Erin Lindsay McCabe On The Process of Writing A Historical Novel + Manuscript Revision Stress

542148_515052671859160_398417159_nName: Erin Lindsay McCabe
Hometown: Chico, California
Based In: Newcastle, California
Education: Literature major/history minor at University of California, Santa Cruz; teaching credential at California State University, Chico; MFA in Creative Writing from Saint Mary’s College of California
Briefly: Author of I Shall Be Near You.
Favorite Read: Oh, so many! Alias Grace, by Margaret Atwood; The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy; The Story of Lucy Gault, by William Trevor; The Jump-Off Creek, by Molly Gloss; True Grit, by Charles Portis; Away, by Jane Urquhart; Away, by Amy Bloom; Lolita, by Vladimir Nabakov; Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon; The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger, A Sudden Country, by Karen Fisher, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote…
If You Weren’t a Writer You’d Be… a teacher. I taught high school for English for 7 years and still sometimes teach at the college level.
Fiction or General Publishing How-To Book I’d Recommend: Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. It’s pricey but well worth the money.
Up Next: I’m working on a novel inspired by the adopted daughter of serial killer Belle Gunness.

How old were you about when you first learned of the U.S. Civil War?

Oh, I don’t know. I very distinctly remember being utterly fascinated watching the entire Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary with my parents when I was thirteen. But I must have known about the Civil War before then.

How did you get interested in writing historical fiction?

As a kid, I was drawn toward books with a historical bent—I loved the Little House on the Prairie series and Anne of Green Gables, for example——though it took me a long time (until I was out of college) to realize that historical fiction was really my favorite genre to read—though I will read just about anything if it is character and plot driven. It was in college, majoring in literature and minoring in history, where I really began to see the overlap between literature and history—how what authors are writing about illuminates so much about the culture and concerns of their society and their time. That really fascinated me.

Can you give us an overview of the writing of I Shall Be Near You?

I first learned of the real Rosetta on whom my novel is loosely based, during my final quarter of college. I wrote a paper about her for my U.S. Women’s History final. But after that, I didn’t really know what to do with her story, even though it fascinated me and captured my imagination. I kept her in the back of my mind for almost a decade, periodically wondering how she managed to stay disguised for two years without being discovered, what she was apologizing to her sister for, how she felt about living as a man, whether she would have gone to Wisconsin like she dreamed if she had survived. It wasn’t until I was working very diligently revising another novel—a historical novel which will never see the light of day– that I heard Rosetta’s voice in my head as I crawled into bed one night. I knew immediately I had to get the words down on paper, and I wrote the scene that begins Chapter One. That was Spring 2007. I worked on the novel that Summer and Fall, sharing much of those early pages with my writer’s group, getting it into shape as my submission to MFA programs that Winter. When I began the MFA program at St. Mary’s in Fall 2008, I had about 100 pages written. The rest of the novel I wrote over the next nine months. In Summer 2009, I road-tripped back East and spent several days in and around the battlefields at Manassas and Antietam and then revised the novel the whole next year. I began querying agents in the Fall of 2010, and by November, I had an agent. I revised the manuscript with the help of that agent’s in-house editor for the next year and a half, until it became clear that I needed a new direction. That’s when I began working with my current agent, Dan Lazar—who is absolutely brilliant. Within a couple months we had a draft he was confident in, and the book sold to Crown Publishing in December 2012.

Was that the only title that you considered for the book?

Haha! No. It had two other titles before this one, but as the story changed during revisions, those old titles didn’t really work anymore. My agent actually came up with the title, which was inspired by a line in Sullivan Ballou’s famous Civil War letter home to his wife, Sarah.

There’s so much information about the Civil War…and probably documents and sources that have been uncovered in the past couple of decades. How did you determine what had the most credibility as sources?

For the big stuff—especially about the battles and the troops’ movements—I used books by historians or primary sources—battlefield maps, Mathew Brady and Alexander Gardner’s photos, actual documents. I relied heavily on the real Sarah Rosetta Wakeman’s letters, but also Sarah Emma Edmonds’ memoir about her service as a Civil War soldier, nurse and spy, and DeAnn Blanton and Lauren M. Cook Burgess’ survey of women’s service in the Civil War, They Fought Like Demons. I also used letters from several collections, which is where a lot of the little details—things like the crushed violet or the ring carved from a vertebra— came from, and also to get a sense of how the soldiers wrote. The Internet is great when you need a quick detail or a date or to see a lot of the primary sources, like those battlefield photos, enlistment posters, or military records or Civil War era envelopes. Although I really worked hard to be accurate, the nice thing about fiction is that it’s fiction, so if I didn’t get everything exactly right, it doesn’t carry the same consequences as if I were writing a history book.

When you were creating the character Rosetta Wakefield, your protagonist, were you tempted to give her modern women traits? After all, reading how women lived back then…

Rosetta’s character really came to me fully formed—but of course, I had been thinking about her off and on for a decade!. I feel like in a lot of ways she is very modern—in her desire to do whatever she sets her mind on, regardless of society’s conventions, regardless of what is expected of her as a daughter, as a wife, as a woman. I feel like her struggle to live in a way that feels authentic and true to herself is timeless. But she’s also a character very rooted in her time—in her connection to the land, in her acceptance of the necessity of physical labor, in her practicality. There were times when I wished she were more introspective, because I think we expect that from people now, but the real Rosetta did surprisingly—to me—introspection or reflection in her letters and I really wanted to stay true to that quality.

