Ella Wood Research–Distance and Speeds


Another post in a series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Ella Wood.

A central bit of research necessary for historical fiction is finding out just how long it takes to travel back in the day. Ella Wood takes place in 1860. I put the plantation on the map along the Ashley River between Summerville and Ladson, which is approximately 20 miles outside downtown Charleston, SC. So how long would it take to make the trip into town? That would depend on the method of transportation as well as the condition dictating that type of travel.

Here’s a look into the process by which I calculated how long it would take to travel from Ella Wood to Charleston:

schoonerRiver boat – 8 to 10 hours downriver

Boats will only go as fast as a river’s current unless a power source is used. Ella Wood’s plantation schooner would make use of the wind, though it could also be rowed. I had to do some research here on how sailing a river actually works. It’s best if you sail faster than the current so you can control your rudder. The strength of wind and the amount of sail used determines your speed. But you also have to consider the direction the wind, as tacking becomes necessary if you travel against it.

Nearest I could tell, by digging into some tide/current charts, the Ashley River flows at a top speed between 1.7 and 2.3 mph, depending on the tides, which depend on the position and phases of the moon and change ever 6 hours. During rising tides, the river actually flows backwards! But those river speeds were recorded where it starts to widen, so I assumed a little faster upstream. According to various sailing sites, small sailboats do best at 5-12 knots in open water, less in a river. With so many factors affecting speed, I arrived at a very unscientific 4 to 5 mph average downstream speed, assuming my boat leaves at ebbing tide and must fight rising tide for at least a couple hours. I doubled the distance to Charleston to account for all the twists and turns or the river. My best guess is that a trip downriver would take between 8 and 10 hours. Upriver would take probably a third to half of that again, though they could catch upstream tides.

Carriage ride – 4 to 5 hours

Carriage-Drawn-Horse-002In earlier centuries, roads would have been the slowest way to travel. I assumed that by 1860 the roads to these incredibly wealthy plantations had become somewhat decent. Still bumpy gravel with the chance of sandy or muddy conditions, but not the abismal wilderness tracks of previous generations. And these wealthy gentlemen would have had the motivation and wherewithall to keep them passible.

According to various horse sites, stage coaches ran between 3-5 mph. Another site gave average horse walking speeds between 3-4 mph, trotting speeds between 8-10, cantering at 10-17, and a gallop at 30ish. I walk at 3 mph easily and for long distances. As this is a 20 mile trip, and that’s considered a full day for a horse, and assuming roads aren’t too terrible, I figured a team pulling a light carriage could easily sustain 4 or even 5 mph average over 20 miles, making it a 4 to 5 hour trip.

Horseback – 3 hours

Based on numbers and websites above, I figured a horse carrying a 180 pound man could easily maintain an average 6 to 7 mph for 20 miles.

Train – 2 hours and change

A railroad ran from Charleston to Ladson, which was four miles from Ella Wood. I had to dig into antebellum trains, and learned that most Southern lines were pretty shoddy by Northern standards. (They were often rebuilt by Union troops.) I dug into some particulars on this railroad line and figured a ballpark 15 miles per hour speed. Taking into consideration the two railway stops (total guess at 12 minutes each, including slow and start times) and the four miles by horse to the plantation, I came up with just over 2 hours.

You can see several hours of research went into these simple figures. Historical fiction does take an exorbitant amount of time, but I want to be as accurate as possible, even in the small details. It makes the whole thing come off as more plausible. And honestly, I love the challenge and process of discovery.

Oh, just for fun, it only takes about 11 minutes to drive from downtown Charleston to Lasdon today. Wouldn’t the Preston family be shocked!

The Cay, by Theodore Taylor, 1969

the cay“Dis be de mos’ outrageous good story, Phill-eep!”

I can almost hear the words as they would sound spoken in Timothy’s Caribbean cadence. Timothy’s an old friend of mine. So are Phillip and Stew Cat, the trio of castaways in The Cay. This is a book I’ve treasured since my childhood. I shared it recently with my boys, and I must give it a place of honor here on my blog. It is quite easily among the five best books I’ve read. Ever. It strongly, strongly influenced my decision to write in the middle grade genre. I’m evidence that the right book in the hands of the right child can have a lasting impact. I’ve been that child. Now I want to be that writer.

Let me share some of the accolades The Cay has received:


1970 Jane Addams Book Award
1970 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award
1970 Commonwealth Club Award
1970 Award of the Southern California Council on Literature for Children and Young People
1970 Woodward School Annual Book Award
1970 Friends of the Library Award, University of California at Irvine


The Horn Book Honor List
The Child Study Association’s list of Children’s Books of the Year
Publisher’s Weekly’s list of Children’s Books to Remember
The American Library Associations Notable Books
The New York Times Best Books of the Year
School Library Journal‘s Best Book of the Year

Pretty impressive, eh? And in my opinion, The Cay should have at least won Newbery honors that year (although William Armstrong’s Sounder would have been very difficult to topple). I wish I could meet Mr. Taylor. I’d dearly love to talk to him, but he passed away nine years ago. For what it’s worth, I’m going to honor him and, in my opinion, his best work with a Squeaky Award.

