Donna Meredith interviews Sheridan Brown, T. M. Brown, Charles M. Clemmons and Betsy Reeder about Civil War Era novels

Four new Civil War Era novels were released this year. Southern Literary Review Editor Donna Meredith interviewed  the authors to find out what similarities and differences there might be in their approaches to their subjects—and why they chose to write about them in the first place.

Sheridan Brown’s novel, The Viola Factor, is based on the life of Viola Knapp Ruffner. Ruffner becomes a confidant and teacher of a young Black scholar from Virginia, Booker T. Washington. Washington called Viola Ruffner his friend and model for life.

T.M. Brown (no relation to Sheridan) wrote The Last Laird of Sapelo, based on the tragic story of Randolph Spalding, the youngest son of Georgia’s most well-known coastal planter and influential political figure, Thomas Spalding. Following his father’s death in 1851, Randolph continues his father’s efforts to keep Georgia from seceding from the Union.  He hobnobs from Charleston to Savannah to Milledgeville, but ultimately fails to thwart Georgia’s decision to follow South Carolina into secession.

Charles M. Clemmons’ novel Aila’s Journal: A Tale of Southern Reconstruction tells the story of In 1863, a thirteen-year-old White indentured servant girl and a Black slave girl of the same age who meet on a farm near Wilmington, North Carolina.

Betsy Reeder’s story, Tupper’s Coins, follows one Southern family’s poignant struggles during and after the Civil War. Reeder captures the heartbreaking destruction of Charleston and the valiant efforts of its people to rebuild their lives and their city after enduring so much loss.

Donna Meredith

DM: First, could you tell us about the setting for your novel.

SB: The Viola Factor takes place from 1812-1903 and characters travel by stagecoach and train from Vermont to North Carolina, New Jersey, Kentucky and West Virginia.

TMB: The Last Laird of Sapelo focuses on the first year of The War Between the States, Spring 1861 until Spring 1862. The final chapter jumps to 1868 as families have returned to Sapelo Island.

CMC: Aila’s Journal spans the Civil War/Reconstruction period 1863-1919 and is set in rural New Hanover County (Wilmington) and Brunswick County, North Carolina.

BR: Tupper’s Coins is set in the second half of the nineteenth century and takes place primarily in South Carolina. It begins mid-Civil War in Charleston.

DM: So, Sheridan’s story covers both Southern and Northern locales, while T.M’s, Charles’ and Betsy’s deal mainly with Southern settings. What inspired each of you to write the particular story you chose to tell?

Sheridan Brown

SB: To earn a spot in The Booker T. Washington National Monument Living History Guild, I needed to find a white woman who played a prominent role in Booker T. Washington’s life. I found Viola—or she found me!

After Booker’s emancipated family moved to Malden, West Virginia, he had to work underground packing salt and shoveling coal with his stepfather. The work was scary and sickening to him, so his mother helped him find a job in the home of the people who owned the mines, Lewis and Viola Ruffner. Booker lived and worked as a chore boy in the Ruffner home from around age ten or eleven until he was sixteen. Viola Ruffner was a stern and exacting former Vermont school teacher whose expectations exceeded anything Booker had ever experienced and whose penchant for perfection teetered on derangement. She is credited with teaching him to read, write, speak, and start his own library of books.

T.M. (Mike) Brown

TMB: After a guided tour on remote Sapelo Island by a Geechee descendant and then being gifted a book on the history of Georgia’s tidewater by a leading historian, I discovered the story I felt compelled to write—the story of the Spaldings and their unique relationship with the enslaved workers on their plantations on Sapelo and up and down the Georgia mainland. Following the War, virtually all the displaced formerly enslaved workers and their families made the trek back onto Sapelo. Why? I knew I needed to know more. I also became aware their population continued to prosper on Sapelo until the island was bought in 1912 and exchanged hands again by 1934 when R. J. Reynolds, Jr., bought the island. Geechee residents were relocated to a single plot of land on the island—Hoggs Hammock. From four-hundred-plus in 1910 to less than forty today, Geechee residents have been squeezed off or bought off their land. I wanted to write a story to draw attention to Sapelo’s history and the Spalding legacy. I already have a sequel in mind telling the post-bellum period, 1868-1912 era.

