Angela Morrison Talks about Writing Family History Inspired Fiction

An Ocean Atween UsAngela Morrison recently released the first book in her new series We Glovers: An Ocean Atween Us. She draws the reader in with authentic language and descriptions that are so realistic they make the reader want to wipe away the sweat and grime, yet hug and console Will. The narrative is set in the industrial age starting in Scotland, sailing across the Atlantic ocean, settling in Nova Scotia and trudging into Pennsylvania coal mines. Angela Morrison creates this YA historical drama using stories from her own family history. Will Glover’s story is a tale of first love and heartbreak, related in intimate, first person detail. Just as Will’s soul entwines around Lucie, the blooming pit village lass he’s always known and never truly seen, a mysterious stranger arrives at the pits with an offer Will’s father can’t refuse. Hardship, tragedy and broken hearts ensue.  Margaret:  In both your Taken by Storm Series and An Ocean Atween Us you write of violent storms while at sea. a.) Explain why you choose to use this symbolism / metaphor in your writing. b.) Share your personal experiences that inspired such realistic prose. Angela: I feel like in both these books the storms chose me! TAKEN BY STORM was inspired by a real hurricane. I was sitting in a dive boat off the coast of Cozumel, Mexico, wondering if the rain that was making me shiver would ever stop, when a fellow passenger told me that rain was the dregs of a hurricane that hit Belize the night before and killed a boat load of divers. That haunted me. I began asking myself, “What if?” and TAKEN BY STORM was the result. I had this very real storm to base the book on, so the metaphor of the storm Michael created in Leesie’s life was natural. For AN OCEAN ATWEEN US, the storm was also a reality the Glovers had to face. I wrote those actual chapters of danger, suffering, and death because my critique pal, Joelle, told me the Atlantic passage I was half-way through writing was incredibly boring and needed something to increase the drama and raise the stakes. “Somebody has to die!” she said. “They died by droves on those sailing ships.” She was right for the most part. The tragic voyages that came later in the 19th century with the mass exodus from Ireland were overcrowded and rife with disease. Living conditions were barbaric. There was no food. Water supplies were very limited or nonexistent. Yes, indeed, many perished. That is what readers expect. But, the Glovers were on a very different voyage. They were skilled laborers being imported at great expense by a well-funded company. I found no accounts of disease and starvation on the Maggie P. Other well-organized voyages I studied, like the Mormon emigrant ships, were remarkably free of deaths. I could have manufactured an epidemic, but it didn’t feel right. The Glover’s voyage, though, would be subject to storms. The North Atlantic was notorious. Sailing ships had to battle all the way against the prevailing trade winds. I found many first-hand accounts of what it is like battened-down in a tall ship’s hold during a storm. I drew on those true-life accounts to make Will’s experience as vivid and realistic as possible. Margaret: In An Ocean Atween Us the characters marry in their mid teens. Is this based on family or regional history? Angela: Both! I used the names and dates of births, marriages, and deaths from my family pedigree as the framework for the fictional story. I tried to stick as close as I could to the facts. Also, teen marriages were common practice at the time, especially for girls. Men in their thirties and even much older took teen-age brides, and no one thought anything of it–except, I think, the brides! I did make up Will’s younger brother’s relationship with Mallie Semple. Her family is fictional. Lucie, Will’s first love, is also my creation. Jennie, who comes along later in the novel, is from that pedigree chart. Of course, I had to fictionalize her, too. I fictionalized ALL the characters. (I hope the Glovers aren’t scowling down at me from heaven!) Margaret:  You mention that you spent over 10 years researching and writing this story. Please share some of the details with us. Angela: My grandmother and her mother were amazing family historians. I inherited the family group sheets, photographs, and family histories they collected. I grew up listening to my mother’s vivid bedtime stories about Granny Glover (Mither in AN OCEAN ATWEEN US) walking the Mormon trail with her grand-daughter, Sarah. When I was pregnant with my daughter, who is now expecting her first daughter, I took a family history writing course from BYU Independent Study. I began researching