Writing a Historical Novel and Author Interview: Isle of Canes by Elizabeth Shown Mills
How do you learn history? Watching a movie? Taking a course? Reading a historical novel? Discovering the nuances of time and place can make all the difference in our ability to make connections in our family history. Personally, I have found the historical novel, based on research, to be my favorite learning vehicle. A memorable story engages our brain and helps to absorb more information.
Based on over thirty years of research, Isle of Canes references documents we are familiar with as genealogists – probate, church, land, and baptism records. The true genius of the book is taking the records and combining them with historical details to create an engaging and illuminating work. Detailed charts illustrate four generations of the family descended from Francois and Fanny, enslaved from Africa.
Elizabeth Shown Mills is well known for her book on citation, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. What you may not know is that she has written numerous articles and other books based on her southern research. Elizabeth has lectured extensively on research procedures and often uses the people of the Isle as case studies. Her website, Historic Pathways contains several articles on Creole Louisiana, African America & Slavery, and more. In 2008, the National Genealogy Society Quarterly featured “Documenting a Slave’s Birth, Parentage, and Origins (Marie Therese Coincoin, 1742-1816) : A Test of “Oral History.” Studying the article (available on Historic Pathways) in conjunction with the fictional account of Coincoin in Isle of Canes reveals just a glimmer of the extent of research conducted.
When I finished the book, I had several questions that the author graciously agreed to answer. Below are my questions and Elizabeth’s perspective on Isle of Canes, many years after its initial publication in 2006.
Isle of Canes deals with over four generations of a family with many interweaving stories and characters. What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?
Two challenges were particularly acute, structurally and intellectually. The structural issue was to identify the character who best tells the family story in each time frame. The main character in each of the four generations was an obvious choice; but a main character must have supporting characters who provide context, contrast, and conflict. The subplots each of those created had to advance the narrative historically, socially, and emotionally.
The greater challenge was to remain faithful to the actual character of each individual whose life was being portrayed. A novelist can invent fascinating characters whose actions are limited only by the imagination of the writer. The historical novelist who tells the story of real people is more constricted. Because we are portraying actual people, we do have a responsibility to portray each character honestly—as they actually were, not as we want them to be to create a better story line. We have a responsibility to understand each character, in order to portray them honestly.
The understanding needed to accurately portray each life means research. Much, much research. Excruciatingly complete research. The first criteria of the Genealogical Proof Standard is absolutely essential: reasonably exhaustive research. The stories and the personal traits that make each character unique come from many different types of esoteric records of a sort genealogists often ignore in their focus on “extending the line.”
The characters in the book are drawn from the extensive genealogical records. How were you able to bring these people to life?
Context is essential—but that means targeted context, creatively used. Genealogists today have been weaned on the idea that “we need to put ancestors into historical context.” And so, the marketplace offers all sorts of canned time-lines; and some genealogists use them to produce narratives such as “Susanne married John in Podunk, on 5 May 1821, which was the day Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning at St. Helena.” That’s not context. Napoleon’s poisoning has nothing to do with the price of eggs in Podunk. On the other hand, the price of eggs in Podunk does have a lot to do with Susanne and John, as newlyweds struggling to survive on John’s income as, say, a tanner’s apprentice. The price of eggs would be highly relevant to them—along with the price of bread and the price of the cottage or hovel they could have afforded.
Contextual information of this type is abundant in the sources we use, from newspapers to probate files, to lawsuits, to church registers. We see much “interesting stuff” of this type in our research—if not in the records created by our own families, then certainly in the records of their neighbors and associates. Details on every item our ancestors would have worked with, lived with, played with, or even seen can enrich our context. As researchers, when we spot this type of information, we should not pass it by on the premise that it’s irrelevant. When we reach the point of telling our family’s story it will become essential.
From the time I began research as a history student and budding genealogist, I had one unshakable rule: Never use a source without gathering context from it. As I worked each geographic area, I started a card file with everyday categories. I squirreled away nuggets that covered all the senses—sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing, and emotions—as well as tidbits that describe animals, climate, clothing, customs, economy, food, health, housing, labor practices, landscape, laws, tools, transportation, and much more. We all encounter this type of material in our research: curious descriptions in documents, interesting sidelights in newspapers, pithy quotes from regional characters, and other patterns that we observe. If there is any cardinal rule for the genealogical writer, it should be this: Never use a source without getting something for your context file!
(As an aside, one of the most-appreciated compliments I received from a member of the Isle family, was rooted in this attention to context. Joe’s a vice-president of a large metropolitan bank, but he grew up close to his rural roots. When he bought his copy of Isle, he did not know me and he had serious doubts because he knew I was not born into his family. How could I understand them? He decided I was “authentic” when he read one passage discussing the careless spread of Johnson grass on a farm. His farm-based elders had fought it like the Devil it was, and he knew the damage it would cause if it were allowed to take over a ditch bank, much less a field. For me, as a writer, to understand that aspect of their lives was, in his eyes, the tipping point that attested my credibility.)
