Selah's map

I had an interesting email regarding Selah Voyager’s plot line in Lake in the Clouds from Melissa, who is a handweaver, a compulsive knitter and an embellisher (in part):

I was fascinated by the runaway slave woman’s skirt/map in Lake in the Clouds.  Can you tell me anything about the source of this idea?  Have you ever seen one, or seen photos, or was it an idea, a likely thing to have existed? 

I wondered when somebody might ask me about this. The idea for Selah’s skirt/map came from a controversy in quilting history. The original theory, put forth in a book called Hidden in Plain View : A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad (Raymond G. Dobard & Jacqueline L. Tobin) claims (in brief) that runaway slaves exchanged information about the routes north by means of codes in quilt blocks. Recent research into this seems to indicate that there’s little basis in fact, and that the quilt code might best be thought of as a folk story. Hart Cottage Quilts has a good essay about the whole topic here.< I liked the idea of women using textiles to communicate with each other, and so I adapted it for Selah's journey out of Manhattan by having her sew a map onto her skirt.

Textile history is something that has always interested me (Martha Ballard’s diary is a treasure trove of such information), and I am very active myself in mixed media textile art and (to a lesser extent) quilting. I do write regularly for Quilting Arts Magazine. A little known fact: the detail from a crazy quilt seen on the cover of the Premiere issue (about to be reissued, by the way) is my work.

newspapers in research

I have a collection of old newspapers that were published in the places where my stories are set. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy (for example) an issue of an Albany or a Boston paper from the year 1814, and they are almost always in very good shape — pages intact, if somewhat fragile.

My favorites are the advertisments, for the hundred different kinds of information they provide. The beginning of Lake in the Clouds uses my recasting of a couple dozen such ads in an attempt to set the stage for various storylines in that novel.

New Brunswick adThis is an ad from a Canadian paper dated 1786 (there was slavery all over the continent, something many people don’t realize) offering a reward for the return of a runaway. The details of clothing the young man was wearing are very useful to me when I’m trying to get a feel for a place and time. Such ads also make the facts of slavery much more vivid and undeniable.

One thing I like to do is to set up little mini-plots that span all the novels, and exist solely within newspaper references. The Mathers brothers and their marital woes are one such plot. This mention from Lake in the Clouds:

HEREBY BE IT KNOWN that Meg Mather, lawful wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her husband in the company of a Frenchman known as Andre Seville. She took with her the subscriber’s infant son, a French Negro slave girl called Marie, and a mantel clock. A reward will be paid for return of the boy, the slave, and the clock, but a husband so maligned by such shameless and sinful behavior is glad to be free, and will give no reward, nor will he allow the wanton back into his home. He therefore warns all persons from trusting her on his account. He will pay no debts of her contracting. Jonah Mathers, Butcher. Boston Post Road.

And from Into the Wilderness:

“Lydia Mathers,” Elizabeth read,

the wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her lawful husband in the company of one Harrison Beauchamp, known gadabout and suspected thief, taking with her a good pewter jug, twenty pound in coin, three silver spoons, a snuff box, the slave girl Eliza and her husband’s good underclothes. By this notice her much injured husband thinks it prudent to forewarn all persons from trusting her on his account, being determined, after such flagrant proof of her bad behavior, to pay no debts of her contracting. I treated her well.
Thy-Will-Be-Done Mathers of Canajoharee.

The Mathers continue in the same vein in Thunder at Twilight. I keep wondering if one of them will show himself more directly, but so far neither Thy-Will-Be-Done nor Jonah has come around a corner to surprise me in mid scene.