Kilmarnock, Scotland and 19th century coal-mining and wrote four chapters of a history of the Glover family. But I don’t write history. I write fiction. I kept researching and eventually entered a Master of Fine Arts in writing program. While working on my MFA, I wrote, TAKEN BY STORM. Then, in my final semester, I began writing AN OCEAN ATWEEN US  — at that time the working title was MY ONLY LOVE. I had the great good fortune of working with incredible mentors. That’s when the research became even more intense. I read everything I could get my hands on about 19th century Scotland, coal mining, and sailing ships. We were living in London, Ontario, Canada, and the local library system had a wide selection. (Half of Canada has Scottish roots.) I also had access to the University of Western Ontario’s library. I traveled to Nova Scotia and studied in the museum that sits on the site of the coal mine Will Glover helped dig. They kindly gave me access to their docent’s research library. I also took a trip to Pennsylvania’s coal country. We moved to Switzerland in 2004–just as I graduated with my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. I kept researching, writing, and even dragged my family to coal mines and Robert Burns’ cottage in Scotland. I finished the first draft in 2005 and began marketing it to editors. One well-known editor wanted to see it again! I was so excited. I eventually revised it for her four times before she broke my heart and turned it down. In 2008, I sold TAKEN BY STORM, and this project had to go on the back-burner. When I finished my contract with Penguin in 2010, I came back to it, rewrote it again, and found a new agent who fell in love with it. She had some suggestions to improve the story flow. I polished it one more time, and then gave her my blessing to send it to editors. She failed to find it a home with New York publishers, so I bid her farewell and decided to stretch my indie wings again and publish it myself–which brings us to the book you hold in your hands or, rather, the ebook you downloaded to your Kindle! Margaret:  An Ocean Atween Us takes a bit to get used to the language – but it helps the reader experience authenticity. How difficult was it for you to write using Scots? Angela: I fell head-over-heels in love with Scots. Studying Robert Burns’ poetry in college was my first taste. My father-in-law grew up on an Alberta homestead in a household where Scots was the Mither tongue. He could speak in authentic Scots when he wanted to. That gave me another tidbit to savor. In 2004, when I was reading everything Scottish I could get my hands on, I found Rosemary Sutcliff’s BONNIE DUNDEE, which is written with a much heavier Scots dialect than I use. I read it over and over until I had to return it and eventually bought my own copy. I also discovered Vol. 1 of a CD collection of Robert Burn’s songs. I had no idea Robert Burns wrote songs. Twelve CDs worth! That was amazing because I could actually hear it. And Burns wrote within 50 years of Will Glover’s time. When we moved to Switzerland in 2004, I was supposed to be learning French, but I was too immersed in learning Scots for the French to stick. I created a bulletin board full of notecards, ordered all twelve volumes of Robert Burns CDs from the UK, and read a Scots/English dictionaries instead of novels. Then I found an amazing website, scots-online, that enlightened me even more. I got so into writing in Scots that I over did it and the dialect was too heavy. On the advice of several editor critiques, I went back through the manuscript and took out tons of dialect, only leaving the merest gloss and relying more on word choice to give the reader an authentic feel for Will. The text is now very understandable, and if you have a hankering for Scots, you’ll love it! Margaret:  When will book 2 in the We Glovers series be available to readers? Who will be the protagonist? Angela: The feisty Janie Ellen, Will’s baby sister, will narrate the next book. She is my great, great, great grandmother. She, too, got married when she was fifteen! Rather than make readers wait for the entire book to be finished, I want to involve you in the process. I will be posting the chapters as I draft them on my liv2writ blog and wattpad.com. Writing is a lonely business. The most satisfying creative experience I’ve ever had was when I wrote the third Michael and Leesie novel, CAYMAN SUMMER, online with readers daily input. I’d like to experience that again with WE, GLOVERS. I am in Switzerland, and my research for JANIE ELLEN is in Arizona! I will be back in September for an extended stay, so I plan to start writing JANIE ELLEN then. Follow me on wattpad, my blog, or like my Facebook page to get updates.