Please give a warm welcome to historical fiction author, Richard Buxton. Richard is going to share with us his inspiration behind his fabulous book…
Shire leaves his home and his life in Victorian England for the sake of a childhood promise, a promise that pulls him into the bleeding heart of the American Civil War. Lost in the bloody battlefields of the West, he discovers a second home for his loyalty.
Clara believes she has escaped from a predictable future of obligation and privilege, but her new life in the Appalachian Hills of Tennessee is decaying around her. In the mansion of Comrie, long hidden secrets are being slowly exhumed by a war that creeps ever closer.
The first novel from multi-award winning short-story writer Richard Buxton, Whirligig is at once an outsider’s odyssey through the battle for Tennessee, a touching story of impossible love, and a portrait of America at war with itself. Self-interest and conflict, betrayal and passion, all fuse into a fateful climax.
Thank you, Mary Anne, for inviting me to write about the inspiration behind Whirligig. I know some authors have a ‘kepow!’ moment when the idea for a book strikes them but the inspiration for Whirligig was more gradual and certainly more various; the characters, plot and theme each had their own genesis. The setting was a given. I’d already written a number of short stories related to the American Civil War, so when I chose to embark on a novel I wanted to further explore my fascination for America and that period.
The inspiration for the lead character, Shire, came from my late father, Tom Buxton, which is one of the reasons Whirligig was dedicated to him. After he became a widower he decided to write about his early life in Bedfordshire. As a teenager during WWII – outside of school hours – he worked on a farm at Woburn Abbey, the Duke of Bedford’s Estate. Even as late as the early 1940s they still retained a number of Shire horses to work the land. My father helped to feed and harness them. He wrote about the horses and the people with great nostalgia and wonderful detail.
|Shire Horses ~ Wikipedia|
The working methods with the great horses were largely unchanged from the 1860s. I imagined a character called Shire, a play on the horses and his rural English roots. I instantly loved the idea of an English protagonist in an American war. It would make him an outsider, which always helps, but also it had echoes of my own experience of America. As a very young man I spent eighteen months in Upstate New York as a wide-eyed student. The story of America has held a fascination for me ever since. I wondered what it would be like for Shire to arrive in America a century earlier and in the middle of a great civil war. I wanted to write it through his eyes rather than someone born to America.
|Image by Techfun ~ Pixabay|
I didn’t consciously put my father’s characteristics into Shire, but looking back I can see they have the same unswerving urge to do the right thing, and the same romantic outlook on the world. Whether Shire will still have that outlook when the trilogy ends, we’ll have to see. He has a lot to go through.
So I had my lead character but why would he go to America? The inspiration for the plot is slightly prosaic in that it came from watching an episode of ‘Who do you think you are?’, the show where celebrities look into their family history. The celebrity was Bruce Forsyth and the skeleton in his closet was a Victorian ancestor who left his wife and family in England, then sailed to America to marry again. I thought how easy it must have been back then to behave in this way; who would ever know? Well, Shire would as it turned out. He discovers a secret marriage and the honourable thing to do is to head over to America, find his childhood friend Clara, and give her the bad news. Unfortunately for him, there’s a war in the way.
The plot itself spawned another character. I needed a ship Shire could sail on to America so headed up to the Liverpool maritime museum. I found a ship called the Scotia but also, the in their archives, the wonderful character that is George Alfred Trenholm. Trenholm had a multi-national business in shipping, banking and railroads; all sorts of things. His home was Charleston, South Carolina, but he had an office in Liverpool and during the war it was full of Confederate operators. Pretty much all Confederate business, legitimate and shady, went through that office. He also had ties in with the British parliament, and his great wealth and business interests kept him close to the Confederate government. I had to have him. He gave the novel extra dimensions of power, politics and self-interest and I was able to weave him in with Shire’s story.
|George Alfred Trenholm ~ Wikipedia|
If I do have a ‘Kepow!’ moment I think it was in the Chicago Institute of Art where I found my theme. I’d flown out alone to begin a two week road-trip down to Atlanta. Having completed draft one of the unnamed novel, I had an itinerary of museums, plantation houses and battle sites to visit where I hoped to harvest lots of believable detail. The two days in Chicago was an indulgence. I wandered into the folk-ark section of the Institute and found my Whirligig, a wooden, five-foot high piece of early Americana composed of cogs and sails painted red, white and blue with a marching soldier on top. Craftsmen used take these devices to county fairs or markets and people would give them penny’s to watch the sails turn. I knew right then that I’d found something that mattered. As I started down through Illinois and the Whirligig stayed in my mind.
I know of no other country as self-obsessed as America. The flag is ubiquitous. It flies before public buildings and schools; private lawns contain flagpoles large and small (usually large). Almost every business uses the American dream by association. I drove past the ‘Great American Car Wash’, ate a ‘Star Spangled Burger’. There’s no escaping it. If anything, it’s more pervasive as you get into the Southern states. I thought of my Whirligig and how pieces like it might have been on that bandwagon a hundred and fifty years ago. I began to see how I could use the object in the book. I invented the eponymous Whirligig Man, dragging his Whirligig from town to town. His brief appearances in the book are some of my favourite passages. I try to convey through him how a broken America was trying to preserve but also re-invent itself at the same time.
That perhaps makes the book sound more worthy that it is. At heart it remains an odyssey and a love story wrapped in troubled times, but it was wonderful to find a theme to run through it.
Aside from character, plot and theme, I could point out a thousand different lines in the novel that had their own moment of inspiration, mostly gained by going to the places where the history happened. I’ve been on battlefields at dusk in Georgia to listen to the insects and watch the flying silhouettes of beetles. I’ve felt the boom of cannon twitch my lightweight coat at two-hundred yards. I’ve been inside slave huts in Tennessee and wondered how anyone could live in such heat. I’ve seen musket smoke, heavier than the air, settle and nest in wet grass. I’ve rubbed the smoothness and felt the warmth of cannon that have spent a long day in the sun.
Sometimes inspiration comes line by line, and sometimes you find a Whirligig.
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About the author
Richard Buxton grew up in Wales but has lived in Sussex for the last thirty years. He is a 2015 graduate of the Creative Writing Masters programme at Chichester University. He studied in America during his twenties and tries to return there as often as he can for research and inspiration. His writing successes include winning the Exeter Story Prize, the Bedford International Writing Competition and the Nivalis Short Story award. His US Civil War novel, Whirligig, released this spring, was shortlisted for the 2017 Rubery International Book Award.
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