What Was Truth and What Was Fiction

IT MAY BE SURPRISING that one true thing in my novel Thieving Forest is the plethora of sisters in one family. I grew up with six sisters—yes, seven girls in all—and no brothers. When writing Thieving Forest I condensed the number to five, since I thought seven would be just too many for a reader to keep track of, but they are based on my real siblings. Like the sisters in the novel, we grew up in Ohio, albeit an Ohio with running water and antibiotic ointment. Thieving Forest takes place at a time when the roads were mostly deer paths.

When doing research for the novel I read a lot of early settlers’ accounts—journals, first-hand travelogues published in the magazines of the day, and letters—and many of these contained such wonderful details that I had to take the advice of T.S. Eliot: “Good writers borrow, great writers steal.”

What did I steal? An account of being bit by a snake by Samuel Prescott Hildreth, and a description of a Moravian dinner/ceremony with Native Americans by David McClure. I read accounts by early Jesuits who visited Native American tribes almost two hundred years before my novel took place, and I was also heavily influenced by the conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, who found himself lost and wondering among Native American communities in the Southwest in 1540.

The great thing about writing historical fiction is that real events can act as a springboard to your imagination. It’s true that I made up an entire Native American tribe, whom my protagonist called the Stooping Indians because of their malnutrition (they nevertheless saved her from starvation); however, this tribe was based on tribes that Cabeza de Vaca lived with and wrote about.

Thieving Forest is a story about an abduction and a search for those taken. It is also a story of survival and transformation. Susanna Quiner watches from behind a tree as her four older sisters are taken by a band of Potawatomi. Left to her own resources (her parents recently died), Susanna decides to go after them herself. But as she finds her sisters one by one, she discovers that they have changed. Part of her transformation is accepting her sisters’ new lives, and forming her own life without them.

Isn’t this the way of any family, historical or modern? We spend years and years growing up together, and then we go off to school or to jobs or to have our own adventures, and everything changes. The details might differ (antibiotics, better roads), but in essence siblings—especially younger siblings—have experienced the break-up of families from time in memoriam. We grow up, we leave home, and we change — often in that order. And the process of accepting our sibling’s life choices can be difficult.

So although the story of Thieving Forest is fiction, I like to think that the essential feeling beneath it is true. What is real is what we pin the details on: human nature. And you just can’t make that up.

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Martha Conway’s new novel, Thieving Forest, won the 2014 North American Book Award in Historical Fiction, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals. She has taught fiction at the Stanford University’s Online Writers Studio and UC Berkeley Extension.