Imagination is a wonderful thing. I like to ponder about what it was like to live in different time periods. I also wonder what it was like to be rich or poor, man or woman, or even church-going or drunk. Sometimes I look to the sky and ask myself if I would like to live in the future as a space explorer, perhaps establishing a colony on another world not of this galaxy. I even wonder what it’s like to be my dog or cat. Disney was expert at making creatures come alive through animations with voices which fit the characters.
To be a novelist you have to have an imagination with a keen eye and a good sense of timing. I think I’m drawn to historical fiction just so I can exercise my imagination, putting myself in different situations and different times, wondering how people reacted. So much depends upon their persona–how they were brought up, if they were educated, if they worked hard or were overly sheltered, if they suffered losses of parents or siblings, etc. etc. Before writing a line, the novelist must “know” his or her characters so they will stay “in character” as their lines are written.
Right now, I’m having to stretch my novelist imagination in another direction. I’m attempting to write a piece which is categorized, “creative non-fiction.” This genre requires taking real people and putting them into a narrative that reads like a story. I thought this would be easier than placing fictional characters in historical settings, but I’m finding it quite challenging, even though I know the subject matter quite well.
I’m writing about Jerome I. Case. Have you heard of him? Well, if you haven’t he was an industrialist who perfected and mass produced the thresher-separator to harvest wheat. While I was employed at Case Corporation in Racine, Wisconsin some 15 years ago, I got very interested in the history of the man and his company. Case Threshing Company was established in Racine along the Root River in 1844. This was a time before Wisconsin became a state in the Union in 1848.
Everything I’ve read about Case has shown he was a man of high integrity, and he required his equipment to be of the highest quality. In fact, there’s a story in the company folklore that even after he had retired, he went to a farm in Minnesota after the farmer wrote to the company saying his thresher wasn’t working properly even after company representatives had tried to fix it. When J. I. got to the farm and couldn’t fix the machine himself, he set fire to the thing and arranged to get the farmer a brand thresher.
Case was a good man. He admitted he wasn’t a genius, instead he took other inventor’s ideas, bought the patents and then improved upon them or incorporated the elements into his machines. As I got to know of him when I worked for the company in the communications department, I always wished I could have met him. He had so many facets to his personality besides business and that makes him interesting to me. For instance, he bred horses and was the owner of a world-record holding trotter named Jay Eye See. He served in the Wisconsin State Senate for three terms. He provided good jobs for the people of Racine and was a pillar of the community. He believed in hard work and he had a a keen technical mind. But because he had a background in farming and knew first-hand its trials, he had a pulse on what his customers needed and wanted to make their farming operations more efficient.
I’ve decided to see this great man through the eyes of one of his grandchildren after he had retired. I’m imagining what she saw in this internationally known celebrity. In my writing, I will try to show a strong relationship between a retired J. I. Case, a man who started his career in homespun trousers and ended up a millionaire with his grand-daughter Lydia. Traveling back to the 1850s is a challenge, plus I was never close to either of my grandfathers, so my imagination will be functioning in high gear.
What would you do to bring out Case’s personality? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.