Did you at any time wanted to give up on the book, whether it was due to revision stress or intensive writer’s block? If so, what did you do to cope, and overcome this?

I was always extremely determined that I would see this book through. That’s not to say that I didn’t get sick of what felt like endless rounds of revision, but I found that each time I went back to the manuscript, it got better, and that was enough to keep me going. That and how much I loved Rosetta and how strongly I believe that the story of women who fought in the Civil War deserves to be told and remembered.

What should aspiring authors know about writing a historical novel?

I think the most important thing in writing historical fiction is that you need to enjoy the research process. I find researching really inspiring—I love the tidbits I learn and how the facts can help push the story in a new direction—for example, the dance the soldiers have in the book is based on real events but I never would have come up with that on my own. Sometimes it’s really frustrating when the facts don’t support the direction I was hoping to take, though, and there is a struggle in historical fiction to find the right balance between the facts and the story. I think too, it’s important to find a way to help yourself develop a sense of authority about what you’re writing, whether that means touring historic homes, or visiting battlefields, or learning how to do the tasks your character might do—I did all of these things. Obviously, I don’t know what it was really like being on the battlefield at Bull Run, but by attending a Civil War re-enactment and marching the route my characters marched, I was able to feel like I knew that place well enough to write about it. So I guess I would say, if you’re going to write historical fiction, be prepared to do all kinds of research, and not just the kind in books.

The bedroom, the living room, the backyard…Where did you do most of the writing for your novel?

The entire first draft of I Shall Be Near To You was written in the 560 square foot studio that my husband and I lived in at the time, most of it sitting on our futon. Most of the revisions happened on that same futon—often with my son napping on or next to me—or, once we moved to a different house, in the rocking chair watching my son sleep, or at our kitchen table—there’s a great view of the neighbor’s cow pasture and the foothills out the kitchen window.


You have tons of pets, including two horses! Are they at all part of your creative process?

Oh, definitely. Having horses makes it easier to write historical fiction because the periods I’m drawn to are all during the time in which horses were hugely important to agriculture, to commerce, to battle. Random fact: Over a million horses died in the Civil War. So, I feel like my knowledge of horses gives me a leg up. Ha! Plus, working with animals gives me a tiny sense of the day-in and day-out physical labor that would have been required of a farmer in the 1800s and how tied you are to that farm—it’s really hard to finds omeone who can take care of your animals if you want to leave! It’s like what I said—-it helps me feel like I can be more authentic in my writing—I know what it’s like to haul manure and deliver babies and milk a goat and collect eggs and repair fences and broken pipes. I have an idea of what it’s like to be counting on your animals to fulfill a purpose, to feed you—it’s really different than the relationship with a dog or a cat. I’ve also seen really grotesque injuries (broken legs, huge gashes, a de-gloved leg—which is what it sounds like, where the skin is peeled back like a glove), which helps give me a sense of what it must have been like to have a grave injury in a time when medicine couldn’t necessarily fix you—and also helped me write scenes about wounds—that moment where Rosetta sees a dog licking up blood on the battlefield came from something I saw the ranch dogs do after a particularly nasty horse injury. And with horses, things can get scary—there have been times, getting run away with, or having my horse fall, or being trapped in a stall with a panicking horse, where I’m scared in a way I’m not ever scared in ordinary life—a very visceral way. I definitely used that when I was writing battle scenes. But more than that, the animals get me outside, observing nature, paying attention to little details—who is limping, who is grumpy, what the weather is like, how much the grass is growing—seriously!. When I’m with the animals, especially riding one of my horses, I can turn off the other concerns of my life—what bills need to be paid, which email I need to answer. It’s a slower rhythm, it’s peaceful—despite what I just said about being scared—it’s meditative. It gets me out of my head and focused on the physical world, and I think that creates what a friend of mine calls “thought space”—a break into which creative ideas can flow.

What are some trends that you think authors should look for in publishing’s future?

I’m probably the worst person to answer this question! I’m sure my agent would have a great answer to this question, but I really don’t know. It does seems like there’s a trend in historical fiction to use novels almost as a kind of Women’s Studies, to explore the lives of notable women who have basically been forgotten by the history books—women like Sarah Rosetta Wakeman. I’m thinking here of books similar to I Shall Be Near To You, like Alex Myers’ Revolutionary—about Deborah Sampson alias Robert Shurtliff—or Sue Monk Kidd’s Invention of Wings—about the abolitionist and early feminist Sarah Grimke—or Lois Leveen’s The Secrets of Mary Bowser —about a freed slave turned Union spy. There are so many! For me, though, rather than trying to keep up with trends, it feels safer to focus on writing a story that I would want to read, and hoping that translates into something other people want to read too.

I think that when a novelist is exploring a particular historical period, they tend to fall in love. Will your next book also have the Civil War or some type of other war in history as its backdrop?

I fell more in love with Rosetta—and Jeremiah and Will—than with the Civil War time period itself. I really love character driven novels in general, so that’s where I begin, more than with a particular era. That said, I am most drawn to the Victorian and Edwardian eras, so I imagine my future books will continue to be set within the 1800’s and early 1900’s. I’d actually like to take a break from war. Writing the battle scenes in I Shall Be Near To You was really hard in every possible way—from the logistics of where my soldiers would be on the field to the emotions that I had to steep myself in to write those scenes. I felt like I was living in a very dark place for a long time—although given the subject matter of my current project, I’m really just escaping one kind of dark place for another.

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