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Lars Hedbor’s books from his Tales From a Revolution series.
Welcome, Lars Hedbor, and thank you so much for taking some time out from your schedule to chat a bit with us. And what a schedule it must be! Apart from writing all these wonderful books, your bio mentions contributing to a scholarly journal, appearances on televised historical documentaries, linguistics, brewing, fiddling, astronomy and baking. And that’s not even counting your family and professional duties. Impressive!
So, you write about one of my favorite eras, the American Revolution, told mainly through the eyes of those we’ll never read about in history books: common sailors and soldiers, yes, but also everyday smiths, farmers, restaurant workers, the widowed, prosperous and poor, men and women, workaday rebels and even loyalists. Tales From a Revolution brings us into the days and lives of colonial people very much like ourselves.
You obviously love the revolutionary era. How did you arrive at that affection? What influenced your continued study of it? What do you hope readers will take away from your novels?
The American Revolution was nearly unique in history in that it was a war fought not to determine which prince would rule a patch of dirt, but one fought over the very concept of what an appropriate government looked like, and how it should justify its existence.
That aspect of the Revolution is too often overlooked in classroom histories, as it’s simplified into a battle over which George would rule – King George III, or George Washington. It was much more than that, which is what drives my passion for the era.
That said, the Revolution was also not a simple matter of everyone in the colonies agreeing to throw the British out. Individual Americans came from an incredibly wide range of backgrounds and traditions and political inclinations. My books reflect that complexity, because I think it’s important to not reduce the Revolution to an oversimplified caricature.
One of the repeating themes of my books is how individuals who do not make it into the pages of recorded history nonetheless have a direct hand in shaping the outcome of that history. My somewhat more subversive project is to suggest to readers that they do not need to become one of the great figures striding across the stage of history to affect history in their own way.
While this is probably a bit common a question, I know many ask it: What drove you in this direction? That is, why these everyday people, and how do you come up with characters and their personal backgrounds?
So much historical fiction focuses on well-known figures in history that I wanted to carve out a somewhat different niche for myself. Too, with historical figures, it’s far too easy to make mistakes that are discoverable by more knowledgeable historians than I. So, in part, it’s a pragmatic decision—I have more freedom in telling the story of someone who I’ve created out of thin air than I do in telling the story of someone who really lived.
Your Tales From a Revolution series doesn’t mention particular dates, not even years. Given its primary target of young adults, I thought this might be a deliberate exclusion. I know when I was in school, dates tended to flummox my whole thought process, especially given testing relied so heavily upon them. I loved, however, when a teacher would begin to describe a situation, then subtly transition into storytelling mode. Can you comment on that?
This was a deliberate choice, yes. How often in our daily lives do we say to one another, “Well, here it is, November first, 2017?” It would sound forced and artificial for my characters to make such a comment to one another, so they don’t.
That said, there are definite historic events that take place on the pages of my books, and the sequence and interrelationship of those events is explored where it is relevant to the experience of my characters.
When the Declaration of Independence reaches a small settlement in Vermont and is read from the steps of the church, we get a sense of how important it was to the people who had already been fighting the British to hear that their struggle was now “official.” When news of the shots fired at Lexington and Concord reaches Loyalist refugees in Halifax, the personal impact of that news is much more important than the date on which it reached them.
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Many authors are also asked if their own backgrounds inform their stories. It seems as if this is true, at least to a certain extent, for you. For example, Quakers and their between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place circumstance during the Revolution features in The Light, and their speech patterns add another layer of fascination without distracting from the narrative. Do you use your own existing knowledge and expertise to seek out potential historical scenarios, or do they just come to you?
I’m glad that readers have found the philosophical struggles depicted in The Light compelling. In researching the Quaker faith, there was a great deal that I thought would raise the stakes for my characters.
