As a writer, nothing excites me more during the research phase of plotting a book than discovering actual history that allows my entire plot to fit together in a way more perfect than anything my imagination could have conjured. This is exactly what happened during the writing of my latest novel, To Win Her Heart.
My hero, Levi Grant, enters the story after spending two years in Huntsville State Prison for an unintentional crime. Being a large, muscled man, he was put to work in the labor camps during his incarceration, breaking rock at a granite quarry. The abusive camp sergeants he faced there left him with scars inside and out, but the compassion of a prison chaplain helped him rebuild his faith and his dream of starting a new life. Upon his release, he takes up his father’s blacksmithing trade and plans to keep his past a secret. However, as the author, I couldn’t allow this secret to stay hidden. So I began looking for ways to expose my hero’s past. And I stumbled upon the perfect solution in my time period research.
[Top – Texas Capitol as it appeared in 1875. Bottom – Texas Capitol after the fire of 1881.]
In 1881, the Texas Capitol building was destroyed by fire. The Texas Legislature decided that when they rebuilt, they would use only materials native to the state. They initially chose limestone, as there was a quarry near Austin, but when iron particles in the rock led to discoloration, they elected red granite instead. This granite was obtained from Granite Mountain near Marble Falls, Texas in 1885. To cut costs, the state contracted convict labor for breaking the stone. The use of free—or almost free—convict labor in the quarries, however, was seen as an attempt by the state to undermine unionized labor and was opposed by virtually every organized labor group in Austin. Hence, word spread throughout the region about the controversial labor force.
This historical event allowed me to supply Levi with quarry experience during his incarceration (breaking rock at Granite Mountain), but with a project that was so well known for using convict labor, it could easily expose his past should anyone learn of his involvement. And, of course, someone does. History provided the perfect scenario.
[Convicts working at Granite Mountain]
Not only did this fabulous research gem supply the plot point I needed, but it also helped determine my setting. The story opens in 1887, in keeping with the time frame of Levi working at the labor camp in 1885 at the beginning of his incarceration, leaving time on the back end of his two-year sentence for his spiritual rehabilitation with the prison chaplain. It also played a role in the location of Spencer, Texas. Knowing how pivotal a role having a quarry nearby would be to my story, I chose to set my fictional town near Limestone County where the natural resource from which the county derived its name was abundant enough to allow me to install a quarry a few miles from town.
Fun how things work out, isn’t it?
Are there interesting historical tidbits in your back yard that would make a great plot point in a novel? Any colorful characters in your family history who would spice things up? I’d love to hear about them. Who know’s? Maybe your idea will be the spark that ignites the fire for my next book.
To read the first chapter of To Win Her Heart, click the link below.