What motivated you to write Isle of Canes?
Diana, I must answer that with another question: how does a writer resist, when a story begs to be told‽
I did not start out to research this family or write their story. I set out to research my children’s ancestry along Louisiana’s Cane River, in the old Louisiana parish of Natchitoches. In the process of using the original documents from the 1700s and 1800s, I noticed another family in the community that we did not descend from but were sometimes cousins to. Richly layered, vibrant, and complicated, this was a family that defied all the stereotypes I had learned as a history major. I began to include them in my research, out of a sense that understanding them and the role they played—or were allowed to play—in the social and economic fabric of the place and time would help me better understand our own ancestors who were their neighbors, associates, somewhat-friends, and sometimes antagonists.
Within a couple of years, as my husband and I made contacts in that parish, the local preservation society asked us if we would take on a research project for them. They had been gifted with a “plantation estate” that supposedly was founded by freed slaves. Could we document its history for them so that, if legend was true, they could seek a landmark status that would help them obtain grants for restoration. That one project launched my professional career as a researcher. Forty-eight years later, I’m still researching the family, for myself, and I’m still learning from them.
Amid all the ethnic groups in America, so little is known about families like those on the Isle. In part, that’s because America has always divided its population into white, black, and red. Unlike other societies, Anglo-rooted America has not recognized multiracials as a separate caste. From another critically important perspective: multiracial slave-owners of the Old South have been ignored by many historians because their existence raises issues our nation is uncomfortable with. On matters of slavery and race, we prefer the familiar stereotypes. We grasp for black-and-white answers that are easier to deal with than the nuances and contradictions of actual life. In Isle I’ve attempted to portray the complexities of their lives in living colors that are both painful and inspiring.
One other factor motivated the writing of Isle. This was not a one-off book, but one of a pair. My husband was, at the time we were approached by the preservation society, a young college prof at the point of choosing his doctoral dissertation topic. He chose this one. His socio-economic study of the family and the community it built was published by Louisiana State University Press: The Forgotten People: Cane River’s Creoles of Color (1976). But outside the themes and materials he selected for use in his study, there remained a wealth of tradition and personal stories that needed to be told. Isle was born of that need to “tell the rest of the story.” It also grew out of another reality: academic history appeals to a limited audience—and this story was one that cried to be told beyond those bounds.
(Incidentally, in 2010, several years after Gary’s death, LSU Press came to me wanting a new edition of Forgotten People—drawing from the forty years of additional research I’d invested into Cane River history, as well as the context of forty years of scholarship by others working the same topics. That revised and expanded edition came out in 2013. I have a Facebook page dedicated to that book where I present “Bits of Evidence” that underpin the family’s story and new insight as I uncover it.)
Do you have a favorite character from the book? If so, who is it and why?
Marie Thérèse dit Coincoin. She had been so misunderstood by earlier writers. Some inflated her accomplishments to portray her as a rich, insensitive overlord. Others denigrated her, questioning her morals because of the circumstances into which she was propelled with no ability to resist. Some declared that her memory created such shame for her offspring that they tried to erase her from family lore. Others, ignorant of African culture and naming practices, declared that her name African name “Coincoin” (originally spelled as Coinquin, KonKwn, and other variants—but, more familiar to modern writers, the French phonetic equivalent of “quack-quack”) was given to her because of a lack of linguistic ability. A duck actually became a symbol for her in folk-art of the mid-1900s.
If all the research I have done in Cane River records—records scattered from France to Spain to Mexico to Cuba and DC—accomplishes nothing else, I hope it has helped to right the wrongs done to Coincoin.
What advice do you have for a family historian who would like to write the stories of their ancestors?
There are two ways we might approach this. If we are blessed with a rich body of family lore, certainly it’s legitimate to tell those stories for what they are: stories.
Beyond that, our family research does uncover many stunning characters—the Coincoins and the Augustins who offer great potential to help the world better understand itself. The historical novel is a powerful platform for sharing that understanding and instilling family pride. To validly choose this course, I think, we have two prerequisites. The first is thorough research—that “reasonably exhaustive research” that is the first criteria of the Genealogical Proof Standard. Not only does this ensure that our family’s history is accurate but, more important to our story, it provides the depth of character and breadth of context needed for a compelling story. The second prerequisite, in my conviction, is that we must first present the genealogical account of the family, providing the documentation for the family structure.
I say this because storytelling is a different form of writing. The craft of storytelling has its own rules we must follow and we walk a difficult tightrope, trying to maintain genealogical integrity and historical integrity while applying the storyteller’s craft. As faithful as we try to be to the actual facts, we must shave and whittle the evidence to simplify it. We must emphasize certain characteristics of a character at the expense of others, so that the nature of our characters do not overlap or blur or confuse.
