John Brown’s Women | Fascinating Biographical Historical Fiction by Susan Higginbotham

John Brown’s Women: A Novel
By Susan Higginbotham
As the United States wrestles with its besetting sin—slavery—abolitionist John Brown is growing tired of talk. He takes actions that will propel the nation toward civil war and thrust three courageous women into history.
Wealthy Brown, married to John Brown’s oldest son, eagerly falls in with her husband’s plan to settle in Kansas. Amid clashes between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, Wealthy’s adventure turns into madness, mayhem, and murder.
Fifteen-year-old Annie Brown is thrilled when her father summons her to the farm he has rented in preparation for his raid. There, she guards her father’s secrets while risking her heart.
Mary Brown never expected to be the wife of John Brown, much less the wife of a martyr. When her husband’s daring plan fails, Mary must travel into hostile territory, where she finds the eyes of the nation riveted upon John—and upon her.
Spanning three decades, John Brown’s Women is a tale of love and sacrifice, and of the ongoing struggle for America to achieve its promise of liberty and justice for all.
Trigger Warnings:
Deaths of young children through illness or accidents (not graphically described); implied heavy petting involving a willing minor.
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I’m delighted to welcome acclaimed author Susan Higginbotham to my blog today. I particularly love the detailed research Susan undertakes before writing her beautiful novels. Welcome, Susan, and let’s chat!

Engine Room at Harper’s Ferry

What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I write biographical historical fiction, so most of my characters are real people, save for a few minor characters and, in one of my early novels, a fictional mistress for a nobleman who I felt was likely to have had one. Like it or not, fiction has the power to shape how people view history, so I believe strongly that historical novelists should adhere as closely to the historical record as possible and fill in the gaps in the record plausibly and consistently with known facts and with the mores of the period. Some feel that this stifles creativity, but the process of gap-filling, not to mention all the other elements of fiction, offers plenty of room for imagination.
Writing about a character who’s controversial, or who held some views that are abhorrent to modern readers, can be particularly challenging. I don’t think that authors should gloss over the unpleasant aspects of a character just to make him or her more palatable; rather, they should place the character’s actions in context and counter-balance them with his or her more admirable traits.
What does literary success look like to you?
We’d all like to be best-sellers—at least I think most of us would—but in lieu of that, it’s deeply satisfying to hear that I’ve made people cry, made people laugh, taught people something they didn’t know, or awakened an interest to learn more about the history in question. That’s what keeps so many of us going during the discouraging times.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I find research much more enjoyable, and easier, than the writing itself. I start with finding well-sourced nonfiction about my characters, and then chase down as many primary sources as possible. This process can take months, but it doesn’t stop when I start writing, because there are always questions that arise in the writing process that require research—what your character would have worn, what route he would have taken, and so on. The answers to some of these questions can be maddeningly elusive.
For John Brown’s Women, I read hundreds of letters by members of the Brown family, as well as letters by other people, interviews with people who knew John Brown, and contemporary newspaper accounts, among other sources. I also visited as many places associated with my novel as I could, because it’s a wonderful and at the same time an eerie feeling to stand where your characters once stood and touch some of the things they touched.
While writing John Brown’s Women, I had the good fortune to acquire two letters written by John Brown’s oldest son, as well as a book that he likely had in Kansas. I couldn’t resist writing the latter item into my novel.
What did you edit out of this book?”
I edited some info-dumps and some unnecessary to-ing and fro-ing out of it, but the main editing, so to speak, was simply stopping the novel where I did. The novel ends in 1859, shortly after John Brown’s execution. It was originally supposed to follow the characters into the 1860s, but one night when I was lying in bed I realized that artistically, the book really needed to end where it does.
How do you select the names of your characters?
For the most part, the names are selected for me by history—which can be irritating when multiple generations have the same name or when parents bestowed a dead child’s name upon a younger sibling. (John Brown, for instance, had two daughters named Sarah and two named Ellen, and of course he had a son named John who also had a son named John. One of the many reasons I liked his daughter-in-law Wealthy Brown was because there were no other Wealthys in the family circle.) When I have to name a character myself, I look through things such as census records for inspiration, but I tend to avoid exotic or unusual names unless they fit the character.
As part of my day job, however, I have to look through Alabama court cases, and I have a wonderful collection of lawyers’ names that would be perfect for a Southern Gothic novel if I ever decide to write one.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with bad or good ones?
I usually read them when the book first comes out, to see how it’s being received. I enjoy the good ones and learn what I can from the bad ones. Of course, there’s not much you can take from a review that simply states, “I hated this novel and everyone in it and I don’t know why this author was even born.” With those you just have to shake your head and move on, and of course they’re an excellent excuse for retail therapy.
What was your hardest scene to write?
Probably the scene early in the novel where four young children die. With the deaths later in the novel, there’s at least the consolation that the characters died for a noble cause, but these children’s deaths are random and irredeemably tragic, made  more so by the modern reader’s  knowledge that antibiotics and fluids would have likely saved the children in question.
How long did it take you to research and write this book; were there any “wrong turns” along the way?
It took over two years, partly because my research for it began while I was finishing another book. It was originally supposed to be only about Annie, but during the research process Wealthy and Mary barged in—not the first time that’s happened to me when writing. I also dithered between third person and first person, and finally settled on third person.
Thank you for chatting with me!
Thanks Susan, it was a pleasure having you!

Susan Higginbotham is the author of a number of historical novels set in medieval and Tudor England and, more recently, nineteenth-century America, including The Traitor’s Wife, The Stolen Crown, Hanging Mary, and The First Lady and the Rebel. She and her family, human and four-footed, live in Maryland, just a short drive from where John Brown made his last stand. When not writing or procrastinating, Susan enjoys traveling and collecting old photographs.

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