Raising the Dead through Research: How an Academic Became a Novelist

Our newest blogger, Janet Hogan Chapman, debuts today. She was born in Atlanta and has lived in different areas of the city her entire life. She has a variety of life experiences: wife, mother, grandmother, physician’s assistant, caterer, costumed party character, minister, preschool teacher/director, elementary school teacher, university professor, and last but by no means least, writer. Her published work has included professional education materials, essays, and poetry. Madam May is her first novel. She describes herself as a ‘bohemian Southern belle” and dubs her alter ego GeorgiaJanet. You can learn more about her on her website, www.georgiajanet.com.

Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel, one should create living people.” As a writer and genealogist, I would venture to say, “When writing a novel, one can bring the dead back to life.”

Willie May Wheeler Hogan Cobb date unk

Willie May Wheeler Hogan Cobb date unk

I have had a long time interest in genealogy, and little did I know that secrets uncovered in my family tree would lead to my foray into fiction and my first novel, Madam May.  As the saying goes, truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

While trying to locate marriage records for my paternal grandmother, I kept running into dead ends. All I had was her maiden name, Willie May Wheeler, and her birthplace, Newton County, Georgia. I also knew that my deceased father had been born in 1912, so I assumed she had probably married my grandfather Hogan around 1911-1912. The traditional search methods, some more reliable than others, were not turning up any records for a Hogan/Wheeler marriage.  Finally, a breakthrough! A small newspaper article, dated 1906, stated, “John Collis first married Miss Willie Wheeler, and about two years ago he was divorced.” Could this be my Willie May Wheeler? Desperate, I took a chance. There she was: Willie May Wheeler married John Collis in 1898. Now I had another name to research. Lo and


Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

behold, I found yet another husband, revealing that my grandmother had been married twice before my grandfather. The names May Collis and May Stamper helped me eventually find the marriage between May Stamper and my grandfather, Jesse Hogan, but that was anti-climactical to what I learned about May Collis Stamper.

Further research, mostly in newspapers of the day, exposed long lost skeletons in the closet. I do not and will never know if my father was aware of his mother’s past. My siblings and I always knew our “Granny” was a strange woman, but we had no idea to what extent, and there are no living relatives to corroborate the stories. Newspapers, court records, and vital records revealed several intriguing facts about our granny. (1) She was addicted to, and almost died from, an overdose of morphine. Yet this was the least horrifying secret I uncovered. (2) She was arrested and imprisoned in Atlanta’s infamous “Tower” for writing threatening letters to Mr. Collis’ second wife. (3) She was arrested and jailed for writing letters in an attempt to protect a man suspected of murder. (4) She was arrested and charged with harboring young girls for illicit purposes.  And finally, (5) when a deputy’s bailiff was shot and killed at her brothel, she was arrested on murder charges and became the star defendant in a sensational trial.

Atl Con 530 Marietta St

I don’t want to give away the entire plot of Madam May. Let’s just say my Granny was quite the character. Now that I had all of this information, what was I going to do with it? Of course I documented events on my family tree, but I was so intrigued with her story I was compelled to do more. At first, my intention was to write her life story as literary journalism. I struggled with this a couple of years, but could not seem to make any progress.  Finally, I hit on the solution: write her story as historical fiction. I had only written non-fiction, but I am an avid reader of literary and historical fiction, especially anything with a Southern slant. And so I began.

Once again the research came into play. I knew from my past experiences in non-fiction research (professional articles, course materials, a dissertation) that historical research could be intensely scrutinized. Sources needed to be valid, reliable, and documented. I set about answering many questions: Were Atlanta’s streets paved in the early 1900s? Did average citizens drive automobiles?  How did high society women dress? Did women hold jobs? How tall were the buildings? What medical services were available? What slang expressions described prostitutes and brothels? How did the justice system operate? How much did things cost? Newspaper archives were a huge resource. In addition, city, state, and county archives, historical documents, city directories, history texts, and university libraries provided an abundance of supporting information.  The archives of The Atlanta Constitution and the cover smallbook Atlanta and Environs: A Chronicle of Its People and Events, by Franklin M. Garrett, were critical resources.

I tried to stay as true to the setting as possible, but I’m sure there must be some anachronisms. If I absolutely could not find documentation for something, I could take comfort in knowing that, after all, this is fiction, not a dissertation. I have to admit it was rather fun to take some liberties. In fact, it was so much fun that I am planning on developing more of my ancestors’ exploits into works of historical fiction. Like the great grandfather who was shot by his neighbor and never recovered, only to go mad and kill himself by jumping off a bluff into the Kentucky River, or the adopted half-sister whom the FBI came looking for one time, or the unknown little girl buried in the family cemetery  plot…or… or….

Madam May can be purchased as a Kindle e-book on Amazon.com.

If you have done genealogical research, have you found surprises that could be potential writing projects?

3 thoughts on “Raising the Dead through Research: How an Academic Became a Novelist

  1. Juicy indeed! What a wave of intrigue that research must have given you. Good on you for following it through and writing the story. No surprises that I know of in my family history, but then—I’ve never researched any of them . . .
    Great RU debut!

  2. We’ve shook the family tree also and had a few bad apples fall on our heads. And, yes, one is the inspiration for a story I’m developing. Glad to hear you’ve followed yours through to the end!

  3. Thanks Deb and Christina – it was fun and now i am encouraged to search for and write more stories. In fact, I have already begun researching on somewhat of a follow-up to Madam May.

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