When writing family stories, how often do you research the location and history surrounding events that influenced our ancestors? As family historians, we can learn much about the importance of this type of research by reading historical fiction. The Girls in the Stilt House provides an excellent example of using place and time to bring to life the Natchez Trace as the setting for the story. In this blog post, Author Kelly Mustian shares some advice and thoughts on writing her first novel.
We’re reading The Girls in the Stilt House for our summer book selection as part of the Family Locket Book Club on Goodreads. If you shared a love of reading and a love of writing your family stories, we invite you to join us! If you have suggestions for future book selections, leave them in the comments.
The Girls in the Stilt House tells the story of two young women, one white and one black. Themes of racism abound in the setting of 1920s Mississippi, but Ada and Matilda work together to survive the many challenges thrown at them. Throughout the book, the Trace is featured almost as another character. The stilt house featured in the book sits just off the Trace in a swampy area of Mississippi that provides a place of refuge for the young women but has its own dangers.
The Trace began as a trail used by Native Americans then early explorers and finally by settlers. Many early U.S. settlements grew up along the Natchez Trace and soldiers used the trail during the War of 1812 and the Creek War to reach Louisiana. With the steamboats’ rise in popularity in the 1820s, though, traffic moved to the Mississippi River and the Trace became less used as a major route. Connecting Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, the Natchez Trace Parkway measures about 440 miles and memorializes the historic trail.
I reached out to the author, Kelly Mustian with some questions about the book and her own experience in genealogical research. Enjoy her responses!
The Girls in the Stilt House is not based on my own family history. The story and characters are entirely fictional. But the setting of the book was the setting of my childhood. Although not in a stilt house in the 1920s, I grew up at the southern end of the historic Natchez Trace, home to Ada and Matilda in the novel.
My older sister has had a lifelong interest in family history. She was an adult when I was a little girl, and she took me along on treks to old, overgrown cemeteries on the Trace, searching for ancestors. Somewhere along the way, I came across a crumbling brick tomb with a crack across the lid. Decades later, that memory became the starting point of The Girls in the Stilt House—two young women hiding a body in a buckled and broken tomb in the woods.
What type of research did you do to get the locale and period accurate?
I sought out obscure accounts of rural midwifery from the period and researched everything from snow globes to carnival rides to the sounds a passenger would hear in a Model T. I’m a stickler for getting the details right. But beyond traditional research, the stories I had soaked up as a child, told by elderly relatives about their own childhoods, were a sort of stored oral history that helped me feel at home in the 1920s. Some of the old sayings and archaic colloquialisms in the book are things my grandmother might have said.
Because I came of age in Mississippi, I was familiar with both the cultural and physical landscapes of that place in a time not so far removed from the world my characters inhabited. And many years of listening to the voices of authors from that period through their writings helped tremendously.
Although The Girls in the Stilt House was fiction, you covered sensitive topics such as murder, abuse, and racism. What advice would you give someone writing about difficult issues in their family history?
The same advice I’d offer to someone writing a historical novel: resist the urge to romanticize the period or the characters. An authentic view of the past is a powerful gift to future generations.
How did you get started in genealogical research?
My sister’s interest in genealogy rubbed off on me enough that I did the coursework required to obtain a professional certificate in genealogical research from Boston University, which I used primarily to help other people ferret out answers about their own histories. I volunteered as a genealogist at a public library, conducting workshops and assisting patrons, and took on some personal clients.
It’s a means of recording history in a very personal way, and a clear-sighted look at the past is a great place to begin in trying to build a better future.
What were your most meaningful experiences with genealogical research?
Probably helping an adoptee discover her unknown family history and helping a library patron who had never used a computer find records of his enslaved ancestors online.
Who is your most interesting ancestor?
As with all family histories, there are plenty of interesting characters in mine. More than the ancestor who chased a notorious gang of waylaying outlaws up and down the Trace, or the woman who kept a deathbed promise to marry her best friend’s husband, though it meant giving up her beloved fiancé, I think most often about my multi-great grandmother who lost two little sons on the same day to a fire in their attic. What heartaches she must have known.
Thanks, Kelly, for writing The Girls in the Stilt House and for answering our questions.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!