Saturday, May 4, 2013

Living in the Past with Suzanne Adair

Interviewed by Sandra Parshall

The novels of award-winning mystery/suspense author Suzanne Adair transport readers to the Southern theater of the Revolutionary War, where she brings historic towns, battles, and people to life. She fuels her creativity with Revolutionary War reenacting and visits to historic sites. When she’s not writing, she enjoys cooking, dancing, hiking, and spending time with her family. A Hostage to Heritage, her second Michael Stoddard American Revolution thriller, was released in April. 

Would you give us a brief summary of A Hostage to Heritage?

A Hostage to Heritage is the second of my historical thrillers set in
Wilmington, North Carolina during the American Revolution, with redcoat Michael Stoddard as the criminal investigator. The story picks up just a few weeks after Michael’s first chronicled adventure, Regulated for Murder.

Here’s the description from the back cover:

A boy kidnapped for ransom. And a madman who didn't bargain on Michael Stoddard's tenacity.

Spring 1781. The American Revolution enters its seventh grueling year. In Wilmington, North Carolina, redcoat investigator Lieutenant Michael Stoddard expects to round up two miscreants before Lord Cornwallis's army arrives for supplies. But his quarries' trail crosses with that of a criminal who has abducted a high-profile English heir. Michael's efforts to track down the boy plunge him into a twilight of terror from radical insurrectionists, whiskey smugglers, and snarled secrets out of his own past in Yorkshire.

What kind of man is Michael Stoddard? What do you consider his greatest strengths and greatest weaknesses?

For those who enjoy mashup descriptions, Michael is Bernard Cornwell's Richard Sharpe (but more polished) + Martin Freedman's Dr. Watson + Daniel Boone. And perhaps a pinch of Jim Butcher's Harry Dresden, without the magic.

So he’s moral without being priggish, intelligent, curious, courageous, and pragmatic. His greatest strength lies in his ability to see the big picture and not fixate on absolutes. So Michael sees the gray, not just the black and white. His greatest weakness? The compartmentalization he’s made of his emotions, mostly to deal with the horrors of war. He finds it difficult to speak his emotions.

After focusing on female leads in your first three books, why did you switch to writing about a male protagonist – and why a redcoat instead of an American?

Accounts you’ve read from the Revolutionary War are mostly written by American soldiers or the upper class. This means that we’ve seldom heard from Jane and Joe Average Colonist—small merchants, artisans, farmers—about the effect of the war on their lives. Demographically many people of the non-slave population were in this class. I realized that if I wrote about these people, a story of the American Revolution would emerge that wasn’t glorious or glamorous, but it would likely reflect the experience that most of our ancestors in the colonies had lived through.

So I wrote three books from a point of view under-represented in fiction: that of a middle-class colonial woman. Each of these women had a different journey, but they shared some messages in common. Danger and scarcity shaped their decisions and values. They weren’t fragile damsels or angels of the home, thus they used the innate strengths possessed by women throughout history to keep themselves alive and safe. And their narratives bore no resemblance to the stories in romance novels.

While I was writing the third book, I realized that there was another point of view under-represented in fiction about the American Revolution. Michael Stoddard, a young redcoat officer who's competent at criminal investigation, appears as a minor character in my first three books. It was time to let him tell his story.

I've developed Michael to show this world conflict from the supposed “loser’s” point of view. Michael challenges misconceptions Americans have of redcoats during the War of Independence. If the decisions and actions of those redcoats look familiar, it’s no coincidence. History repeats itself.

Do characters from your previous books appear in the Michael Stoddard novels?

Yes. I have a large cast to draw from. If it’s appropriate, characters from earlier books do show up. Readers comment that it’s like seeing old friends again. Since the party can get confusing with so many old friends, I’ve included a Dramatis Personae with A Hostage to Heritage and will add one to previous books. At the same time, I strive to write each book as standalone. A reader new to my series could pick up A Hostage to Heritage and navigate all the relationships while being intrigued (but not confused) by hints of what came before.

What sparked your interest in history? Did you have a great teacher, or were your parents history buffs? When did you focus on the American Revolution as your special interest, and why did you decide to explore the southern theater of the war in depth?