In that specific case, I knew that I had ancestors who declined to take part in the Revolution because of their Quaker faith, and I was fascinated to learn that the Revolution actually caused a schism in the Quaker community, which added another layer of conflict to an already incredibly complex situation.
As I study the history of the Revolutionary era, I often find some tidbit that makes me say, “Hey, I never heard about that in school!” In chasing those down, I often find the genesis of a new story.
Which works—fiction or non-fiction—helped you wade through the information and streamline into a more specific direction? Are there any you would recommend for the casual or interested reader?
I tend to prefer original sources, and my background as a linguist brings a lot of sources into reach that would be difficult for casual researchers to access. Reading ships’ logs in eighteenth-century Spanish is not for the faint of heart! Even in English sources, original journals and letters of the era tend to have erratic spelling and capitalization, and if I’m looking at the original items, the handwriting is very different from even modern cursive script.
That said, there are a lot of really wonderful books out there which are very accessible. I’ve contributed to the annual for the Journal of the American Revolution, which consists of highly readable, but rigorously researched articles covering an exceptional range of topics; I can recommend that without reservation.
Do you hear quite a bit from your readers? What kinds of things do they say? How do you connect with them?
I love going to book festivals and signing events, as it gives me a chance to connect personally with my readers. What I hear most consistently from readers is that they treasure my ability to inhabit a variety of perspectives with my characters, as well as the care that I use in my language.
My favorite encounter with readers, though, happened this past summer. I was at a regional book festival for the second year in a row, and couple of young men popped into my booth to look over the books arrayed on the table.
These same two boys had been by the year before, and had engaged in intense negotiations with each other and their Mom over which books they could buy. They had read the prior year’s haul several times already, and were back for more. That is why I do what I do.
In The Darkness, the title of which acknowledges the “New England Dark Day” of 1780, the population also experiences what recently occurred here as well—a solar eclipse. The colonial scientific community certainly seemed to have embraced it with enthusiasm, setting up observation points, for example, even with a war going on! We certainly are no less enthusiastic: here work calendars are often marked off for some employees during hunting season, which this year also coincided with this notation: “So-and-So out: Eclipse Hunting.” What do you reckon the colonials would have thought of our approach?
I think that colonials would be bemused at the concept of taking time off for either hunting or an eclipse. That said, the newspapers and academic community certainly shared their excitement with the broader community over the eclipse, and most folks in the path of it would have paused in their daily work to observe the wondrous event as it unfolded.
How do you select the names for your characters? Just curious, but how did George Williams end up with the same name as the Harvard scientist, Dr. Williams, who studied the eclipse?
That particular case was driven by historical facts—Doctor Williams is known to have observed the eclipse from a position on a farm owned by a (presumably unrelated) family by the name of Williams. A fun coincidence, and one that I hope doesn’t confuse my readers too much!
In most cases, though, I select names based on my research of what names would have been common among the people I’m depicting. In most cases, the names come effortlessly, springing from the research. In other cases, I have to really work at them, and can only hope that I come up with something believable and historically accurate.
What was one of the most surprising things you learned—about yourself, history, figures within your stories, or all three—in creating your books?
I have to say that the whole story I relate in The Wind surprised me in its seemingly-impossible sequence of weather and military events. Even more surprising to me is that it is almost entirely uncelebrated in classroom histories and even fiction (before now).
I don’t want to spoil the story for readers who haven’t yet gotten through The Wind, but suffice to say that I sincerely hope that I’ve done something to right the wrong done in forgetting about Bernardo de Gálvez and his crucial contributions to the success of the American Revolution.
Having previously encountered Ginawo, a Six Nations Native from within the pages of The Smoke, I was delighted at his cameo appearance in The Path as Yves witnesses a gathering the Skarure chief attends, along with General Rochambeau. Personally, I love these connections amongst books: they speak to a bit of bonding between reader and character, and there’s even some thrill upon recognition. It wasn’t until I read your historical notes at the end that I knew for sure the inclusion was deliberate, but it also left me wondering: do you plan to create more links between the tales, or is this something you prefer to keep to a minimum?