CMC: My inspiration for this time period flowed from my research of my own family history and my research of the current political divisions in the USA and their link to the lost cause of the Reconstruction era.

BR: I was inspired by the lives of my grandfather’s parents and grandparents, who endured every manner of turmoil and sorrow. In our current climate of division, I was also interested in exploring the passage from slaveholding to the strong advocacy of civil rights my grandfather embodied.

DM: How interesting that each of you had unique and very personal inspirations! Did you find it difficult to create a voice for your main character?

SB: I was fortunate in that there were many nights and days I felt like Viola was “with” me and wanted her story told. Once I felt I had enough to share with the world, she “let me go” so I could publish the book. She has been portrayed overtime as course, mean and demanding. I uncovered the fact that she had a guttural Vermont accent that offended many Southerners, such as dropping the -t at the end of words, saying ke-wos for cows or dropping the -r’s at the ends of words like buttah for butter. Divine providence paired her and Booker. He was up to the challenges she created to develop his ambition and fortitude, and she found the very best in him that created lifelong leadership abilities still recognized to this day.

TMB: Randolph Spalding is the main character throughout the story. My in-depth research and multiple visits to McIntosh County, Savannah, Brunswick, Milledgeville, and Columbus, Georgia, helped me create his voice and the voices of the other characters. As would be expected, the Geechee characters offered the biggest challenge in creating their voices so readers would relate to the island’s unique relationship between the Spaldings and their enslaved workers who were promised to never be sold from the land.

Charles M. Clemmons

CMC: The protagonist is Aila MacKenzie, who is based very loosely on what we know about my great-grandmother, Jerusha Davis. However, 90 percent of Aila’s story is pure invention. In 1863, thirteen-year-old Aila, an indentured servant, meets Mary Jane, a Black slave of the same age on a farm south of Wilmington. As the story unfolds, both suffer similar hardship and abuse that over time spawns mutual empathy and friendship against the backdrop of racial hatred and political upheaval that culminates in the 1898 riot and coup d’e?tat in Wilmington. The only commonality between Aila and Jerusha’s story is that Jerusha was an indentured servant who had an illegitimate son who became a preacher. Otherwise, Aila’s story and her voice was entirely invented.

BR: Knowing relatively little about the historic individual, Nannie Hayes, I portray her as honest, kind-hearted, and rather self-doubting and snarky. Her biggest obstacles are a misplaced sense of duty and long-buried fear. She must make a wrenching choice that changes the trajectory of her life and lays a transformed groundwork for my grandfather’s generation. Surprisingly, I did not find it difficult to find Nannie’s voice, despite having to invent it. Nannie seemed to speak for herself from the first page. I suppose I did draw somewhat on my grandfather. Like Nannie (his mom), he called a spade a spade and he was sustained by an undercurrent of humor and faith.

DM: Obviously, each of these books required extensive research. Please share a little about the process–and share any surprises that turned up.

SB: Four years of historical research in libraries, exchanging emails with living Ruffner relatives, reviewing primary source documents of hand- written letters to and from her, Internet explorations, becoming an scholar, and physical visits to Vermont, North Carolina and West Virginia where she lived and worked, helped me piece together the story. As in any research, dead ends happen frequently. That allowed me an opportunity to suppose what might have happened to her and build the tension and mystery for reader engagement.

TMB: As I explained earlier, I traveled extensively to research the book. My research efforts even led me to meet a descendant of the Spalding family who is the family’s keeper of historical photos, journals, books, personal effects. That was a surprise. They just moved from Lagrange, Georgia, to Sapelo Island and have smiled at the story I wrote.

CMC: Two general types of research were required. First came research on the lifeways, culture, language, societal values, language, and religion of the main characters. That research was based primarily based on my own parents’ pre-Depression family experience growing up on their family farms in the in the rural backwoods of Brunswick County. Second came research of historical events associated with the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. The biggest surprise in that regard was the development of “fusion” politics in which former Black slaves and (mostly poor) White farmers temporarily joined together to oppose conservative Southern Democrats. To me, that seemed in stark contrast to our politics today.

