Thursday, April 13, 2017

Guest Post by Author Annette Laing

I’m a Brit who lives in the Deep South, a former Californian (Yes, Northern and Southern), and an accidental author. Fourteen years ago, I was a professor starting to build a reputation as a scholar of early American history. But  right after I earned tenure, I had a midlife crisis.  I guess a normal person would have dealt with that by purchasing a convertible, or taking a hike through the Andes. My therapy was to start  a children’s time-travel program that was basically a complicated bit of theatre.
TimeShop, as I called it, was totally self-indulgent, because like many of my generation in the UK, I have always been fascinated by the WWII home front. So I ended up with a hundred kids running around a university conference center in the rural South, pretending to be in a small town in England in 1940.  Moving from room to room, the kids shopped with ration books, sheltered from an air raid, and, most entertaining of all, sparred with a shrill “foster mother”. This harridan housewife demanded they do all her chores, yelled at the kids (to their great amusement) and gossiped with the vicar while the kids swept her floors and made toilet paper from torn-up sheets of newspaper. Those kids who eavesdropped on that conversation made a startling discovery: The wicked foster mother was only 19, and was terrified for her husband, held prisoner of war by the Nazis.   My student Jackie, playing the housewife, and my other native Georgian undergrads improvised characters in period costume, gamely attempting to pass themselves off as Brits (with considerable success). I realized that I had found a way to reach not only the kids, but these student volunteers, most of whom were not history majors. Three years in, the Associated Press published a feature about us.
TimeShop was also the start of The Snipesville Chronicles. The program handed me one massive earworm of a time-travel story, and in the summer of 2006, that story started writing itself: Middle schoolers and siblings Hannah and Alex Dias arrive in little Snipesville from San Francisco, much as I had moved to small-town Georgia from Los Angeles. They meet Brandon Clark, whose family’s funeral home qualifies him for the elite of local African-American society, and also puts him in danger of being stuck in suffocating Snipesville for the rest of his life. Within an hour of meeting, the three kids find themselves without warning in World War II England, and mired in a massive clash of cultures. But why is this happening to them, and what on earth does it have to do with Snipesville? Those are the big questions of the book, and the series.
As the plot of Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When evolved, it was driven largely by my characters, both the time travelers and the people they meet in the past. One character in particular has turned out to be an
unlikely smash hit with my readers: Elizabeth Devenish, the formidable middle-aged Englishwoman who fosters two of my time travelers, and whose forceful but kindly personality seems to speak to so many people.  It was moving to realize that I had based her on the no-nonsense World War II survivors who helped shape my postwar childhood. I even flew to England to visit the woman who most influenced the character of Mrs. Devenish, and just in time: She died six months later. Somehow, childhood memories had morphed and blended with my knowledge of wartime England, as well as with my experience of life for an outsider in modern rural Georgia.
The whole thing proved so personal, I was genuinely astonished by the delighted responses of my readers,  and also to discover that adults as well as kids and teens were reading and loving the book. Now I knew that I really did have a series.
But where would my time travelers land next? It was tempting to take them straight to colonial America, the period I know best, but I quickly realized that I had an awesome opportunity now to immerse myself in periods in British and American history that I know well, but normally had little chance to research or teach.
My love of the works of Charles Dickens, and my fascination with child labor in the Industrial Revolution,  American slavery, and all things Victorian, come through in A Different Day, A Different Destiny (The Snipesville Chronicles, Book 2)
In Book 2,  I was determined not to slip into formula. While the action in the first book took place in the fictitious English town of Balesworth,  I wrote this new story around three separate road trips, in which Hannah, Alex, and Brandon each deal alone with an alien past, before meeting at the first ever World’s Fair, the Great Exhibition, held in London in 1851. Along the way, they experience not only the challenges of 19th century travel, but also the horrors of industrialization and slavery. The research was fun: Not only spending time in archives in my Scottish hometown, but also visiting an Open Day at an iconic Victorian cemetery, complete with tea and cake. Only in England.
About this time, I began to realize that I was writing about the themes that interest me as a scholar: everyday life, race, class, and gender. Readers had praised Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When for its humor. But how do you get any humor out of race, class, and gender without being incredibly tasteless? The answer, honestly, is in my time travelers’ incredulous responses to what they witness in the past. Through them, readers see the absurdity of trying to operate according to 21st century values in what might as well be alien worlds.
Look Ahead, Look Back (Book 3) brought me, finally, to my main stomping grounds, colonial America.  I
figured this would be a piece of cake.
It wasn’t.
Early on, as I plotted out the book, I imagined my character Hannah, sitting outside a hut in the woods, twisting Georgia wiregrass in her fingers.
I had no idea what I would have her do next.  None at all.
I thought about Hannah, who has a huge attitude. What would she do? I looked at her. She glanced over at a kettle boiling on a nearby tripod, and sniffed. Then she looked straight back at me, wrinkled her nose, and shrugged. She didn’t know, either. What was I going to do? There were no other buildings in view, or people. It was a remote setting. I’m not exactly an outdoors kind of person.
How were my modern characters going to stay busy, much less have an adventure, in this pre-modern setting? It was so . . . boring.
And then I remembered that it wasn’t, just like Snipesville itself was far more interesting than my characters had assumed. Apart from the real-life tensions among the diverse people of the backwoods of the mid-18th century that would inspire much of the story and dialogue, there was the fact that people had other lives, virtual ones, that focused on religion and the supernatural. How the heck did I ever forget that? I’m a historian of religion, for heavens’ sake. At that moment, I realized how the book would progress. To help it along, I not only read folklore, but even became more outdoorsy. How dedicated was I? Let’s put it this way: A visit to the Okefenokee Swamp and a too-close-for-comfort encounter with a five-foot alligator almost ended the series prematurely.
Writing a finale for the complex series that Snipesville had become was the greatest challenge of all, and
might explain why One Way or Another (The Snipesville Chronicles, Book 4) took me four years to write, by far the longest process of any of the books. This time I began with settings, themes (including the sinister segregation of a small town in 1906 Georgia), great characters, and some interesting premises from previous books, including the return of the much-loved Elizabeth Devenish from Don’t Know Where, Don’t Know When.  The tricky part?  Pulling all of it together in a way that also incorporated the conclusions I had been planning for years.
The end result was an ending that, I am told, made people gasp, and even cry. In a good way.
I, too, have laughed, gasped, and cried my way through The Snipesville Chronicles. It has been the most astonishing decade of my life, and I continue to be touched and overjoyed by readers’ continuing to discover and enjoy the product of one historian’s midlife crisis. Better than a Maserati? You bet.

Thank you so much Annette for writing such wonderful stories to share history with us! I will miss The Snipesville Chronicles, but will definitely look forward to your next time travel series.

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