Since I decided at the beginning of this series to set each book in the Tales From a Revolution in a different colony (or future state…the lines get a little fuzzy), one of the challenges I faced was that it would be nearly impossible to create continuous characters from book to book. Folks just didn’t move around as freely or as widely as we do today, and so I decided that I would have to start fresh with each story.
However, that doesn’t mean that I couldn’t sneak in little surprises for my readers. I wanted to visit with Ginawo again after the events of The Smoke, if only to see that things came out okay for him in the end. There’s also a character who originates in The Light and finds his fate in The Smoke, so sharp-eyed readers can look for that “easter egg,” as well.
Do you write more by logic, intuition or a combination?
I prepare myself with a great deal of research, immersing myself in the world that my characters inhabited—language, clothing, food, dwellings, occupations, the works. Once I’ve done that, though, I set them into the framework of the historical events that they experienced (and may have influenced), and let them do the talking.
I know that I’ve got a story the first time that a character does something that I didn’t plan for or intend. When one of them lifts their head, stares me down, and says, “I don’t care what you had in mind—I’m heading this way,” well, then my job becomes a really easy matter of hanging on for dear life and writing down what they do.
I know it sounds terribly schizophrenic, but it’s an approach that works really well for me. Of course, I still have to take charge sometimes—I once killed off a character who was threatening to take over a book, with results that changed and enriched the entire story—but it’s usually just to introduce historical events and see what the characters do with those.
Could you tell readers a little bit about your family connection to Carleton’s Prize in your novel The Prize, set on beautiful Lake Champlain?
I grew up where The Prize is set, and heard the story of Carleton’s Prize many times as a child. It’s a tiny island in Lake Champlain, and it bears a passing resemblance to an old sailing ship. The local legend was that it got its name when General Guy Carleton paused in his pursuit up the lake of Benedict Arnold’s navy to fire on the island, thinking that it was a ship from that navy.
When my grandfather moved to Vermont from Pennsylvania, he purchased nearby Providence Island with the proceeds from an eminent-domain sale of his former home. Carleton’s Prize was essentially thrown into the deal, and after his passing, my grandmother donated the tiny island to the Lake Champlain Land Trust.
As a result, the site of some of the events I’ve depicted in The Prize is protected for future generations to enjoy. I’ve walked up to the (narrow and scary) peak of the little island, and the image on the cover of The Prize is derived from a photograph that I took of it during a visit back home some years ago.
Do you, like some others, see our Revolution as part of a world war? The previous and ongoing rivalries involving England, France, Spain and the Netherlands seem to validate this idea, with a dramatic depiction of Spanish involvement in The Wind.
The American War of Independence was most decidedly a global war, yes. The French, of course, joined in, sending troops and supplies directly to the American theater of the war. The Spanish joined, allying themselves not with the United States, but with France, and The Wind depicts their most substantial contribution to the war.
It’s a little-known fact that the very last battle of the American Revolution, taking place after the Treaty of Paris was signed (but before word of it arrived), happened in…India. But that is a story for another day, and a future volume of the Tales From a Revolution.
What made you decide to add the flavor of magical realism to this installment?
Because The Wind depicts the Spanish involvement in the Revolutionary War, I wanted to give a nod to the incredibly rich literary tradition that has arisen out of Latin America. One of the most distinctive elements of that tradition is magical realism, so I imbued The Wind with just a touch of it.
Americans are generally aware that during our Revolution, the rebels were actually in the minority, though as the victors they got to write the history. Is this why you decided to pen in a bit of loyalist perspective in The Break? In your research, did you find they are as underrepresented as in school and university texts? *
I decided to explore the Loyalist perspective because it was another one that I felt was not often considered in historical fiction set in the Revolutionary era. Too, the experience of being a refugee in a strange place was one that I wanted to relate to my readers, and finally, I wanted to tell a story set in one of the forgotten American colonies, and the exodus to Nova Scotia offered a natural way to accomplish that.