History class bored me—too much rote memorization—and neither of my parents was a history geek. But while growing up in south Florida, I heard too much of the mistaken notion that Florida’s history started with railroad barons Flagler and Plant in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth century. There was too little emphasis on St. Augustine, colonized by Spaniards decades before the English colonized Jamestown and, especially with its fort, an important holding for King George III during the American Revolution. I wished for a way to put Florida on the history map accurately. 

Castillo de San Marcos

I had always felt more affinity for the Revolutionary War than the Civil War, perhaps because so many folks from the north were living in the area of Florida where I was born and raised. In 1999, while I was living in Atlanta (and inundated with Scarlett O’Hara), I visited St. Simon’s Island in Georgia. There I found that Georgia, as the thirteenth colony, had a colonial past that was alive. I wandered the ruins of Ft. Frederica (artist’s rendering shows historical layout) and wondered why nobody had ever written an adventure set in Revolutionary War Georgia and Florida. Why did everyone focus on the northern theater when so much of significance happened in the southern theater?

Four months later, I was writing that adventure. It became Paper Woman and won the Patrick D. Smith Literature Award from the Florida Historical Society. I’d done my part at putting Florida on the history map accurately.

Most recorded history of the era seems to be about the leaders, the founding fathers and military leaders like Washington. How much material is available about the lives of ordinary men and women at that time? What did you come across that was particularly helpful in dramatizing the lives of common people caught up in the revolution?

What we know of the lives of ordinary people comes from personal information, such as letters and Bible records, and people’s records for business, home, and legal actions, as well as newspapers. Suppose an apothecary’s wife kept a transaction of household goods that she and her husband had to purchase or trade. (Most daughters of merchants, artisans, and farmers during the Revolution were taught to read and write and do basic math so they could help their husbands.) In the margin of the transaction record, the wife might jot down a recipe for blackberry cobbler. She might note if their kitchen building had burned, or a neighbor’s goats got into her garden and ate her cabbages. What you wouldn’t see in ordinary folks’ transactions records are entries for the purchase of bolts of expensive fabrics for ball gowns and crates of fine wine.

With the exceptions of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston, towns weren’t large enough to shelter residents from the depredations of passing military units. People living in the hinterland were particularly vulnerable to military movement through their areas and might be killed when armies marched through. Armies offered them more protection than towns. Thus these folks often joined the ranks of those civilians who followed armies, just to save their lives.

Many Revolutionary War reenacting units include a camp follower contingent. At weekend events, these folks set up living history demonstrations to show the public ways in which merchants, artisans, and retainers who accompanied an army interacted with soldiers and did their best to add normalcy to their lives. Some of these demonstrations include a hands-on component for the public. Of course, if you’re a reenactor, the entire weekend event is hands-on history. These hands-on activities have given me a clearer understanding of the challenges faced by my ancestors than the information I’ve found in books.

How do you find the voices of your historical characters? Most written materials, including personal letters, seem stiff and unnatural. Surely people didn’t speak that way in everyday conversation – but how do you know what their speech was really like? Have you found sources of slang or casual speech of the time?

No one today talks the way they write, so it’s reasonable to assume that this has always been the case historically. We don’t know for sure what the speech of anyone was like before technology enabled us to record voices. We can only make reasonable guesses.

We have written records of quite a bit of slang used during the Revolution. Slang has been part of human language forever. Where my reader audience can understand an eighteenth-century slang term from context, I’ll use it, if the use is appropriate. I avoid modern slang but stick to modern speech rhythms. This middle ground is used by many writers of historicals. Dialog that sounds too modern or too archaic will yank most readers out of the story. We don’t want that to happen.

Here’s a brief essay I wrote in 2010 about crafting speech for my Revolutionary characters. In it, I discuss how I questioned readers to find out what kind of dialog they found most natural in historical novels:

How often do you participate in historical re-enactments, and what roles do you play? Do you wear historically accurate clothing – including the underwear? Is it comfortable? Can we assume the clothing of women who were camp followers wasn’t as restrictive as stylish women’s clothes?