The Cay takes place at the outbreak of World War II on the tiny island of Curacao, a major supplier of gasoline for allied forces, where Phillip’s father has been called to oversee the refinery. When the Germans target the island, Phillip’s mother freaks out and attempts to return to America with her son. Unfortunately, the ship they sail on is torpedoed.

During the chaos, Phillip is struck on the head by a falling beam and wakes up to find himself on a raft in the middle of the Caribbean with only Timothy, a giant black sailor, and a cat for company. He’s repulsed by Timothy’s ugly face and angry at his unreasonable stubbornness. Then his world darkens and blindness sets in.

They land on a small cay far off the shipping lines. Without the benefit of his eyes, Phillip learns to “see” Timothy for what he is, an amazing man of wisdom, strength, and kindness. It is an extraordinary, heart-warming tale, one I would recommend to every single person with the ability to read. About a fifth to sixth grade independent level, it’s appropriate as a read aloud for children far younger.

Squeaky AwardThe dedication page reads: To Mr. King’s dream, which can only come true if the very young know and understand. April 1968, Laguna, California

Mr. Taylor, your book has had a lasting impact.

The Kindle version of The Cay sells for 5.99. It’s the best purchase you could make this year.

The Declaration, by Lars Hedbor

As soon as I finished Ella Wood, I picked up a couple books by my favorite historical fiction indie author, Lars Hedbor. I actually had the privilege of beta reading this one a year ago. I wanted to reread it in its complete form. While Lars writes for an adult audience, his books are clean and easily appropriate for teens interested in the Revolutionary time period. Here’s my review:

the declarationThe Mecklenburg Declaration was a declaration of independence made by citizens of North Carolina in 1775, a full year before Jefferson penned THE Declaration of Independence. Because the first known reference to the document was in 1819 and no authentic copy of the original has ever been found, it remains highly controversial.

In The Declaration, Mr. Hedbor offers us a fictional account of a present day family finding a broadside of the Mecklenburg Declaration in the attic of their Revolution-era house. But what makes the story so effective is a side-by-side narrative of events taking place two hundred years before. We’re actually able to live the history being discovered in the attic.

As ever, Mr. Hedbor’s strength lie in his ability to make the past come alive by giving it a face and a name and a heart. I am especially a fan of the careful vernacular he uses that fits the time period so well. And I love that he chooses to illustrate lesser known corners of the Revolution. I’m a history geek, but the Mecklenburg Declaration was only a hazy name in the back of my mind from a long ago college course. This gave me a new facet of a much-loved era to ruminate about. I confess I read up on it a bit afterward, and Mr. Hedbor’s story rings completely true. Highly recommended.

Ella Wood Series

Ella Wood is the first in a series of young adult historical fiction that will debut in May 2015. Three books are planned. Ella Wood continues a story begun in The Candle Star, a well-recieved stand-alone title among my collection of middle grade Civil War fiction. Readers need not start with The Candle Star to enjoy Ella Wood, though all digital editions of The Candle Star are free. See my sidebar. ->

Please note: Ella Wood has a 14+ age recommendation. Slavery, dealt with so carefully in my series for young readers, is shown in a much harsher light, and some themes are adult in nature. A “clean” read, Ella Wood is nevertheless intended for an audience of some maturity.

Ella Wood new cover11

Though she left Charleston a spoiled daughter of the South, Emily returns from her stay in the North a changed young woman. Her assumptions about slavery have been shattered, and her secret dream of attending university has blossomed into fierce ambition. As the passions sweeping North and South toward war threaten to envelop the city she cares about, Emily must battle her father’s traditional expectations in her own bid for independence. Meanwhile, the real battle may lie with her heart, in the form of a patient young man who is gently but steadily pursuing her.

I’ll post links when Ella Wood becomes available!!

Ella Wood and the Grimke Sisters

ella wood

Another post in a series about writing and researching my upcoming young adult historical fiction novel, Ella Wood.

I had created the character of Emily Preston as a slavery-questioning Charlestonian long before I heard of the Grimke sisters. I knew there had to be dissention in the South; not everyone could be a rabid, card-carrying Secessionist. But because of the heavy-handed tactics employed by those who advocated slavery, it was difficult to find real life individuals who spoke up in the face of intense persecution. Angelina and Sarah Grimke did just that.