We may find thousands of records on a particular family, yet no amount could ever chronicle all the intimate details of even one life—much less four generations as with Isle of Canes. Readers do expect storytellers to flesh out the gaps, color in the scenery, and present dynamic characters and actions. Within a historical novel, we have that artistic license—so long as we remain true to the character of each real person we portray. But I would never have been comfortable with presenting this story as a novel without having first published the family’s genealogy and then examining various parts of the story, as traditional history, in various journals.
(As an aside, Gary and I published the genealogy of these four generations in NGSQ in 1982. It was the first African-American genealogy published by a major genealogical journal.)
And now for issues you did not ask about that are intrinsic to this story …
Isle of Canes is a heart-rending story and a troubling story. But it is an inspiring story also.
The past was a foreign country and people did things differently there. Coincoin, like other African-ancestored women in colonial Louisiana and (to a smaller extent) elsewhere in the South, was a slave owner. So were her children and grandchildren. In their world on the Isle of Canes, free people of color were the bridge between slavery and freedom. Theirs was a bridge that had to be preserved, so that other enslaved people could work their way to freedom; Coincoin’s offspring helped many along that path. However, that bridge was one that the outside world wanted to destroy, because free people of color—living independently and thriving—belied the narrative that Blacks were inferior children of God who needed White direction and control.
Families such as the Metoyers were the keepers of that bridge—and that hope of freedom for the enslaved—but it took wealth to defend it. It took wealth to battle proposed legislation against them, to enable them to defend themselves when charged unjustly with crimes for which they could be sent back into slavery. It took wealth to defend their wives and children against predators, to educate their children so the next generation could continue that fight. Yet, indisputably, in a plantation economy, wealth required land and slaves.
Within that reality, this family took seriously its civic role. When other free people of color were charged with crimes and had no means to defend themselves, this family provided that aid. They also helped many enslaved people become free and literate.
Civil War, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow destroyed the society they created on the Isle. For three quarters of a century after that, Coincoin’s offspring were again living in servitude on their own land. Throughout those years, however, they never lost their sense of identity, their pride in their past, or their belief that—being multiracial—they could also bridge that terrible divide that has persisted in America between Black and White.
As the teller of their story, I hope that all my readers—regardless of their own backgrounds—will close the book with a new appreciation of one thing: Skin is only the wrapping on a package. Inside that package, our flesh and bones and hearts and hopes and dreams of a better world for our children are all the same color.
Tell us about yourself.
This is the difficult part. I hate talking about myself.
How did you get started in family history? Do you remember an initial “spark” or incident that inspired you? Did you have any experiences as a child/teen in school or at home that helped you be more inclined toward family history?
What sparked my interest in genealogy?
A school project when I was twelve. After learning the rudiments of essay writing, we were assigned a project: Talk to our family elders, question them about their lives and our family’s past, then write an essay titled “Who Am I?” My grandmother, to the horror of some members of our family, told me the tale of a distant horse trader who swapped off a fine bay mare one day to a Choctaw chief, in exchange for which the chief gave the horse trader his daughter for a wife.
Now what 12-year-old girl would not have her curiosity piqued by that?
Why do you do genealogy? Why do you think it’s important?
I’m a historian by training, but never followed that as a profession. Coincoin—and that putative Choctaw princess who didn’t actually exist—taught me something more valuable that I did not learn in my formal training. Genealogy is history, up close and personal. We pluck individuals from the shadows of the past. We learn their names. We follow them from birth to death. We study the actual effect upon human lives of all the wars and plagues and politics and persecution that historians write about.
When we personalize history, we make it real. Studying the individual lives of people in the past gives us a much clearer window through which to see the world. It shows us the human costs of decisions made by politicians and generals and gives us a much truer understanding of why our society is the way it is.
What are your research interests?
My focus has always been upon the forgotten and the neglected. The ethnic minorities. The poor yeoman farmers who lacked the literacy to create Bibles and letters. The frontier families who lived so far from record-keeping institutions that they left few records of their lives. Finding sufficient evidence to recreate their lives and tell their stories is the most-rewarding challenge a historian or genealogist can have.
Who is your most interesting ancestor?
I fell in love with Zilphy, the classic wayward daughter of a Revolutionary-era Carolina-Georgia preacher who defied the family mores and paid a steep price for it. My current love is Frankey, who rose from the mists of Virginia’s Blue Ridge in 1788 as a single mother—one whose only daughter was taken from her at the instigation of a prominent widow in her neighborhood. Frankey may or may not be my children’s ancestor. The verdict is still out. But she’s held me captive for nearly 2,000 hours of research. I’m currently taking the Covid-19 threat very seriously. I cannot go to meet my ancestors until I finish putting all of Frankey’s other unidentified children back into her arms.
Thanks, Elizabeth, for your insight into Isle of Canes.
What Are We Writing?
As family historians, we want to leave behind a story of our ancestors that will be read and teach the next generation about their heritage. Whether we write research reports, books, or even a novel. We must write something! Isle of Canes provides us with an excellent example and deepens our understanding of our world.
Best of luck in all your genealogical endeavors!