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Use Your Family Stories to Write a Historical Novel
August 13, 2017, 2:30 PM - 4:00 PM
Nick West’s presentation
– Summarized by Bonnie Ogle –
On August 13, novelist and local businessman Nick West spoke to the general meeting of the Writers Alliance of Gainesville about using family stories to create a historical novel. A fifth generation Floridian, West has a plethora of family stories, which he has used as the basis for his four novels. Raised by grandparents with no television, West was entertained by his grandmother’s recounting stories about a family that traveled with the circus and weathered the American Civil War.
With that kernel of information, and inspiration from circus posters, West sought out other descendants of circus members to hear their stories. Learning of his great grandfather’s circus friend Master Duffy, he sought and found Duffy’s family. Duffy was a former slave who ran away when his sister was sold and their mother died of a broken heart. He became the “African Prince,” riding a horse in the show, using the job as a cover to search for his sister.
Pithy incidents retold to successive generations show up in West’s books. He had heard from his grandfather that the circus people split between north and south when war broke out. The circus owner’s parting words to the troops landed in one of West’s novels: “I hope the next time we meet, it’s not at the end of a barrel.”
As a child living in Archer, West frequently found arrowheads in the yard, amassing a large collection. He wondered, Who was the last human to touch this? Taking several pieces to the Florida Museum of Natural History for carbon dating, he was surprised to learn they were 6,000 years old. At the museum, he met anthropologists who were familiar with the first people, the Potanos, who lived in the area.
This sparked enough interest that he created a Potano couple for his main characters. Studying ancient peoples of Florida gave West many ideas. He incorporated the people’s customs such as marrying outside their tribe and trading with coastal tribes. When his hero traveled to the coast he saw a “great ship.” This event evolved from historical accounts West found while studying first encounters with Europeans.
The author advised fellow writers, “The internet is a wonderful resource for you to get information about the locale, daily life, and current events of the time in which you set your story.” He cautioned writers, however, to use two or three sources to verify information. He reported spending half his time on research and twenty-five percent on editing. He recommended getting everyone you know to beta read your material, particularly if you are self-publishing.
West’s presentation, laden with anecdotal adventures and self-deprecating humor (“I am a non-profit organization – a self-published author”) piqued the audience’s interest in his four books, all available on Amazon. They include The Great Southern Circus, The Long Ride Home, The Sandspur Special, and To Light a New Fire.
The Great Southern Circus (2010) entertains with stories of Orton and Older’s Great Southern Circus, which performed in eighteen states from Wisconsin to Florida, just before the Civil War. The author weaves together the tales passed down from his great-great-great-grandmother, Miranda Madderra, one of the circus performers.
His most recent book, To Light a New Fire, chronicles the lives of a young Timucua native Floridian during the period of first European contact in the mid 1500’s. The book is based on the Potano village that existed for over 12,000 years on the edge of Paynes Prairie.