Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guest in Progress: Marty Rhodes Figley on Finding the Story in History

Marty Rhodes Figley is funny, smart, generous, kind, and can make perfect pie crust without following a recipe or cursing even once (not that she would ever curse…I’m the one who does that at stubborn piecrust). I love this piece about finding the person behind the man, so to speak—and this reminder that there are stories everywhere, usually in the details.

Writing about History ­– Why do I keep falling for these really old guys?
By Marty Rhodes Figley

It started in college when I was assigned to write a report on Charlemagne. I ended up liking the guy, a lot.

Our Medieval Studies professor asked us to analyze courtier Einhard’s biography of his friend, the King of the Franks. Who was the real Charlemagne?

I already knew that in 782 this man was responsible for the beheading of 4,500 rebellious Saxons. He was a bloodthirsty despot. What more did I need to know? Yes, Charlemagne unified Western Europe and initiated all kinds of reforms. For a while he took the “dark” out of the Dark Ages. But, still . . .

Einhard wrote that Charlemagne was tall, with lively eyes, and good hair. He wore a blue cloak, and of course, a sword with a gold or silver hilt. He loved to swim and eat lots roast beef, even though his doctors advised him not to. He adored women– many, many women. He had at least eighteen children with his assorted wives and lovers. He educated his daughters, but kept them close to home. They were never allowed to marry, although Charlemagne was accommodating to their “common-law husbands.” When gossips told him tales of his daughters’ wild behavior, he refused to believe them. He was a doting grandfather to his many grandchildren.

Well! Even after analyzing Einhard’s writing it was hard to ignore that the despot was actually human, and a rather charming one at that! Perhaps because of clouded judgment over my new found affection for the man, the dubious title of my paper was “Charlemagne: His Only Vice Was Roast Beef.”

Over the years I’ve written numerous historical fiction and nonfiction books for children. During my research I spend a lot of time with my subjects. It’s hard not to become attached.

My new book on Lincoln and the telegraph was published this summer. I have always admired Abraham Lincoln, the skilled, sophisticated, compassionate leader who led our country during the Civil War. (Love the television ad for Geico where Lincoln hesitates, then finally agrees with his wife, Mary, when she asks if her backside looks a little wide in her dress. Good old honest Abe.)

During the Civil War, Lincoln spent many hours at the telegraph office. He developed a friendly relationship with the telegraphers who worked there. Many of the operators were barely out of their teens. Fifteen-year-old Willie Kettles, the youngest telegrapher working at the War Department Telegraph Office, took the important message that Richmond fell.

As I perused the massive amount of materials available on Lincoln, I was on the lookout for an appropriate joke he actually told. I wanted to use it to lighten the tone of my telegraphy book, and to show that humorous side of Lincoln to my young readers. Lincoln employed humor as a political tool, as a smokescreen, and also in kindness, to smooth feathers and to defuse tense situations. I love a man with a sense of humor.

My admiration of Lincoln, the humor-wielding warrior/politician grew during my research, but it didn’t change that dramatically from how I had originally viewed him. That’s not the case with the main subject of the book I just finished writing.

When an editor asked if I would like to write a book on William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania, I had preconceived ideas about the man. He was the chubby, paternal looking Quaker on the oatmeal box. So boring – like a bowl of bland carbohydrates.

I found out that William was a dashing cavalier in his youth. He wore a sword and knew how to use it. (Hmm, another guy with a sword.) When he was twenty-two William fought bravely and helped put down an uprising at a military post in Ireland. The Duke of Ormond was so impressed that he wrote to William’s father recommending young William pursue a military career.

As a newly convinced, but not totally peace-loving Quaker, one night William attended one of their meetings in Cork, Ireland. These religious meetings were illegal at the time. A soldier burst through the door, intent on causing mischief. William grabbed the man by the collar, and was ready to throw him out. His pacifist Quaker friends subdued the young convert.

William was a fiery rebel who wrote defiant, contentious religious tracts that resulted in his being thrown in prison over and over again.

The founder of Pennsylvania was athletic and fleet of foot. When he visited the Native Americans’ homes he joined their games and ran footraces with the braves.

Later in life William fought the middle age spread like anyone else, though it’s doubtful that he was a corpulent as he was portrayed in his later years.

My historical investigations have given me lots of pleasure and surprises. These were fascinating, impressive, romantic men. My husband complains that it’s hard to compete with powerful, successful, safely dead patriarchs. Maybe I should get him a sword. . . .

About: Marty Rhodes Figley loves to write humor and history. Her latest children's books are John Greenwood's Journey to Bunker Hill and President Lincoln, Willie Kettles, and the Telegraph Machine. Her book on William Penn will be published in 2012.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.