By Marsha Nash Sultz
Sometimes inspiration sneaks up behind you and whispers in your ear. Sometimes it knocks you over the head with great vigor. In my case, frustration once drove me to create a solution for the unknowable.
Years ago, I was interested in family genealogy to the point of obsession. Where did I come from? Whose genetic oomph propelled me to become me? I was hip-deep in Ancestry.com when I discovered that my great-grandfather’s information ended abruptly. He was born during the Civil War in a small town in Tennessee and raised as an orphan. The courthouse records, and the courthouse, were destroyed by the townspeople to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Yankees.
What? Who destroys their own records?
After searching to no avail for another month I sat back, dumbfounded and upset. I wanted to know the beginning of Great-Grandpa Sam’s life. The only thing I knew from my Aunt Margie was that he was a sweet man, an orphan who was raised by neighbors. That wasn’t enough for me.
What does a writer do when confronted with a bad ending? She writes a new one.
I took the bare bones of setting, time period and characters and created my own small town, Benson’s Furnace, Tennessee. I led with a skirmish set during the Civil War in which a wounded Confederate captain is forced to remain behind, in secret. What ensues is forbidden love, betrayal and misunderstanding between certain female citizens of the town and our Captain. Twenty-five years later, he decides to return to Benson’s Furnace to atone for his past behavior.
My story becomes a saga of Southern post-war life in a small town where no one wants to talk about the past. Unfortunately, the captain’s appearance brings up memories of southern defeat and shame and the unthought-of parentage of Sam, an unintended result of the captain’s liaison with the wrong woman.
This story is wildly different from Sam’s real life. He married a local girl, fathered three children and moved to West Tennessee to become a cotton farmer.
Do I owe Sam the truth? Did my imagination bend reality to the point of denying the existence of an authentic life?
I can’t help but think that I’ve improved the story while paying tribute to a relative whose history remains a blank in the record book. As they say in bad detective movies, names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Besides, everyone needs a satisfying ending – to a story, to a novel or to a life.