Sarah Grimke

Sarah was born in 1792 and Angelina in 1805, to a well-to-do, slave-holding family. Their father, John Faucheraud Grimké, was a Revolutionary War hero, judge, and politician. They were 2 of 14 siblings, not all of whom lived. Angelina was the baby.

At a young age, Sarah began to hate the abuses she saw heaped upon the slaves in her own household and spoke out against them. She took a primary role in the raising of her younger sister, actually talking her parents into letting her become Angelina’s godmother. It is no surprise that Angelina adopted Sarah’s views on slavery. Both of the girls’ diaries are filled with their emotional responses as well as their pleas with friends and family to eradicate slavery.

Their admonitions had little effect on Charleston society or even within their own family. In 1821, Sarah moved North to insulate herself from the institution that so disturbed her, eventually embracing the Quaker faith. Angelina followed in 1829 and also became a Quaker. Eventually, amidst a great deal of persecution even in the North, both joined the Abolitionist society and became outspoken proponents of emancipation as well as forerunners for women’s rights.

Angelina Grimke.

Angelina Grimke.

Sarah and Angelina feature only peripherally in Ella Wood. I don’t even model Emily after them, as her personality and motivations were already fully formed. But the Grimke sisters serve as verification that my story is plausible. Perhaps the biggest contribution they make to the figure of Emily Preston is in their frustration with the limits of a girl’s education and the resulting lack of marketable skills as an adult. Both Grimke girls were well-educated by standards of the day, but Sarah in particular longed to expand her mind beyond that which was acceptable. She tried studying Latin and law, but was ridiculed by both her father and her closest brother and gave it up. Later in life, she futilely sought employment but had to content herself with living as a dependent in the household of friends. Again, Emily’s passion for further education as well as her frustration at societal restrictions were already in place, but I’ve drawn inspiration and verification from the historical figure of Sarah Grimke.

To Kill a Rumor About a Mockingbird: Have it Be True

Michelle Isenhoff:

I’m taking advantage of the reblog feature again. I’ve been wanting to sneak this one into my schedule since reading it a few weeks ago. Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” is one of my favorite classics. (My review: http://michelleisenhoff.com/2011/05/20/to-kill-a-mockingbird-by-harper-lee-book-review/) This post contains some very interesting news about another Lee book. I hope the rumor is true!

Originally posted on Wing's World:

“When he was thirteen, my brother Jem had his arm badly broken above the elbow.”

Two points if you can identify the book and the speaker of that quote; an extra point for identifying its place in the novel. (Note to my former 10th grade English students: you better know this one!)

‘Course, my post title’s a bit of a giveaway. And it’s possible that I’ve quoted imperfectly. Thing is, that quote’s from memory. Want some more?

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy.”

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

“Pass the damn ham.”

OK, that last one’s not particularly significant–except that it makes me laugh. Which I guess is significant. Considering that To Kill a Mockingbird is, nearly 55 years after publication, still the most widely-assigned…

View original 442 more words

The Fault in our Stars, by John Green

faultI’m going to tackle a major pop phenomenon by reviewing John Green’s story of star-crossed cancer patients almost a year after the movie came out. And my opinion will probably differ vastly from the scads of teens who flocked to theaters and as well as the confirmed “Nerdfighters” dedicated to the 2012 book.

The Fault in our Stars is a sweet romance between two teens with cancer. Green does a marvelous job getting us inside Hazel’s head and creating not just sympathy (that’s easy) but relatablity with a character who totes an oxygen tank and participates in experimental cancer treatments. Her boyfriend, Gus, an athlete who survived his carcinoma but lost a leg in the process, is hugely likeable. Their relationship is quirky and unrushed, their dialogue witty, and I was cheering for them both all the way.

If that’s all it was, a teary little romance, I’d give it a glowing review. I really did enjoy the story. But I have three strong cautions for you, moms. Hazel and Gus do have sex. Just so you know it’s in there. And the book includes a good deal of language, including a vast amount of profanity involving the names of God and Christ. The last one is a little more sneaky but not at all subtle. That would be the deeper philosophical issues expounded upon at length. Basically, Green has created two kids facing untimely death and used them to write an emotional theology for atheism.

A few quotes:  “I’d always associated belief in heaven with, frankly, a kind of intellectual disengagement.” “I fear your faith has been misplaced–but then, faith usually is.” “You are a side effect of an evolutionary process that cares little for individual lives. You are a failed experiment in mutation.” And “I am in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.” Getting the picture? It’s a veiled reincarnation of the age-old question, “How can God be real if there is so much suffering in the world?” John Green’s answer? He can’t be. We are just by-products of the unfeeling course of the universe.

Meaningless, all is meaningless.

That’s the book in a nutshell. And while I found Hazel and Gus’s story engaging and beautiful, their conclusions were utterly hopeless and depressing and contrary to everything I believe. This one will not be getting passed along to my daughter.