Before I was published, I attended a reenactment or living history event about once a month. Now I’m so busy with writing that I attend perhaps three per year. I always portray a retainer—along with sutlers and artisans, one of the types of non-combatants (modern term: camp follower) associated with an army.

I wear historically accurate clothing. A middle-class woman traveling with an army stayed in the company of a male relative such as her husband, father, or brother. She’d likely wear the following ensemble: a shift (the underwear), petticoat, short, boned jacket, apron, mobcap, stockings, and shoes. If she didn’t expect to lend a hand with cooking, hospital duty, laundering, or sewing, she might wear stays and a long gown, and big panniers. The short, boned jacket allowed a woman’s upper torso more flexibility than stays with a long gown, so yes, it wasn’t as restrictive.

Is it comfortable? Hah! In the summer, it’s hot as the dickens, and sweat plasters the shift to my legs. No one can run very quickly in the clothing. If it gets wet in a downpour, all those yards of fabric become quite heavy. And sometimes the wind can whip the petticoat into an open campfire, setting the material afire. Every year, that happens to a few reenactor women. I had my petticoat whipped into the flames once, but we grabbed it out before it caught fire. In the eighteenth century, being burned was one of the top causes of death for women.

Have you fired the weapons used in the war? What other research have you done in order to write accurately about the lives of men on the battlefield?

I’ve loaded and fired both a musket and a pistol with powder, the way it’s done during the battle reenactments. I’ve also fixed a bayonet on the business end of a musket and received lessons in swinging a saber. On one occasion, we went way out in the woods away from people so I could load and fire a musket ball and get an idea of the difference in the recoil between that and a musket fired with powder alone. The musket ball hit a pine tree at what would have been chest height on an adult. I swaggered for a few seconds before I realized that the ball had ricocheted somewhere, just as it might have done in a battle. One of us could have been killed by that. I haven’t fired any musket balls since then.

I learned to start a fire with flint and steel. (What an exercise in hyperventilation. Matches weren’t invented until the nineteenth century.) My hat’s off to my ancestors who could start a fire with flint and steel in the wind or rain.


I’ve cooked over many wood fires (and burned plenty of food that way), slept in canvas army tents without mosquito netting, and gone without running water and heat/AC for entire weekends. Refrigerators, electricity, and flush toilets seem like miracles after those weekends.

During the after-hours at many weekend reenactments, there’s a social event that usually involves dancing to fiddle music. Most soldiers would have participated in such entertainment. It was another way to inject normalcy into their lives. Many steps in these country dances (do-si-do, swing, allemande, etc.) are used in modern square dances and contra dances.

Where can people go to get the flavor of the time in homes and towns, away from the battlefield? Which historical sites have you most enjoyed visiting?

Sites like Colonial Williamsburg and the Joel Lane Museum House aren’t associated with any battle reenactments, although activities connected with these sites might occasionally include a military drill. These sites are great places to get a sense of the eighteenth century on the scale of a town, nobleman’s estate, or homestead of an ordinary person. Full-time employees provide the living history element.

Other sites such as Historic Brattonsville, House in the Horseshoe, and Historic Camden provide visitors with the sense of eighteenth-century homesteads and lifestyles while hosting annual battle reenactments. There aren’t as many regular employees providing the living history at these sites. Reenactors do a lot of the hands-on history at the annual events.

Each site I’ve visited has its own charm. The immense scope of what’s available to people who are in search of living history—from entire town to farm, from mansion to small home—reinforces the fact that war knows no boundaries.

Many – most? – students find history dull and irrelevant to their lives. Do you have any suggestions for teachers (or parents) who want to get kids excited about history and make them understand the events that created our country?

Make history as hands-on as possible.

When I became involved in Revolutionary War reenacting, my sons were in early elementary school. I brought them into the reenacting with me. Even though I could see how much they enjoyed themselves at every event, I had no idea that all that hands-on involvement would give both of them an appreciation of history from many time periods.


I also had no idea that participating with Crown forces reenactors all those years would help my sons understand that there are at least two sides to every argument, and that in military actions, the soldiers on neither side consider themselves to be the villains. Showing history, rather than telling it, makes the past relevant, fun, and worthy of study.

