s Wife, I asked myself what if there were another explanation for Mr. Reed’s death. Trying to answer that question led me to the relationship between Mrs. Reed and Eveline, a fifteen-year-old girl who adores Mrs. Reed while at the same time feeling dismissed when her employer, in a fit of anger, calls her an ugly girl. In my novel, Mrs. Reed’s fate hinges on her own choices plus the ones Eveline makes.
As I what-iffed, I decided to give Mrs. Reed and Eveline a shared attraction to the letters to the lovelorn published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, a popular women’s magazine at the time. “It must be something to feel as deeply as that,” Eveline says to Mrs. Reed after reading a letter titled, “A Very Bad Case.” Eveline goes on to say, “Do you think these letters are from real people? Do you, Miss Betsey? Do you think people really have lives like that? You know what I mean, lives of longing?” My what-iffing process brought me to the center of my novel—this longing that drives people to do things they never could have imagined.
People who know the facts of the true story of Betsey Reed will, I’m sure, take issue with the way I’ve altered and re-imagined it. I had to do that in order to humanize the people who for so long have been reduced to the archetypes necessary for maintaining the legend that’s been passed down through the generations. The evil wife, the vengeful hired girl. As we know, people are always more complicated than the facts from the news reports suggest. I wanted to write The Glassmaker’s Wife so I could humanize the characters involved. I wanted to create their desires, their fears, their shortcomings so they could be more than the facts allow. That’s why I change and re-imagine and create, so the characters become more fully formed and come alive on the page.
I took particular pleasure from imagining Eveline’s life beyond the story of Betsey Reed:
The rest of her life, Eveline never forgot the summer the Mister died and all that followed. She lived a very long time, long enough to know two wars, to listen to a phonograph, to talk on the telephone, to ride in a motor car, to have the right to vote, to see a moving picture, to see people dance the Charleston, to read a new magazine called Time, to see Harry Houdini escape his water torture cell, to hear of Charles Lindberg ad his solo flight across the Atlantic. She had children and grandchildren, and even a great-grandbaby, but all it took was the smell of coffee, or the taste of salt, or a roaring fire, or the way sunlight fell upon a glass vase, or the sight of a woman with her eyes lined with black to take her back to the girl she’d been, the who’d been unwilling to tell the truth because Miss Betsey had said something to wound her. Ugly girl, she’d said, and ugly girl she was.
Of course, I don’t claim that any of this was true for the real Eveline Deal, which isn’t really my main concern. I started with the facts, and then I let my imagination open Eveline’s character to me. It seemed to me she deserved the grace of a long life, and I gave that to her. Novels based on true stories invite us into the imagined interior lives of real people. The facts are the facts, yes, but we can use them to imagine what else might be true.
Hello Dr Martin,
I appreciated so much your encouragement to take bits and pieces of a real event and let your imagination run with it! Since taking your class in Marion I have been doing some more writing and this latest blog was just the spark I needed.
I am thrilled to say also that my copy of the GLASSMAKER’S WIFE just landed on my porch about an hour ago. Looking forward to reading it! Wishing you much success!
Dear Jane. It’s so good to hear from you. I’m so glad to know you’re still writing. I hope you enjoy “The Glassmaker’s Wife,” and I wish you and yours a happy holiday seasono.
I cannot wait to read this!