Betsy Reeder

BR: Oh my goodness, the research! Hugely helpful were historic photographs found online. Even better was a collection of letters written by a Confederate signalman who endured the Charleston siege. I was astonished by the thievery he described—not by victorious Union troops but by Rebel soldiers who occupied the city during the bombardment. I was also taken aback by the abandonment of slaves when Whites fled Charleston, leaving them behind to look after homes and gardens—and risk their lives. I was also helped by a research librarian who tracked down the address of my great-great grandfather’s hardware business. That’s how I learned it was destroyed in the devastating fire of 1861. Another huge help was my grandfather’s memoir, which gave details of his father’s life, including his tragic loss of parents at a young age. Grandfather also described Charleston’s smell of “pluff mud” or “plough mud.” I also benefited from a trip to Charleston years ago and a friend’s photos of the ancestral Tradd Street home.

There were surprises at every turn, and I had to do some rewriting as I unearthed new information.

DM: What is the hardest thing for you to get right about historical fiction?

 SB: The hardest thing in historical fiction is being an inch away from a fact you have spent days searching and then never find it. Additionally, having to check and cross-check facts and time periods, as well as authenticate fiction versus fact.

TMB: Creating the dramatic elements to connect the historical elements for the novel to challenge the reader to realize what was historical and what was created to tell the story. Plausibility, credibility, and of course believability remained my goal throughout the process. I wanted to write a story that would generate interest and questions at book events to bring attention to Sapelo and Darien and the Geechee descendants.

CMC: The most difficult thing was synchronizing historical events with their impact on the individual characters. Because each character’s background and emotional makeup differed, each character was a bit different in his or her response to a historical event. Matching each character with an appropriate emotional response to a particular event in a way that made sense was challenging.

BR: I think the hardest thing is not to impose twenty-first-century sensibilities on people who lived in a much earlier time. I’d like to nail down every detail of history, but it’s probably more important to get perspective right.

DM: As a writer of historical fiction myself, I have faced many of the same challenges. Thank you for sharing these insights into the creation of your historical novels. SLR hopes you find happiness and success in your writing careers.


Sheridan Brown

Sheridan Brown holds advanced degrees in school leadership and is a certified teacher, principal, and educational leader. Having minored in music in college, the arts have always been a central force in her life. Brown was born in Tennessee and raised in small towns of southwest Virginia. She practiced her profession in Virginia, Massachusetts, and Florida.



Mike Brown

T.M. (Mike) Brown is the author of four award-winning novels. They include the Shiloh Mystery Series: Sanctuary, A Legacy of Memories (Jan 2018); Testament, An Unexpected Return (March 2018); Purgatory, A Progeny’s Quest (February 2022).  Retired since 2014 from a career in sales and marketing, Mike and his wife Connie live below Atlanta near Newnan, Georgia.



Charles Clemmons

Charles M. Clemmons received an engineering degree from NC State University in 1966; an MBA from the University of Connecticut in 1976; and an AAS degree in Film & Video Technology from North Lake College in Irving, Texas, in 1994. In his 27-year career in the corporate world, he traveled extensively and resided in North Carolina, Virginia, Florida, Connecticut, and Texas. Retiring from a corporate career in telecommunications in 1994 at age 50, he refocused on his real passions: documentary filmmaking, photography, writing, being a father to his three children, and discovering the history and lifeways of his parents’ families in Brunswick County, North Carolina.  In 2004, he was awarded two Boston/New England Emmys® (writing and production) for the American Public Television documentary, Mystic Voices: The Story of the Pequot War. After 40 years in Connecticut, Charles returned to his roots in North Carolina in 2016.


Betsy Reeder

Betsy Reeder is the author of a trilogy centered around the lives and loves of characters caught up in vivid events of the Civil War and its aftermath: Madam’s Creek (2017), Broomstraw Ridge (2019), and Salt in Boiling Water (2021). Studying both ecology and writing at schools in California and Maryland, she has been a teacher and biologist as well as a novelist.





















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