Last week, I received an unexpected message on Facebook from a descendant of the Fox sisters! This lady, who lives in a neighboring county of PA (and whom I hope to meet up with this summer) is a great-great-(great?)-grandniece of Maggie and Kate Fox.
This is really exciting – and also kind of nerve-wracking. Since my characters are real, historical people, I knew (theoretically) that there might be real, living descendants who could encounter my book.
And read it.
One of the first things I did when I exchanged messages with this very nice lady was apologize, because her direct ancestor, Elizabeth Fox doesn’t appear in the book at all. Maggie and Kate had four older siblings, but since two of them had no direct role in the spiritualism business, I ended up cutting all mention of them in order to streamline the story and reduce the word count. In We Hear the Dead, there are only 4 Fox children: Maggie, Kate, David, and Leah. The other sisters, Elizabeth and Maria, were left out altogether.
We Hear the Dead is fictional, after all. I collapsed the timeline of events and sometimes changed their order. I took the bare facts of these people’s lives and created full-blown fictional characters out of them. A biographer can simply state what happens to their subject. A novelist must provide personality and motivation. That’s all fine and dandy until I remember I’m writing about somebody’s great-great-grandmother.
There are descendants of the Kane family living too, and I wonder what will happen when/if they stumble on my book. Maggie did NOT have a good relationship with Elisha Kane’s family. His brother Robert plays an important and unpleasant role in We Hear the Dead, putting obstacles in the path of their relationship. Maggie calls Robert “detestable” and “vile.” When she hears he has fathered a child, her reaction is: Robert Kane had produced offspring? What a repugnant idea!
Yeah, wait until somebody emails me and says, “Excuse me, but that was my great-great-granddaddy.” Gulp!
I guess that’s all part of being a historical novelist.
And yet, it feels strange. Writers feel possessive toward their characters. It’s a little unnerving to realize that “my characters” actually belong in someone else’s family tree.