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Jessica James – Inspiration from an Unusual Source

Inspiration from an unusual source

by Jessica James 

A question I often get asked is where I get the inspiration for my novels. It’s a hard question to answer, because I have to reveal a little secret that I really don’t talk about, even privately. Number one, it’s hard to explain; number two, it’s kind of embarrassing; and number three, some might say it’s a little unbelievable. But it really happened and it really did serve as part of the impetus for the writing of my first novel and the ones that followed.

To introduce myself a little, I’m from Gettysburg, which may seem like an obvious and logical place for a Civil War author to live. But I actually didn’t catch the Civil War bug until I lived for a short time in Virginia—and it was in a house in a “battlefield town” in the Old Dominion that inspired me to take the time to research and write an emotional story of love and war.

What occurred took place at Chatham Manor (the Lacy House), a beautiful old mansion that served as a hospital after the Battle of Fredericksburg in 1862. I stumbled across the historic site on a trip to Fredericksburg, and being an “old house” enthusiast (and hopelessly lost in Fredericksburg at the time), I decided to stop and take a look. I knew practically nothing about the Battle of Fredericksburg and even less about the role this house played in it.

Upon entering the building, I paid an attendant who sat inside the door, and then began my self-guided tour. The main room was large and spacious, with beautiful plank floors and windows overlooking the Rappahannock River. I proceeded to my right, down a long hallway, and as soon as I entered the first small room, I became overwhelmed with such a feeling of grief and loss that I almost went to my knees. (I remember grabbing the doorway for support as I was backing out).  I can only explain it as a physical weight of intense—really indescribable—despair and anguish hitting me from out of the blue.

Now a normal person would probably be frightened, or want to know what could possibly be causing this. Me? I worried about how I was going to get out of the house I had just entered a few minutes earlier without embarrassing myself by running past the attendant with tears running down my face. And believe me, I wanted out!

When I heard the voices of more visitors arriving, I seized the opportunity. I ran to the door with my head down, sprinted to my car and drove away… still shaking.

For a little background, there were about 9,600 Union casualties during the Battle of Fredericksburg and many of them were sent to Chatham for treatment. Records show that the wounded covered every foot of the floors and porticos; they lay on stair landings, under tables, even in cupboards. Civil War nurse Clara Barton wrote: “I wrung the blood from the bottom of my clothing before I could step, for the weight about my feet.”

For all of the misery and suffering that occurred on the grounds and within the four walls of this house, no wonder I had that experience that day! I still think about the strange series of occurrences that led me there though. First there was a cancelled event… which resulted in time to kill… which caused me to drive around and get lost… which led me to see the sign for Chatham. I eventually accepted the fact that the experience happened for a reason, so I included Chatham as a setting for a scene in my first novel Shades of Gray.

My Chatham experience probably lasted all of five minutes—but it has never left me. I became inspired to write something that would harness those emotions and let other people feel them the way I felt them that day.

Since the ultimate goal for an author is to get the reader to, not only see the scenes described, but to feel them, I’m now very grateful for the incident at Chatham Manor. I’m not sure I could write the novels I do without feeling that pain and experiencing that anguish. One of the first reviews I received said, “The intense sorrow, frustration, and ultimately love, seem to transcend the pages to settle in the very marrow of the reader’s bones.”

I did eventually return to Chatham about 10 years later. The room where the experience took place was blocked off so I couldn’t see if it would reoccur, but the atmosphere overall seemed more inviting, as if I were being welcomed home.

Above and Beyond

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Genre - Christian Fiction

Rating – G

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Website http://www.jessicajamesbooks.com/

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Suzanne Gindlesperger said...

I understand those feelings. I'm researching the Gettysburg field hospitals and often have such a helpless feeling. As if I should be "helping" and not walking the area and taking photos. Sometimes I want to reach out to 'touch' the atmosphere because it feels thick.

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