Strange Sparks (Courtney McKinney-Whitaker)
|Lord Charles Cornwallis in the early 1780s|
As a writer of historical novels, I find sparks of inspiration in lots of places, but especially during the research process. With THE LAST SISTER, I already knew the story I wanted to tell, and the mostly forgotten Anglo-Cherokee War was my spark of inspiration for how I wanted to tell it. My process for my current work-in-progress has been rather different. Instead of starting with a story, I started with a setting: the Carolinas at the end of the American Revolution, in 1780, a year that doesn't get much play in popular culture. (I'm hoping the Revolution itself will help readers—and, uh, people in publishing—find a point of connection.)
Finding a story I wanted to tell was a struggle, so I dove into the research in order to learn everything I could about the Carolinas in 1780. The spark of my story came from a surprising place: Lord Charles Cornwallis, who, bless his heart, had no idea when he was off on the Continent learning everything he could about military theory, serving for decades in the British army, and later governing India, that he would be the inspiration for a YA author's novel.
It's strange, the way time and art bring very different people together.
The book isn't about Lord Cornwallis, but he showed me the way into it. He fascinated me. I found myself wanting to know more about him. And through that process, I met a character who also wanted to know more about him.
I think the reason I became so interested is that the man I found in the historical record is so different from the man portrayed in most fictional interpretations. I paused. I said, Wait, this is Lord Cornwallis? He's not ancient. He's forty-two. (Not even for the time as ancient as you might think.) He's not a stodgy old British officer who hates rebels at all. He's a grieving widower seeking escape in his work. He's not crushed by the loss at Yorktown. His career is just getting started. He looks nothing like Tom Wilkinson.
|Tom Wilkinson as Lord Charles Cornwallis in The Patriot|
Now I've gone and talked about it, so I have to write this book.
I have Lord Cornwallis to thank for this new story, and for reminding me that popular memory often lies and that we don't usually know people as well as we think we do.