Thank you for the interview, Sandy!

Visit Suzanne's website at for more information.


Liz said...

Another great interview.

Suzanne said...

Thank you, Liz! It's great to see you here.

Tracy Smith said...

It was precisely Suzanne's atypical characters and settings that attracted me to her writing several years ago. It was quite refreshing to read books from the point of view of common people who were neutral, Loyalist, or British, rather than the ubiquitous point of view of the privileged Americans opposing the British. To learn history accurately, one must explore all viewpoints to get the entire picture. And living in SC, I was naturally drawn to the southern settings of her books.

I fully agree with Suzanne that history class was boring and I likewise was not inspired to become a history buff in school. What I was taught about the Revolution was lopsided and misleading as well -- there was no coverage of the southern theater, save for a throwaway comment about Yorktown, which implied the entire war ended then and there. Another implication was that about 80% of Americans supported the Revolution, with only about 20% being Loyalist (Tory was the ubiquitous term during my school years), with no one being neutral. But as Suzanne's books show, it was really more of a one-third split between the three possible viewpoints.

I agree with Suzanne about the use of language - one should be able to read without having to consult a dictionary, and the book should be free of eye-rollingly modern slang. And Suzanne strikes the balance nicely in her books.

As one who has read all the Richard Sharpe and all the Harry Dresden books, I concur with Suzanne and say that anyone who likes these two series will like Michael Stoddard.

Suzanne said...

Thank you, Tracy!

I received that 80:20 split in Propaganda (History) class, too. Nobody mentioned that there were neutrals who comprised 1/3 to 1/2 of the population. But that's the way it is with just about every war, and it's a viewpoint that doesn't get explored in fiction much. Not glamorous enough, I guess.

Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown occurred in 1781. American history texts make it seem as though all the Brits stopped fighting at that point, like the Chitauri in "The Avengers." :-) But the majority of the Brits didn't sail away until 1783. There were several more big battles between 1781 and 1783, so they just kept fighting.

And -- not mentioned at all in history books -- British soldiers had a small but definite presence on American soil from within forts until the War of 1812. Yeah, you read correctly. Britain kept her fingers in the American pot and made the first five presidents very nervous.

But do American children learn that stuff in school? Nooooo.

Linda said...

Fascinating post Suzanne and thanks for including the link to the 2010 guest post regarding dialogue--it was also very informative. I see now why your dialogue flows so well.

And I see how using period records as source material works great for those of us setting fiction in the past, but I despair when thinking of what some of our written and recorded material will look like to the historical fiction writers a century from now. Will they know how to read LOL and TTFN and C U soon? :-0

We here in the US are so spoiled today in that we don't have any recent remembrance of how to survive through a major conflict on our soil. We've not been faced with the daily dilemma of staying alive and choosing which side offers the most protection, politics be damned. I can imagine it would take a special kind of courage to publicly take a stand for either Liberty or the Crown, and to read the thought processes of Stoddard and Spry and Kate Duncan is to see how seriously you have taken your research because you can feel the ways in which they are conflicted.

HOSTAGE is yet another great read and I look forward to more of Michael.

Suzanne said...

Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. Here are my additional suggestions for writing dialog that fits this period:

o Have at your reference a good dictionary that shows you when words entered the English language. A lot of people use the Old English dictionary. You can also use Merriam-Webster's.

o Develop an ear that alerts you to when a word sounds too modern, and make sure you look it up in your dictionary. Developing that "ear" takes time. Years. My ear is much better developed for the Michael Stoddard series than it was for my first trilogy.

o Use readers for your drafts who can tell you, "Hey, I think that phrase/word sounds too modern." Listen to those readers.

o Some phrases/words will be perfectly period but will sound too modern to your alpha and beta readers. If it jolts them out of the story, change the phrase/word. The word "wow" used as an interjection to show surprise or pleasure dates from 1513, but I had to make Nick Spry say something else because my readers thought the word sounded too modern.

Suzanne said...

Huzzah! A Hostage to Heritage just received its fifth five-star review on Amazon. "This is a complex and fast-paced thriller with twists and turns that will keep the reader engaged until the last page."

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