Research: Learning About My Characters

One of the intriguing things about writing historical fiction is that I tell the story of people who wrote their own stories.


Brigadier General Daniel Morgan

For example, in Gideon Hawke #4, A Constant Thunder, we meet people like Daniel Morgan and Richard Butler, who were fascinating historical figures. Their deeds contributed in no small way to the birth of our Nation, and each plays a role in A Constant Thunder. Butler and Morgan had their portraits painted and had books written about them, so I have a fair idea how they looked and made them tick. (you have to be careful though…in Morgan’s portrait the painter left only a hint of the ugly scar on Morgan’s mouth and left cheek. Morgan got that scar when a Native American musket ball entered the back of his neck and came out his mouth. Now THAT’S a good story!)

Most of my characters, however, achieved no notoriety; I may know them only from names written a muster roll in the 1770s. Sometimes I can learn nothing more. Sometimes a little detective work can reveal some tantalizing hints. For example, when a soldier appears on a company muster roll as a corporal in November 1777, but as a private in February 1778, well…something clearly went awry for that man to be demoted. As a novelist (and former Army company commander) my imagination can generate all sorts of stories to fill in the blanks. When I pick the one I like, it gets woven into the tapestry of my novel, and becomes part of the picture that will be Gideon Hawke #5.

This methodology has other implications, too. Andrew Johnston is an excellent example. In Gideon Hawke #1, This Glorious Cause, I needed a friend and mentor for Gideon. I picked Andrew Johnston from the roll of Chamber’s Company because I saw a note that he was later promoted to Sergeant. That note told me he was a good soldier, and likely to be someone his fellow troops respected. Andrew Johnston the character has done excellent service in that role. But periodically I learn a bit more about the career of the real Andrew Johnston, and I am pleased to say that my assumptions about him appeared to be accurate: he continued to serve well and honorably, and received greater responsibility throughout the war. More will be revealed in book 5.

The more I learn about the men and women who won America’s independence, the more I am humbled. It is a privilege to be able to tell their stories.



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