I had to go to histories written in nineteenth-century Canada to get a satisfactory account of the Loyalist viewpoint, so I think it’s fair to say it’s not very well represented in texts, yes. It was fascinating to write about the American Patriot side as the bad guys—and they really were very rough in their treatment of the Loyalists—and to depict the really wrenching divisions that took place between friends who wound up on opposite sides of the fight.
Have you traveled to any or all of the locales in your books? Do you do other research trips?
Oh, I so wish that my budget permitted me to explore the settings of my books in person! However, the centuries that have passed since the events I depict have so changed those settings that I think I am able to get a more accurate picture of how they looked and felt by reading contemporary accounts.
The late colonial and early Republic periods were, fortunately, times when there were a number of voyages of discovery undertaken around North America, so I have a wealth of material to draw from.
What kind of reading do you do in your spare time?
Well, I read a lot of history, as you might expect! I also enjoy science fiction and well-written historical fiction. My bedside table is stacked fairly high with books and magazines, and my phone is loaded up with a lot of material, as well.
I don’t read as much as I would like to—my library already contains more than a lifetime worth of reading—but I love nothing more than the experience of getting pulled into a story so deeply that I don’t even notice the passage of time in the real world.
Looking once more to your bio, the brewing element caught my attention. Is it accurate to say there are different “recipes” in various regions and/or eras? If so, do you ever try your hand at any from the colonial time? Whether modern or historical, are the recipes and procedures fairly complicated?
I haven’t actually brewed from any colonial-era recipes, I am ashamed to say. I do have an extensive collection of books from the era, though, and will be trying it at some point.
Other than the availability of more standardized and cleanly-processed ingredients today, the basic process of brewing beer has been the same for a very long time. Brewers have always steeped the grain in water at a temperature that enables conversion of starch to sugar, and have always sought to then extract as much of that sugar as possible, so that the yeast can convert it to alcohol.
The tools and techniques have changed, of course—a Revolutionary-era brewer didn’t have computer-controlled temperature management, electric pumps, and the like—but the underlying chemistry is pretty well unchanged.
Flavoring adjuncts have changed over the centuries, too, and during the trade interruptions of the Revolution, hops were harder to come by, so inventive brewers had to discover and use locally-available substitutes and alternatives.
As in most cooking, recipes are less prescriptive and more general guidelines, and reproducing the exact ingredients and flavors is well-nigh impossible…but I’d sure like to give it a shot. As an aside, I wrote a short story set in the days after the end of The Prize, detailing the process of Captain Mallett brewing some beer for his tavern; it’s available on Kindle in Fireside Tales.
Have you ever attempted any colonial baking recipes? If so, any favorites you’d like to share?
I certainly have, and I wrote a series of articles about the experience for the Journal of the American Revolution. My favorite meal from that series was probably the New Orleans dishes. I made a sort of creamed corn (I detest canned creamed corn, but this was amazing), a dish of beef, onions, and peppers called ropa vieja (“old clothes”), and my personal favorite, beignets, which are simply a revelation when served fresh from the fryer.
The boiled suet pudding I made for another article was significantly less successful, and most of it wound up being food for the chickens. I’m still convinced that boiled savory puddings could have a role to play in modern cuisine, but I have a hard time making that case to my family….
Linguistics once more: I’ve heard it said that the American accent is the original British one (one!?). What do you make of that theory?
There were then, as now, a wide variety of British accents, depending upon both geography and class distinctions, and I have heard the theory that the American “Southern” accent was particularly derived from a specific regional British accent, and relating the immigration from that region to the development of that accent.
Lacking recordings from the era, though, the best we can say is that both accents changed over the years, and in the absence of ongoing direct communication, they diverged. Given the evidence of other, later British colonies having developed similar accents to the British mainland, it seems like a fair assumption that our accent represents a separate development from the pre-Revolutionary accent.
