When Hilda and I first began working on Plank Road Summer, we didn’t exactly know how to go about writing historical fiction. One weekend when Hilda was visiting me in Elmhurst, I suggested that we go to nearby Graue Mill to “soak up some atmosphere.” I had been to Graue Mill before and knew that it was built in 1852–the exact year our story was set–so I thought the place would be a good source of inspiration.
We watched the miller grind corn and examined all the household items and farm tools on the upper floors. As we were looking at the display in the basement, Hilda said to me, “You know, we should put the Underground Railroad in our book.” Graue Mill, of course, is a documented stop on the Underground Railroad in Illinois–a place where fugitive slaves were hidden on their way to freedom in Canada.
“We can’t just ‘put it in,'” I said. I’m the historical stickler. I told Hilda we would have to prove that fugitive slaves traveled through the Wisconsin neighborhood in which Plank Road Summer takes place before we could put that information in our story. But then Hilda reminded me of childhood stories of a neighbor’s house with a tunnel to the swamp in which slaves had supposedly hidden. And we remembered that a building in Rochester was supposed to have been used in helping slaves.
When we started to research the subject, we did indeed find the solid evidence we needed to prove that slaves could have made their way past the properties in our book. (Saying any more than that would be a spoiler) But yes, Hilda, we could (and did) put the Underground Railroad into our book. In fact, it became a large part of our story–and all because of a visit to Graue Mill.
On Sunday, Sept. 6, I’ll be at Graue Mill from 12:00-4:00. Come buy a book, make a wool butterfly, add a plank to my road. And soak up the atmosphere of Graue Mill and the Civil War encampment on the grounds. It’ll be a great day for inspiration!