Is It Live, or Is It Fiction?

Fiction, as a category, is characteristically a story about people who don’t exist doing things that never happened. Sometimes, those things happen in real places, but oft-times in places that don’t exist. But sometime in the process of creating my first novel, The Old Man, my two central characters, Ben and Abby, began to very much exist. Like in the old Memorex audiotape ads, which claimed you couldn’t tell recordings on them from the live version, those two fictional people came to feel as real to me as the honest-to-God real people in my life.

I didn’t expect that. But I have come to believe that I had discovered—at least in my opinion—the essence of a successful story. The reader has to care very much about the people in the story. And the more real they become to the writer, the more real they will become to the reader. That fundamental truth was cemented in my mind by the Ted Talk I describe in my blog post on the subject, “Make Me Care.”

What reminded me of all this was a conversation I had recently with my granddaughter Caitlyn. She told me she was applying for acceptance to a university in the city of Worcester, Massachusetts.

A map of Massachusetts indicating where Worcester is located.

“Well, that’s interesting. You know, that’s where Ben and Abby lived.” She looked a bit blank, until I explained to her that my novel, The Old Man, although taking place in the early 1800s, was centered in the village of Worcester. She grinned a bit, then I had to go on and tell her a bit more of the story.

“You know, Caitlyn, that couple became so real to me that the first time Colleen and I drove through Worcester, on our way up here to Maine to visit you all, I teased that perhaps we should stop and search the old cemeteries to see if we could find their graves.” She grinned, politely, and the subject drifted onto other things. But the story doesn’t end there.

I chose Worcester, Massachusetts, as the setting for The Old Man by simply looking at a map of the state. For purposes of the story, I needed a decent-sized town, or village, about a two-day stagecoach ride west of Boston. And Worcester was the only one on the map that seemed to meet the criteria. So that is where Benjamin McNair, a printer by trade, decided to go into business, not long before the outbreak of the War of 1812.

Once I have him there, the proud owner of a struggling print shop and local newspaper he had purchased, I introduce him to Abagail Winterhalter, wife of a powerful but ruthless local politician. Abby, a lover of good books and intelligent conversations, has come to Ben’s shop to place an advertisement in his newspaper. What she wants is to start a discussion society, to foster more intellectual discourse in the small, rural village.

Some time later I learned that Ben had made a wise choice in choosing to go into the newspaper business in Worcester. During my research, I learned of a gentleman by the name of Isaiah Thomas, a printer in Boston who was printing rather inflammatory pieces promoting the move for independence, prior to the “War of Independence” against Britain. Given that British Army troops were based in Boston, this became an increasingly hazardous activity, for Mr. Thomas.

A portrait of author and printer Isaiah Thomas, who becomes a mentor to the main character in Del Hayes' historical novel The Old Man.
Isaiah Thomas

Unwilling to stop printing his “treasonous” tirades, he ultimately had to pack up his printing presses and other belongings and move to a safer location. Where? Why Worcester, of course. Mr. Thomas went on to become quite successful in the printing trade, even more so than his better known rival, Mr. Benjamin Franklin of Philadelphia. He became as well-known for his developments in printing press technology as for his newspaper and books.

So, by “pure happenstance,” I set Ben up in the printing business in the town best known at the time for successful printers. Of course, this could have been a problem for Ben, but as I was to learn, Mr. Thomas, by that time, was old enough, and successful enough, that he could become more of a mentor, than competitor, to Ben.

Just weeks before America declared war on England, thus starting the war of 1812, Abby holds her premier, introductory, meeting of her newly established discussion society. Unfortunately, for reasons I won’t disclose, Abby is able to hold only that one meeting. I learned, some time later, that Mr. Thomas, in 1812, created the American Antiquarian Society of Worcester, Massachusetts. That society still exists, these two hundred-plus years later.

The AAS, its website states “…is both a learned society and a major independent research library. The AAS library today houses the largest and most accessible collection of books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, periodicals, music, and graphic arts material printed through 1876.” It is located in downtown Worcester.

So, I had to wonder, did Mr. Thomas get the idea for his society from Abby’s first meeting? I also learned that there is a printing press museum, I believe co-located with the Society, with some of Mr. Thomas’s original presses. Whether Ben’s old Gutenberg-style press is there, I can’t say.

As part of the context for my story, I have Ben and Abby sitting on a park bench, in the shade of trees in the commons in the center of the town, getting acquainted. A recent perusal of a MapQuest view of downtown Worcester shows there is still a commons, a park-like place, in the center of the city.

Venn diagram with Worcester, MA, as the intersection between real life and fiction.

I’ve had to wonder, these years since first bringing my good friends, Ben and Abby, to Worcester, what is truly at the root of all those “coincidences” that exist between what my mind conjured for a context for a make-believe story about make-believe people, and the real-life reality of the town on a map that just happened to be where I needed a town to be. And now, for my granddaughter to decide that is the “right place” for her to begin her venturing into her life, seems somehow beyond coincidence.

Oh, yes. One other thing. I’ve thought for quite some time of creating a sequel. Won’t disclose any elements of it, but the plot would involve a young woman who happens to live in Worcester, Massachusetts, who wants to take on the extreme chauvinism of the printing and journalism trades that was so dominant in the early 1800s. She wants to be able to use that platform to support the evolving groups who support both the burgeoning women’s suffrage movements and the abolitionist movements that came out of that era. And in doing some preliminary research, I learned both those movements were gaining traction at the time under the leadership and efforts of women in…where else? Worcester, Massachusetts.

Our minds, our subconscious minds, at times seem to have “minds of their own,” as evidenced by the coincidences—I suppose that’s what I have to call them—that came to exist within my make-believe world. But how, then, do I explain having got myself worked so deep into a plot corner that I could see no apparent means of escape. Devoid of any ideas, I had to simply stop working on the story. But then, I woke up one morning with a solution fresh in my mind that was so perfectly suited it became the basis for the remainder of the story. That solution was so unexpected, but so supremely appropriate, as to leave me wondering all these years later, “Where did that come from?”

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