An Abiding Sense of History


It was a beautiful and memorable October 7th atop Kings Mountain.  Several hundred gathered to observe the 234th anniversary of the battle that turned the tide of the Revolutionary War and set in motion the chain of events that led to America’s independence from Britain.

It was a colorful occasion – men and women dressed in period costumes, members of the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution and other organizations dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of this important piece of Americana.  They laid wreaths at the base of the monument that pays tribute to the Patriots who fought, including the 28 who died.

The gathering included a handful of hardy men who had spent two weeks traveling to Kings Mountain from Eastern Tennessee, re-creating the march of the “Overmountain Men” who formed the backbone of the Patriot force at the battle.  Those originals traveled more than 300 miles over rugged terrain, through brutal weather, to find and defeat British Major Patrick Ferguson and his force on that low ridge near the border of the two Carolinas.  The modern-day group have been making this journey for 40 years, stopping along the way to tell anyone who can listen the story of those 1780 frontiersmen.

I’m one who thinks history is vital – that we have to know where we came from, and how we got where we are now, to have any idea how to proceed into the future.  When I write a novel, I need to know my characters’ backstory – the how and why of their journey to the “now.”  I want my readers to understand the baggage they tote along with them, the joys and agonies of their lives that make them who they are and give a glimpse into how they might deal with their present dilemmas.

So, we all fit into a history – both personal and societal.  And having a sense of that is crucial to understanding who we are, as individuals and as a people.

I love the stories of history.  In the research that went into writing my new play, “Liberty Mountain,” I read volumes about the settling of the Carolinas, the lives of the families who came to the southern colonies from Europe to make a fresh start, to work hard and enjoy the fruits of their labor, to worship as they pleased.  It’s the ordinary folks I’m most interested in, and in crafting the story of Kings Mountain, I came to know these ordinary folks – men, women and children – and especially the volunteer citizen militiamen who fought the battle on both sides.  They had an intensely personal stake in the outcome, and when it was over, they went back to being farmers and millers and shopkeepers.  But they were profoundly changed by the experience, and so was the country.  The difference was one word: liberty.

At the wreath-laying ceremony on top of the mountain a few days ago, I was heartened to see a large group of high school students.  Their presence told me that folks at their school believe that history is important.  I trust that the experience made a lasting impression on the young folks, because we depend on them to carry our history and its lessons forward.  We put it in their hands, and trust they will continue to tell the stories of who we are and how we came to be Americans.  If they understand that, it will help them shape their future.

I hope my play, “Liberty Mountain,” will play a small part in perpetuating the unique piece of history we call Kings Mountain.  The production will continue in the future, with performances every summer.  I hope folks, especially young folks, will come from across the nation – even the world – to see and hear this inspiring story of courage and fortitude. 

A Sense of History

I like history.  I think we have to know where we’ve been before we can understand how and why we got where we are now.

It’s true of the world at large, and a lot of what we call history is the recounting of momentous events and larger-than-life people doing momentous things.  But I’m even more interested in small histories -- the very personal, intimate stories of individuals.  The sum of our small histories gives texture and meaning to the larger sweep of mankind.

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If you read one of my novels, you know the importance I attach to backstory.  I have to know how my characters got here, how the baggage they tote from their past affects how they’re moving through the present.  When I offer a story, I’m like a lawyer arguing a case before a jury.  I need to give enough background to let you know that my story and characters are authentic.  I need to offer what lawyers call extenuating and mitigating circumstances.  In my new novel, The Governor’s Lady, I devote chapters to my central character’s history.  In other works, it may be a sentence or paragraph here and there.  But the backstory is crucial to me in understanding the character, and then presenting the character to my readers.

That really hit home when the Hallmark Hall of Fame folks were making a movie from my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  I adapted the two-hour screenplay from a 500-page novel, so I had to leave out a great deal.  But Glenn Jordan, the director, required the cast members to read the book before they came to the set, and I’m sure that in a thousand ways, they brought a richer understanding of their characters to the portrayal.

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My love of histories large and small is what intrigues me about an oral history project going on these days in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.  It’s called StoryLine, and it’s based on the premise that when people in a community share their stories, it fosters an understanding of what they have in common.  StoryLine does its work from a small bus that serves as a studio.  You and a story partner sit down before microphones and have a conversation about who you are and where you come from.  Some of the stories, in edited form, air on local radio stations.  They all go into an archive at the Forsyth County Library: a treasure trove for the community’s understanding of itself, now and in the future.

But you don’t have to have a studio in a bus to record history.  Any kind of recording device will do just fine.  The thing is to sit down with a friend or relative and just talk about who you are, how you got where you are now, your hopes and dreams.  It’s especially important for the older generations in our families.  Before it’s too late, preserve their stories.  I wish I had been smart enough to do that with my parents.  When they passed on, I lost a good bit of my own history.  I’m poorer for that.

I once heard a semi-famous man say, “We never see the handwriting on the wall until our backs are to it.”  I think he was right in the sense that we often turn our backs on our history and keep repeating mistakes.  But it needn’t be that way.  It takes having a sense of and appreciation for history – and then, like StoryLine, doing something about it.