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History Buff is a site
for history lovers everywhere. It is also a site very interested in women
of the past. Although I (sadly) no longer have time to continue these interviews, here is an archive of Q&As about women's lives
in history. And please feel free to stop by History Buff's
sister site for archaeological discoveries making news today. Enjoy!
historical fiction writer I am fascinated by news stories featuring the
past as it's unearthed and reimagined and brought to life. I spend a
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Friday, December 11, 2009
Q&A With Historical Fiction Author Jessica James
Your novel, SHADES OF GRAY, tells the story of a Confederate soldier who meets his match in a Union spy. What drew you to this period in history?
Well, the easy answer is that I’m from Gettysburg, Pa., so I’ve been surrounded by Civil War history all my life. But the reality is, I didn’t have much of an interest in the War Between the States until I moved to Virginia in the 80s and learned about Confederate Colonel John S. Mosby. He is pretty much the epitome of the Southern cavalier – gallant, daring, romantic, and chivalrous. I began reading books on him, by him and about him, and, before I knew it, was a complete Civil War fanatic. Now I think I’m drawn to the era, not only because of the stories of gallantry and heroism, but by the morality, the manners, the patriotism and the principles that those on both sides of the war believed in and fought for.
The main characters are purely fictional, created against the backdrop of the war and interacting with real historical personalities such as Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart. I believe fiction is a great way for people to learn about history so my goal was to keep the reader entertained while giving them a historically accurate foundation.
I gave copies of Shades of Gray to Civil War history professors and other Civil War authors to check it for accuracy, (and even to General J.E.B. Stuart’s great-great grandson, who gave it a favorable review). However, most readers tell me they feel like they’ve read a wonderful love story – not a Civil War story – so that balancing act between fact and fiction is really important.
Your novel goes into great detail about battles that took place during the Civil War. How did you do your research for this?
I really completely immersed myself in the era, reading everything from obituaries and newspaper articles to diaries and war records. Battle scenes were difficult because, needless to say, I’ve never been in one. Attending large-scale re-enactments helped me somewhat with the sights, sounds and smells of battle and camp life. But reading the actual words of soldiers and civilians was what really gave me a glimpse into the horror and chaos of battle.
Tell us something surprising about women's lives during the Civil War.
Those who have read Shades of Gray know that the female character dresses as a man, and serves as a courier and spy for the Union. The character is completely fictional, but I have since learned there are at least 400 documented cases of women dressing as men and serving on the front lines – a few even achieved the status of officers. Most of them were only discovered after being wounded or killed in battle.
While I’m on the subject, at least six soldiers are known to have performed their military duties while pregnant, and two Confederate prisoners of war gave birth while incarcerated.
For those cases that are documented by newspaper articles or letters, one can only guess how many went undetected. I think the role of females on the battlefield during the Civil War is one of the best-kept secrets of that historical period.
I’m working on another Civil War novel, called Above and Beyond, in which the heroine plays the part of a strong Unionist in Virginia while secretly spying for the Confederacy.
Unfortunately, she is so convincing in her role that friends, neighbors and even her brother believe she is a traitor to the South. I chose this plotline because I can’t imagine the courage and strong will it would take to be despised and maligned by family and friends while nobly serving a cause – even more so during the Victorian era when reputation and allegiance were everything. I think it could be argued that it would take more strength and fortitude than fighting an outright battle with hundreds of your comrades surrounding you.
Thank you, Jessica! And feel free to visit Jessica online for more information about her novel!