Candice Cox Wheeler
My debut novel, Cradle in the Oak, is a historical fiction inspired by an intriguing newspaper clipping from 1906 found among the possessions of my husband’s grandmother after her death. The sentence that caught my attention was: Handicapped by traveling alone across the country as a woman, she had cut her hair, donned masculine garments, and changed her name to Harry. But it was the rest of the article that had me hooked. It mentioned her determination to obtain possession of her children, who were abducted from their home in Biloxi, Mississippi, by her unfaithful husband and his young mistress, and described her journey by train to locate them.
Since this difficult period of her life remained a well-guarded family secret, I used my imagination, along with some research tools, to uncover the fascinating history of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the East Coast of Florida at the turn of the twentieth century. The only clue as to where this newspaper article originated were the words, Special dispatch to the Evening News – Califon, October 2. Through genealogy records, I was able to pinpoint the year of the incident to 1906, and an internet search revealed that Califon was a small railroad town near Baltimore, Maryland. I’m still searching for the newspaper that published the article.
The research methods I used in developing this story were a welcome change of pace from the legal research engines used in preparing briefs and legal arguments on behalf of our law firm’s clients. As a first-time author, one of the things I quickly learned is that you can spend as much time researching a historical fiction as in the creative process of writing it. Research tools come in varying shapes and forms, anything that will transport the writer back in time. It is like a big jigsaw puzzle where you fill in one piece and it leads you to another amazing revelation. I cannot tell you how many times I thought, I love that – how can I use that in my story? The only problem was that I loved so much of the material, I wanted to include it all. This is where my great publisher/editor, Joe Lee of Dogwood Press, stepped in and kept me on track.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast is fortunate to have a treasure trove of helpful reference books published by writers and preservers of the area’s history. These books transported me to the early 1900s through words and pictures. Due to the number of devastating hurricanes which have hampered this area over the years, we are lucky to have these references because many of our historic gems have been destroyed. Questions not answered in these books led me to the local history department of the Biloxi library and its head librarian who gave generously of her time, pointing me in the direction of the microfilm machines and teaching me how to use them. Old newspaper articles and advertisements provided invaluable information, leading to many answers and more questions, which led to old periodicals, such as the 1902 Biographical and Historical Review of Biloxi, Mississippi, published by the Biloxi Daily Herald, where pictures and biographies of many of the real-life characters in my novel were discovered.
Sometimes research tools can come from unexpected places. Each year, around Halloween, a group of volunteers reenact the lives of our dearly departed in our local cemetery. They recently printed a small booklet with interesting information on Coastal residents of the early 1900s and
their lifestyles, which I found extremely useful. The City of Biloxi also hosts an annual history fair at their beautiful Visitor’s Center where organizations from all over the Coast set up booths to share their history. My arms were loaded down with helpful pamphlets from that excursion.
One of the most valuable research tools a writer can use is the personal interview. Some of the most enjoyable days of my literary journey were spent in conversations with old Coastal historians, listening to them recount stories from interviews they conducted for their own research twenty or thirty years ago.
Internet searches led me to a Collectors Weekly article where I discovered exactly what I needed to know about candlestick telephones in 1906, and to an antique newspaper pamphlet published by McCall Bazar of Fashions which provided clothing details from that era. A Preservation in Mississippi website led me to the architect who designed many of the historic structures frequented by characters in my novel. And never underestimate the benefits of a blog. One blog provided a copy of an article written by a New York boating editor from an old magazine no longer in print that provided a first-hand account of a schooner race held in Biloxi in the early 1900s.
Maps are also great tools, especially when your protagonist will be traveling across state lines by train. The State Library and Archives of Florida in Tallahassee, Florida, was a great resource for a copy of a 16-inch by 20-inch map of the State of Florida Atlantic Coast Line Railroad: Florida and the South (c. 1906). This map allowed me to find stops along the railway line. Along with the internet searches which provided great photographs of the depots from the era, I was able to visualize my storyline. From there, I moved on to references that described the train’s interior, amenities and even menus.
I enjoyed each of the researching techniques used in developing Cradle in the Oak but visiting museums and actual sights where the story takes place is the most inspiring and enjoyable research tool a writer can use. I hear my next novel calling and I can’t wait to make a list of subjects to research and places to visit. Happy researching everyone!
A fourth-generation Biloxi, Mississippi, girl, Candace Cox Wheeler is a partner in the law firm of Wheeler and Wheeler, PLLC, where she has worked alongside her husband, David, since 1982 and raised two sons. She is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi School of Law. Cradle in the Oak is her first novel.
Author Facebook page: Candace Cox Wheeler
First edition signed copies can be ordered through dogwoodpress.com beginning on April 17
The book’s release date is April 17, at which time Candace will have in-person signings at Hillyer House in Ocean Springs, MS, from 10am-12pm, and that same day from 2-4pm at The Maritime and Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi, MS.