Are there any other historical eras you like and have contemplated writing about?
The early Republic intrigues me, particularly as the United States again came into conflict with the British in the early nineteenth century, and I’ve thought that it would be interesting to follow up on my characters and their descendants into that era.
I’m also deeply intrigued by the early era of trade along the Silk Road through Central Asia, and the Viking age. I still have a lot of novels left to write about the American Revolution, but history is rich with opportunities for storytellers to mine for tales.
Can you tell us about any upcoming projects?
I have just finished drafting a very tough novel, but one containing some of my most beautiful moments yet. Set in North Carolina, it is based on the historical fact that freed slaves joined up with the Patriot militias there. The contrast between that dedication to liberty, and the incredible legal regime constraining their personal freedoms is moving and stunning.
I’m also working on a novel set in Philadelphia and its surrounds. That one’s a bit of a departure for me, as it is based on a real person, and there are a lot of appearances by people who are in the historical record, so the research has been intensive.
Colonel Isaac Melcher is in the record as having confronted the President and members of Congress at a tavern in Philadelphia. He apparently cursed and yelled at them over their failure to give him a commission in the Continental Army, and was brought before Congress to answer for his misconduct.
His career recovered, however, and he went on to serve as the Quartermaster General in Philadelphia until the city fell to the British. In telling his story, I’ve had a chance to more deeply explore just how precarious our situation was in the desperate days before Saratoga and the French alliance.
His history takes on a more personal meaning for me, as I may be descended from him. I say “may,” because there are some hints in the record of the Colonel’s actions that his son wasn’t his…and he knew it. Once again, the characters have taken charge of this story, and I am having to rein them in to conform with what is known from history.
Is there any topic or question we haven’t addressed that you would like to talk about?
I’ve been asked before how I make time for writing, between my full-time job, parenting responsibilities, and involvement in a number of community organizations. The answer is relatively simple: I don’t watch much television, much to my wife’s dismay. It’s not to say that I don’t want to watch many programs—there are a lot that I really enjoy—but she struggles to get me to hold still long enough to watch even an episode.
A few fun questions:
Which historical figure/event would you most like to spend a day with/witness in person? Why?
Oh, goodness, I have so many questions for Colonel Melcher, that would fill in holes in the picture I have of him. I suspect, too, that he would be a lot of fun to sit down with and share a glass or five of hard cider.
What is your favorite room in your new house? (And congratulations!)
Thank you! I love my library, which is lined in bookshelves, and has a small writing corner. Having my reference books close at hand is very convenient, and being able to visit with friends and listen to music there is really wonderful, as well.
What color dominates your wardrobe?
I can’t say that there’s a dominant color—men’s business clothes are pretty anodyne these days—but I do enjoy adding a splash of color with a bowtie. I inherited a couple from my Dad, and after I learned to tie them, I’ve added a lot to my collection.
Is there a particular word or phrase you love to say (proper nouns included)?
Здравствуйте! [Zdrávstvujte—Russian formal hello] In English, though, I’m infamous for always saying, “Howdy,” which is the only verbal holdover from a couple of years spent in Texas in my childhood.
What do you think of marshmallows? (OK, I have a motive here.)
They’re best when they’ve been burning for just a moment, and then slid in between a couple of graham crackers with a square of Hershey’s chocolate.
Thanks so much for answering my questions, serious and silly, and we hope to see you back!
It’s been my pleasure, and I look forward to visiting with you again soon!
*Stay tuned for more entries featuring The Break
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About the author ….
What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?
These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.
My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.
I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and will be a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.
I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.
You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. Any of his titles (including The Mini Baker Cookbook) may be purchased in paperback (signed copies available upon request), as Kindle, Nook, iBooks, Kobo, Amazon or at Smashwords.
Photo and title banner courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor