Inevitably when I give a talk about my Durant Family Saga trilogy, I get asked if I've been approached by producers who want to turn it into a tv series or movie. Usually, these people are avid fans of the t.v. series Hell on Wheels. This show had a five season run starting in 2011. It was an AMC series that was then picked up by Netflix. The setting is mid 1860s and the plot is about the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad which connected the eastern and western states in America.
I was almost done writing my first novel in the saga when someone alerted me to the series. I hated to watch it at first because I didn't want the show to taint my view of the main characters in my novel who also play a leading role in the tv series: Dr. Thomas Durant (Doc Durant) and Collis P. Huntington. In the series Doc Durant is played by Colm Meany who does an excellent job portraying him as the blustery, conniving robber baron that he was as head of the Union Pacific. Collis P. Huntington, played by Tim Guinee, is head of the Central Railroad, and Doc's arch enemy.
When Doc Durant was done with the Transcontinental he was mired in debt and lawsuits. But he happened to have acquired 1/2 million acres of land in the Adirondack wilderness to exploit. He summoned his son William and daughter Ella back home from their posh life in England to help him regain the family fortune.
When Doc Durant dies, his enemy Huntington befriends Doc's son William (a friendship that leads to William's downfall). When I discovered this I knew I had a great plot twist on my hands. I continued to watch the series as I wrote books two and three but by then, Doc Durant was dead (he dies in novel 2) and I was focused more on Collis and his relationship with Doc's son William.
My novels continue where the Hell on Wheels Series ended. I'm not one to fantasize about success or making millions, but when I realized what I was writing was a sequel to the stories of two of the main characters on Hell on Wheels, I registered my saga with the Writers Guild just to be on the safe side.
While having your books picked up for production is every author's dream, it's also a long shot. At this time, my pitch is out there - sitting in industry person's email inbox. Where will it end up? Who knows?
If I've learned anything from this process it's that a lead may take you on an incredible journey you hadn't anticipated. When I started writing the Durant Family story, I thought I was going to be writing a love story set in the wilderness, with William Durant as the leading man, and found myself tracking his family story all over the place: museums and libraries all up and down the east coast, England, and an auction house. I had descendants of the Durants provide me with family lore; a couple from Pennsylvania tell me they had Ella Durant's scrapbook sitting in their attic for over three decades and didn't know what to do with it until they read my blog about her; and an archivist at the NY Law Library help me track down a Durant sealed divorce file from 1898.
When I started this writing journey I never thought I'd be breaking the wax seal of a 100 year old divorce file in the basement of a Manhattan Courthouse; nor did I think I'd be writing a trilogy, or speaking to over 300 people each year about my novels. If I've learned anything it's that one never knows where a story might lead. You just gotta have faith it will end well.
I've used this tag line in my biographies several times and although it's metaphorical, it's also true. In my professional capacity over the years as an outdoor educator and professor teaching ecology and environmental science, I've worked alongside volunteers and students planting trees. Together we've planted hundreds of seedlings and bare root mature trees in places such as the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge, the City of Syracuse parks, and the nature trail behind the college campus where I teach.
So you can imagine my chagrin when we were approached by the utility company with a request to take down the ash trees that line the front of our house. The Emerald Ash borer is wreaking havoc on ash trees in the Northeastern U.S. and our ash trees are directly under the utility wires. The emerald ash borer beetle lays eggs in the tree's bark and the larvae eat away at the phloem, the inner part of the bark that transports water and nutrients, eventually killing the tree. The borer is not native to the United States and was brought to the states accidentally in 2002 from Asia. Within the decade our trees would be dead so we agreed to let the utility take them down.
We then had to decide whether to take down the magnificent ash tree in our side yard.
This tree was planted long before we arrived, I'm guessing its age at fifty plus years. Its largess allowed it to throw shade on the back deck. Great! Except when you live in Upstate, NY and summers are so short. Half the tree hung over the driveway and in the fall it shed dead limbs and leaves like crazy. We spent hours cleaning up the mess it left on the pavement after a wind storm. So although I loved the tree we decided to take that one down as well. As upsetting as it was to see the hole in the sky when the tree was felled, this summer we've witnessed spectacular sherbet colored sunsets now that the limbs aren't obstructing the view.
It wasn't long however before the gaping hole in the landscape gnawed at me and we went in search of a new tree. I chose a redbud because I love the way their lavender flowers bloom so delicately in the spring. And they don't get that big - maybe twenty-five feet in height.
Even as we were debating whether to take the ash tree down I knew I'd end up planting another in its place; I've spent the past few decades educating and advocating for the natural world. And I'm always rewarded by the look of wonder and accomplishment that passes over people's faces after grubbing around in the dirt, digging holes, putting in a tree, heeling the rich earth back into place.
I remember one day in particular while planting thirty trees with my students in the nature trail behind campus. I was crouched over a dug-out hole, wide enough to handle the bare roots of a red maple. I was working with a student, using a shovel to back-fill the hole with dirt, when the student told me, "I've never planted a tree." He sat back on his haunches sweating and wiping at his brow with the back of his hand. "Well," I told him, "this is something you won't forget." I eyeballed the sky. "And if you do, come back one day to see how much it has grown."
While reading Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence, set in the 1870s in New York City, I remember being taken aback by a reference to a woman carrying a fan made of Eagle feathers to the opera. Oh dear, I thought. Our national bird? A protected species? Why, just recently they stopped construction of a dock near my hometown because a pair of Eagles were nesting in the trees nearby.
Then during the course of my research for my second novel in the Durant family trilogy, I came across a reference to William West Durant taking off with an Adirondack guide to shoot three Loons that had the bad luck to be stuck in a cove as it had iced-over one night in early spring (1890). Loons are heavy and can’t take off without a flyway and so, as the memoir I found at the Adirondack Museum goes, the Loons managed to keep a small opening in the ice during the night but needed the cove to melt so that they had enough space to take off. Unfortunately, they never got that chance (you’ll have to read story two to find out what happens to them). I was aghast.
My modern sensibilities get in the way of my research at times. While describing ladies’ fashions during the Victorian era I had to contend with the fact that women loved wearing the artifacts of dead birds on their hats or to adorn their outfits.
After all, it wasn’t until Boston socialite Harriet Hemenway and her cousin Minna started a a boycott against the practice of hunting exotic birds down to adorn lady’s hats in 1896 that the abomination of the practice came to light. Indeed, these two lady mavericks are credited with starting the Audubon Society to save birds from extinction.
They first heard about the plight of birds after an amateur ornithologist, Frank Chapman, wrote about his experience watching bird hunters go after an egret rookery, plucking the feathers and leaving the young to die in the trees. Chapman is also credited with surveying for birds on the streets of New York City. In one day in 1886 Chapman counted 542 hats adorned with 174 whole birds or their parts. He claimed to have counted over forty different species of birds on ladies’ hats: pheasants, peacocks, egrets, scarlet tanagers, robins, and blue jays, just to name a few.
It wasn’t until the turn of the century that it started to become unfashionable to be wearing a dead bird on one’s head, much less a bird that was considered endangered. This points to the fact that at the time, people believed our resources to be limitless, or never knew the difference and didn’t care.
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There is a family of red fox in a cemetery nearby and they have become a welcome diversion from all of the doom and gloom of the Covid-19 pandemic. I've been finding myself wandering the cemetery in the early morning and evenings, hoping to observe the pups playing. When the mother comes around, I take off so as not to distract them from their feeding routine.
Watching them from a distance allows me to keep my mind off of other pressing concerns (the health and safety of my family) and made me realize that as we humans struggle with the impacts of this terrible pandemic, mother nature just keeps forging on.
Because the red fox appears in two of my novels, I researched their ecology. Fox mate in late winter and produce 2-10 young by March-April. The mother builds two dens (one is a back-up). They may dig their own or take over previous holes dug by gophers. It is not uncommon for the mother to divide the litter between two dens.
Unlike some other mammals that leave the care of the young to the mother, fox mates stay together to bring up the pups. The male will bring food for the pups to play with and eat until they can hunt on their own (12 weeks). They are omnivores, meaning they eat both meat and plants. I've seen bird feathers and carcasses near the den and one day I spotted one of the parents coming over the hill with what looked like a squirrel in its mouth.
They are mostly active in the early evening or night but while taking care of the young, the parents may be seen hunting near the den. Sometimes at night I can hear the screeching and yipping of fox that live in the fields near our house. It's slightly eerie and almost sounds like they are in pain. This form of communication is mostly between mates. After 12 weeks, the pups disperse - males going first, to stake out new territory.
The coyote and man are the fox's natural predators. It is still legal to hunt fox in the U.S. but not as common as it used to be. While I was researching one of my novels I found a reference to residents of the Smoky Mountains during the Great Depression, hunting fox and other fur bearing mammals to send the pelts to Sears and Roebuck for five dollars a pelt. And of course many of us know about fox hunting with hounds which has been banned in most places. In the U.S. it is now considered a 'chase' and they don't kill the fox. Nowadays, the lethal risk to fox is the coyote, which is increasing in number in the Northeaster U.S. , and disease.
Since the stay-at-home and social distancing began I've been walking three to four miles a day to keep my mind off things. Checking in on the fox family has become a ritual and has saved me from wallowing in despair. It has also served as a reminder that the Mother nature keeps moving on no matter what we humans do. We will survive all of this. If anything, slowing down, walking outdoors because the gyms are closed, has been a godsend for a lot of us because we're reconnecting with the natural world.
A few years ago I went to the village of Freshwater on the Isle of Wight, to scout out a location in my second novel of the Durant Family Saga trilogy: Castles in the Air.
Freshwater is a step back in time. It appears nothing has changed in this small coastal village since one of the characters in my novel, Ella Durant visited it over one hundred years ago to meet the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson. Given its history I would be surprised if it wasn't a haven for artists and writers. The beauty of the cliffs and rolling hills is astounding.
After finding Tennyson's home, Farringford, which is not open to the public, I went to the Dimbola Museum, once home of the famous photographer, Julia Margaret Cameron. I found a reference in a letter from Thomas C. Durant to his daughter Ella Durant dated April 1874 in which he stated he would allow Ella to stay with Mrs. Cameron in Freshwater. I speculate that the photo below may have actually been done by Cameron, although I don't know for sure. But in it Ella poses with her brother William and other friends at Isle of Wight, and it is dated 1874. Anne Thackeray Ritchie, an author and a family friend of Julia Cameron, stands tall in the back, facing right.
Follow the people from the past, the places they lived, worked, politics, public sentiment, changing landscape, and a narrative emerges that's worth telling in fiction.
While climbing the viewing tower on Mount Constitution in Washington State, I had the opportunity to read the testimony of the men who built it and was hooked on their story. A particular sign caught my eye. It was a certificate of appreciation to one of the men who helped build the tower in 1936, thanking him for being part of an "Army of Youth and Peace" and "Awakening the People to Conservation and Recreation."
The men who built the Mt. Constitution viewing tower and much of the infrastructure at the park, served in the U.S. Tree Army, a.k.a the Civilian Conservation Corps. (CCC). They led ordinary lives during an extraordinary time in U.S. history: the Great Depression.
These men, recruited from cities, rural towns and Indian Reservations from 1933-1939, served the U.S. citizenry and had an enormous impact on cultural attitudes toward conserving the natural resources, especially National and State forests.
Their nickname: The Tree Army, is apt; estimates are they collectively planted over three billion trees across the country. They fought numerous forest fires ravaging lands that were cut over and neglected by private lumber companies, and they prevented the decimation of the Great Plains agricultural lands through their soil conservation works.
And they were paid $5.00/month and given three meals a day to do so. The rest, $25.00, was sent home to support their families. Five dollars a month may sound like a paltry sum, but during the Depression, it was a king's salary to these men. "Five dollars a month made me rich! I never had $5.00 before in my life."
They were between the ages of 17-30. Some were World War I veterans. All were on public assistance. The U.S. Surgeon General estimated that 75% of the 100,000 men they examined in one year, were malnourished, prone to disease and exhausted from stress and the search for work. As one CCC alum wrote, the men had the mark of shattered ambitions and blasted hopes written on their faces.
Although the CCC was touted as a jobs recovery program, and a way to keep men, particularly young, immigrant men, from becoming juvenile delinquents roaming city streets, President Franklin Roosevelt also had a keen interest in preserving national park land. During his administration the Federal government acquired vast amounts of land and put it in the public domain.
Soon, CCC camps were popping up in rural enclaves throughout the U.S. where there were plenty of public work projects to be done. Besides planting trees these men built roads, cabins, lodges, rest areas, bridges, and scenic byways in the parks. And their presence played a big role in improving the economies of the surrounding towns. Local supplies, carpenters, and tradesmen were employed to help build and service the CCC camps and the local businesses: theaters, barbershops, food stores, all catered to them.
The Tree Army had an enormous impact on the recreation and tourist industry. Back in 1930 the Great Smoky Mountains National Park had about three thousand visitors a year. By the end of that decade, and due to their work, over 130 thousand visitors came to visit. Today the park welcomes over ten million visitors/year.
While reading the testimony of the men in various written accounts, one can imagine how hard it was, especially for the city dwellers, to be sent into the woods, so far from home, even if they were surrounded by awe-inspiring beauty. Most didn't have a high school education and had never traveled outside their own city neighborhoods. One man stated he and the other recruits were pensive when they landed at a Washington port to be shipped out to the San Juan Islands. They didn't believe it when they were told by their camp leader the Islands were part of the United States, instead thinking they were being deported.
When Orson Welles broadcast the War of the Worlds on radio in 1938, some of the men panicked, believing their homes in the Northeast were being destroyed by an invasion of martians. As one alum recounted, the boys from the east coast cities were screamin' and hollerin' around the camp.
After reading about the men in the CCC, I went looking for fictional accounts and didn't find many. That's when I decided it was time to tell their stories.
Olympic Mountain Range from Mt. Constitution, Moran State Park, Orcas Island.
Photo credit Wikimedia: Lee317
Brinkley, Douglas. Rightful Heritage. HarperCollins 2016.
Hill, Edwin. In The Shadow of the Mountain. Washington State University Press 1990.
Jolley, Dr. Harley. The Maginficent Army of Youth and Peace. UNC Press. 2007.
Maher, Neil. Nature's New Deal. Oxford University Press 2009.
In a interview on the History Author Show podcast about the Durant Family Saga, the interviewer asked me a question that had me stumped:
If you could fill any gap about this fascinating family after three novels, what would you choose?
Of course, there’s more I could have uncovered about the Durants to turn my trilogy into a series. I've received emails from people who were reading my books and my research journey blog. They offered me tidbits of information, leads to follow, contact information of descendants with interesting histories of their own. But for me, enough was enough. I’d spent five years of my life researching this Gilded Age family. I had traveled to several libraries and museums on the east coast of the U.S., and visited the Isle of Wight in England.
At some point authors of historical fiction rely on conjecture. It is the lens we use to offer our interpretation of events given the information we have on hand. Indeed, at the end of the trilogy, in the novel, The Night is Done, the narrator, a historian, remarks:
I’m sure that in the future, someone will come along and find gaps in my research. It’s the historian’s curse. Our job is to sift through the tall tales and determine what’s worth including and what’s best left as fodder for others to chew on. The truth is found in the abyss of the unknown.
If my readers believe it’s me, the author saying these words, they aren’t far off. I put myself in the head of the narrator, a historian, tracking down and interviewing an elderly member of the Durant family, and by the time I was done writing the last book in the trilogy, it was how I felt.
We read historical fiction to discover history in an interesting and entertaining fashion. Authors of this genre are all too aware that some research could take up a lifetime and if we wait for all the facts to be known, the stories would never get written. This is especially true as libraries, newspapers and museums digitize their collections making them more accessible to the public, uncovering new details and facts about historical events along the way.
There are always new stories to tell, and I have moved on to tell them. My latest work in progress is about the men of the US Civilian Conservation Corps, who planted over a billion tree seedlings in the US during the Great Depression. The story revolves around the families who once lived in Cades Cove, a cultural heritage site at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After doing research about these families, I felt compelled to tell their stories. And I hope to have this novel published soon.You can read the first couple of chapters here.
Sheila Myers is an award winning author and Professor at a small college in Upstate NY. She enjoys writing, swimming in lakes, and walking in nature. Not always in that order.