Saturday, July 12, 2014

New York immigrant life, the Wizard of Oz, and genealogy: An interview with Cindy Thomson

Cindy Thomson, a writer from central Ohio, has written three historical novels: Brigid of Ireland, set in the 5th century, and the first two books in her Ellis Island series, Grace’s Pictures and Annie’s Stories, both about young Irish women beginning new lives in turn-of-the-century New York. The latter, out from Tyndale House this month, incorporates her heroine’s love of storytelling and the excitement surrounding L. Frank Baum’s classic novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Cindy’s website is www.cindyswriting.com. This interview was first published in the June newsletter for the Historical Novel Society's Great Lakes Chapter.

In the introduction to your website, you write that “I tell stories about those who went before us and left guideposts for us to find.” What themes from Annie’s Stories do you think will resonate most with readers today?

So many of our immigrant ancestors were searching for a place to call home. That is the theme of the Wizard of Oz, and that is Annie's wish as well. But like Dorothy Gale, Annie's task seems insurmountable. She's lost everything she identified with home, and she can't get it back. I think many readers share a desire to find a sense of belonging whenever they find themselves in a new situation. I also believe people who love books will enjoy the "bookish" theme this novel has.

Many children are familiar with L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, either the book or the movie or both. Was it a favorite story of yours growing up? What led you to back to it as an adult?

Yes! Although I didn't read the book until I started this novel. Like so many of us, I watched the movie. Like Gone with the Wind, it was an annual event I looked forward to. Dorothy was just an ordinary girl, like me, and the fact that she could have such an adventure and survive it (weren't those flying monkeys scary?) meant that I too could strive to do things just as amazing. When I was plotting this series I looked for what was new at the turn of the 20th century that people would identify with today. When I discovered The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published late in 1900, I knew I wanted to include it. If it's enthralled audiences for all this time, it must have made quite an impact on readers when it was new.

What were some of the more surprising or intriguing things you learned about it, or its author, in the course of your writing?

Besides the slippers not being ruby, you mean? At the time the book was praised for not being as scary as other fairy tales but what surprised me was how gruesome it still was. The Tinman was made of tin, but he was originally flesh and blood. His axe had been controlled by the Wicked Witch of the East, causing him to cut off his own limbs, one by one and then finally his head. And the Lion was quite violent when he was fighting enemies. Attitudes toward children were changing, but they were still not seen as innocents as much as we see them now. But Baum did love to entertain children (his and others), and basically the story hasn't changed and it still entertains us today, so I think he knew what he was doing.

What were some of your favorite or most useful research sources for Grace’s Pictures and Annie’s Stories?

Ellis Island itself is a treasure. There are so many stories there represented in the artifacts and even in the immigrants' own voices. I also visited the Police Museum in Manhattan and the New York Public Library, where I looked at lots of maps. There are lots of great reference books on this era. One terrific book I picked up at the Ellis Island gift shop is called Old New York in Early Photographs by Mary Black. New York is a historic city, but so much of it has changed. I'm thankful the history has been recorded.

I’ve been reading the Novel PASTimes blog for many years – it’s a wonderful site. What inspired you to start the blog, and how has it benefited your career?

Oh, thanks so much for reading it, Sarah! Way back when we started it (2006) there weren't many blogs focused on the genre. I thought if I got some other authors to run it with me, I could handle it. I wanted it to be a place where we could celebrate authors who write HF and learn more history. I think it's helped readers find my books and those of the blog contributors, but also some new voices that we've featured.

How long have you been interested in genealogy? Are there any stories you’ve uncovered from your family history that you find especially noteworthy or inspiring?

I started when I was 16 or 17. I've always been fascinated to know where I came from. I have uncovered several interesting stories from my family and also from my husband's family. We discovered the Thomsons and one line of my family lived in the same county in Ireland and came over within a year of each other. The Thomsons have some interesting Revolutionary War history and were at Valley Forge, and we found a small well-maintained church graveyard in Maryland where many of them are buried.

Another interesting find was that my grandmother didn't descend from the family we thought she did, although it's a mystery that will probably never be solved. Her father's supposed father died in the Civil War long before he was born. Hmm....And I've just recently discovered my other grandmother's family moved to Ohio from Nantucket during the War of 1812. Lots of interesting history there since they were whalers and the British stole their ships and therefore their livelihood. And that family dates back to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and then back to Wales. There might be a future novel coming out of all that!

But what got me started writing fiction was a different family line. A couple of stories about them had been written down in the 19th century. One was about a boy who received a slave in payment for a debt, and he set him free. I wrote a children's story about that that was published in Clubhouse Magazine. They came to America from Northern Ireland in 1771 and left behind their oldest daughter, who became indentured in Ireland until she could pay her way to America. That's not usually how it worked, so I invented a story that is still unpublished. Maybe one day...

What suggestions do you have for other historical writers looking to succeed in the Christian fiction market?

Familiarize yourself with the market. One of the best ways is through the organization American Christian Fiction Writers. There is a Christian Writers Market Guide where you can learn about Christian publishers (many are owned by mainstream publishers now) and agents. Read lots of CF. You can find such a great variety today. Faith was a natural part of the lives of so many people of the past that weaving it into the story need not be difficult or forced. If it is, readers will resent it. Studying publishers’ guidelines and reading what they publish will give you a good idea of how they like to see the spiritual journey unfold in a novel.

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