The Magic is in the Details: History Meets Fantasy in Striking Balance

My upcoming (July 21st) release, Striking Balance, is set in late 18th century Southern Appalachia, in what is now Northeast Tennessee. Why write about then and there? Ah, therein lies a tale, doesn’t it?

But maybe I’m jumping ahead of myself. First, let’s take a look at the main Appalachian Elementals series from which Striking Balance derives or, more specifically, one character, Bea Gow. Bea makes a brief appearance in the novella Mama, Me, and the Holiday Tree, and is a side character in Keeping House, but it’s that second appearance, more to the point, her fierceness and the respect everyone shows her, that left me with questions. Just who is Bea? What’s her backstory? How did she come to be on the dark side of Embreeville Mountain in 2018?

The answer? History. Lots of history. History wrapped with magic realism to create a Dark Fantasy tale—and that took research. Sure, I could have taken the easy route and used the history I already knew. I’m writing about the geography I’m native to after all. I know the roads, the mountains, the lay of the land, the general local history. However, hardly any of that applies in the 1780s. I’m writing about a world still teeming with old-growth forests, untamed rivers, native populations being driven from their lands, frontiersman seldom written about in history books, and language that has changed in numerous ways. In short, while I had the series’ fantasy framework to go by I needed to scrap everything else and start from scratch.

It was such a daunting task that I almost walked away.

Too much research, too much work, too much… But Bea is insistent in her own unique pain-in-my-ass way (Yes, I’m one of those authors who claims their characters speak to them). She can be very persuasive when she wants so what was I do to?

I swear it was self-preservation. She wouldn’t leave me the hell alone!

So what became of Bea’s stomps and glowers? Butter eggs and johnnycakes for breakfast. Homemade sauerkraut. New texts on folk magic and folk medicine. Knowledge of the spread of dandelions and apples throughout North America, German hearths, camp followers, lead mines, Quakers, the Chickamauga…

Those butter eggs and johnnycakes still make regular appearances in our iron skillets.

So how true am I staying to the history? Well, I’m putting nutmeg my butter eggs (Nutmeg was apparently the pink Himalayan salt of the late 18th century). They’re quite good. No, I don’t cook my butter eggs over hot coals, and I use plant-based butter because I’m dairy intolerant, but give me points for using an iron skillet, and I do use yellow cornmeal for my johnnycakes, but please ignore the olive oil I use in place of rendered fat.

Townsend’s YouTube directions for butter eggs cooked on the hearth.

While I didn’t go as far as building my own cabin or hand stitching, much less wearing, a set of stays in the name of research, I tried my best to make history comes alive in Striking Balance through the everyday. Characters split wood, beds need tightening (ever been told good night, sleep tight?), cooking is done over the hearth, discussions are held over plain work (simple hand sewing), fields are plowed, and tobacco needs topped.

Photo by Craig Sybert on Unsplash

Oh, and tricorns? Nope. The use of the word tricorn for those ever-popular three-sided hats worn in 18th-century set fiction is inaccurate. They weren’t called tricorns until the 19th century when they fell from fashion. Until then they were cock hats. Why? Because you could cock (commonly tie or button) one-three of the sides for whatever purpose you might need. Simple research applies here. I wanted the history of common people, not the elite, to come through in Striking Balance because it simply doesn’t fit the Appalachian Elementals series or Appalachia as a whole.

And no, elite doesn’t apply to the fey within the series either. If you’ve read the other titles you know exactly what I mean.

The rest? Well, the actual history aligns with the dates. I don’t place historical figures as characters within Striking Balance, but they are discussed, as are period forts, their rise and failures, settlements, and the American Revolution as it happens. My characters derive from Spanish exploration parties, indigenous peoples, early Scots-Irish settlers, and magical beings of all sorts, the latter sometimes drawn from mythology, meaning, you guessed it, more research.

At the end of Striking Balance, I credit eighteen sources because I believe in giving credit where it’s due. I didn’t pull that butter egg recipe from thin air, didn’t know John Sevier established a fort on the Nolichucky river that failed, and had no idea that common plantain had so many healing properties. Did I have to give my sources? No, but as a former college instructor, as someone who graded hundreds of research papers, I want to know where people get their info so I felt it important that I share mine. Accuracy in historical fiction is important after all. It lends richness and, dare I say, authenticity to a tale, even fantasy. It says the author cared, that they tried, that they… well, that they gave a damn about their story from beginning to end.

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