Friday, October 23, 2009

Putting History in Your Mystery by Chester Campbell

Trousdale County, TN Courthouse

I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, which I suppose contributed to my love of research. The problem, as any conscientious researcher knows, is that you invariably come across some interesting tidbit that has no relation to the subject. However, it seems too intriguing to pass by, so you’re off on a tangent.

When that happens, I try to find some way to work it into the story.

Take, for instance, when I went to the small town of Hartsville, about forty miles northeast of Nashville, looking for good places to commit a few murders. I always consult AAA maps and Mapquest and Google maps before making such ventures. I had found a likely spot along a bend in the Cumberland River and decided to check it out.

To get there, I had to go through downtown Hartsville. You’d miss it if you blinked twice, but I stopped to admire the century-old Trousdale County Courthouse, which looks more like a very large red brick residence. Although it stands more than a mile from the river, it was deluged with several feet of water during the disastrous 1927 flood season. What I found most interesting was a tall granite obelisk in front bearing a tarnished metal plate that read:

HERE, DEC. 7TH 1862,

Though not a Civil War buff, I had heard of the famous John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry raiders. But I put that aside as I took a major highway south from downtown (in this area that means a nice, paved two-lane road). Shortly before reaching the river, I spotted a sign pointing toward the Battle of Hartsville Park. I detoured over to take a look.

I learned that Morgan’s advance had worn Union blue uniforms to fool the enemy sentinels. In less than two hours of fighting, the Confederate party of 1,500 had surrounded the Federals and convinced them to surrender, taking 1,800 prisoners. Casualties, dead and wounded, included 1,855 Union soldiers and 149 Confederates. Checking the battlefield maps, I found Morgan had placed his artillery across the river at the exact spot I planned to leave a corpse.

This had to go in the book. I had my protag, Greg McKenzie, visit the park and comment on the Union soldiers suffering their own Pearl Harbor, seventy-nine years to the day before Dec. 7, 1941. When he visits the murder site, he muses:

“Realizing a party of tired, half-frozen Rebel soldiers had fired cannons in this area nearly a century and a half ago, I wondered if any Confederate ghosts had lingered about Monday night when someone fired three shots into (the victim). If so, they weren’t talking.”

It was an opportunity to provide a little local color and add to the realism of the story. The moral: research is hardly ever wasted. If we look around, we can probably find a use for it. If not, hey, chalk it up to education. We can all use more of that.


Sun Singer said...

Great post. I like your use of local history in the story; it adds depth, and it encourages readers to think that since the history is real, the story might also be real.

Some tidbits just can't be thrown away.


Chester Campbell said...

Thanks, Malcolm. I agree, little tidbits of history help make the story come alive.

Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Interesting blog--I love to do research too.