Shaking the Branches of a Family Tree
Historical Fiction Author Lane Dolly Returning to Festival
By Haley Wilson
Readers and writers alike believe that the past has a certain hold over us, a fascination that lies just out of reach. Lane Dolly, on the other hand, refuses to allow history to elude her. The author of two volumes with a third in the works on her ancestor, Hattie Sheldon, Dolly relishes in elucidating the unknown.
With a background in political work and having worked in the White House during the Reagan administration, Dolly eventually pursued a master’s degree in Public Policy, which helped hone her writing skills.
Dolly’s ancestor and main character, Hattie Sheldon, also shared an interest in working for the public. A missionary for the Cherokee nation during the 1800s and witness to historical milestones such as the Underground Railroad and mass Indian removals, Hattie’s refusal to adhere to societal and gender expectations led Dolly to research her ancestor further. She began drafting A Distant Call: The Fateful Choices of Hattie Sheldon, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Ancestor Sparks Curiosity
Finding accuracy from remnants of Hattie’s life wasn’t easy, but Dolly faced that daunting task head-on. “I love a good mystery, and it’s always about the unknown,” Dolly said. “That’s what makes it exciting. I absolutely love the thrill of the hunt and the possibility of making a discovery.”
Picking up the many clues needed to compile Hattie’s story meant shaking the branches of her family tree and waiting to see what resources would bear fruit. From city directories to historical letters, Dolly’s research was extensive. Reflecting on the journey’s obstacles, she said, “I think the most marked one was the sheer volume of material. I had to read and research and dig out all of this information to trace her entire lifetime.”
The needed material wasn’t always local or easy to access. At one point, Dolly found herself in the depths of a dusty basement at Harvard University, sifting through documents that had remained untouched for over 150 years. Delving through letters that might only mention in passing Hattie’s character or a person she may have known might sound tiresome, but Dolly unearthed enough from her genealogical research to emerge enlightened. “It was a huge task to do all that reading and research, but it was completely worth it. The greatest challenge was to make my story accurate and believable and trustworthy as a work of historical fiction.”
Though the third volume on Hattie Sheldon’s life is unreleased, readers can expect an even closer look into her life and the difficulties she faced. “This is about a young woman who’s a bit idealistic and her period of history had delivered up some very troubling developments: Indian removals, slavery; she had her moments of deciding on her life’s purpose,” Dolly said.
With a character like Hattie so immersed in historical events and harboring so many personal details, Dolly had to develop her own methods of entering her characters’ (some real, some fictional) mindsets. Relying on photos, letters, or what history had written about Hattie and her family, Dolly managed to pick up the threads of evidence scattered across the country and weave a cohesive story about the Sheldons. “You have to come to terms with the fact that there will be some good, some bad, some challenging people, and then you assign them a personality,” she said. “That’s where you have to get as accurate as you can based on all your sources and research. I liked that part a lot.”
Sharing the Journey with Others
While still working on Hattie’s latest installment, Dolly was careful to carve time out of her schedule for this year’s Festival of Books. A past participant in the event, she’s eager not only for the exposure to other writers and sharing techniques with them, but also to interact with readers. Her favorite memory of the 2014 Festival was sharing her story with a group and noticing how attentive they became, enraptured with the mystery just as Dolly was while writing it.
“I’ve learned that readers want to picture themselves somehow in every story. That’s how they relate to it,” she said. “I was watching their faces, and I could tell they were tracking with me. I was telling a story of my journey to write and how I had to go to all these places for research, and they were with me every step of the way.”
This September, attendees will once again have the opportunity to journey with Hattie Sheldon and an author with a knack for assembling pieces of the past.