I’ve been away. For the last two weeks or so I’ve been sightseeing in Nashville…in 1864. It’s been great. I visited the Tennessee State Capitol, completed just five years back. I took in a show, The Married Rake at the New Nashville Theatre and downed a few drinks afterwards. I tried some of the street food: buttered corncob, apple cake and deep-fried pickle. It’s a cold November though, and there are more soldiers on the streets than civilians. The barricades are guarded. The forts bristle with cannon. There’s no trust in this city.
It's a perk, I guess, at a time like this, to be able to research and write about another time and place, to live in the minds and experiences of characters I know well. I know a lot of authors and poets and this year it’s been a pretty universal experience that we have all struggled to write. Of course, that’s not a great hardship. Nurses have struggled to nurse; teachers have struggled to teach. But us writers are a sensitive lot. If the post drops through the letter box and sets my dog Duffy to barking while I’m in full flow, it can take me half an hour, a sweet coffee and several biscuits to rediscover my creative equilibrium. Poor me.
My focus on Nashville has helped. I’ve e-ghosted into the past of many civil war towns and cities. New York and Franklin in Whirligig; Atlanta and Pittsburgh in The Copper Road. The resources are amazing. The US Civil War has been so intensely studied by historians. I imagine it ranks close to the world wars in terms of the amount of material. For Nashville I was able to find an on-line civil war map of the city with dozens of points of interest. Military hospitals, prisons, the rail depot. All had a period picture attached and allowed me to jump off to more specific studies. It made it easier to imagine what Shire, my understated hero, would see from the train as he entered the city. I could understand where he might stay, how long it would take to walk from one place to another, what saloons he might frequent (surprisingly absent at this time). I set him and Tuck up in digs with a view of the covered rail bridge and it triggered an idea for the narrative.
There is also a wealth of written material, from the time and from every decade since, concerning the mood of the city. Loyalties were mixed, Union or Confederate, but heavily tilted to the latter. Those favouring the South did their best to smuggle medicines and materials to the distant Rebel army. The Union military police had spies everywhere. Nashville was not a comfortable place to be.
As a fiction writer I’m a parasite, benefiting from the historians who have set up these resources. I hope by adding in a slice of imagination I give something back, that I bring the city to life. That’s the goal. Of course, I need to physically go there at some point and I know from past experience that when I do, I’ll have a strange sense of déjà vu. I visited Franklin for the first time in 2013. It was eerily familiar as I drove through the town square where Shire and the 125th Ohio had fought their way into town a hundred and fifty years before. Odder still, on that same trip I visited the Chickamauga Battlefield outside Chattanooga. I’d read several heavyweight history books to understand the choreography of the battle. I’d already written the first draft and I was here for four days to gain some detail. It’s a big site; many square miles. I found my way to a spot where – from the safety of my study - I’d placed Shire at the peak of the battle to witness the Union rout. I’d seen no pictures or paintings. Just maps and words. And there it was. Just as I’d imagined it.
There was no one with me. I couldn’t have shared that feeling if there was. Being alone didn’t stop me smiling from ear to ear. I guess it will be a while before I can visit Nashville, but I know some other places that Shire and I can visit.
Battle Town (short story)