I never started to write historical fiction. However, in 2000, my wife and I were living in Cumberland, Md., where the canal ended. We decided to bike the canal towpath one summer and sightsee and camp along the way. The C&O Canal is a national park that runs from Cumberland to Georgetown.
We outfitted our bikes for the long trip and set out for what turned out to be a five-day trip. The weather was nice and the trip is a pleasant and scenic one. There are hiker-biker campsites along the way where you can camp overnight. We took advantage of those a few nights and stayed in hotels other nights.
As we traveled, I consulted the towpath guide to check out what might be nearby to see. I soon realized that a lot of history had happened along the canal. The Battle of Antietam, the Harpers Ferry revolt and James Rumsey tested a steamboat along the Potomac. There were also interesting architectural features like the Paw Paw Tunnel, aqueducts and canal houses to look over.
Being a writer, I started trying to figure out what was the best way to tell the story of the canal in a way that would interest readers.
I started playing with some ideas even while my wife and I were still biking the canal towpath.
My breakthrough came about when I decided that the most-interesting time on the canal happened during the Civil War. While the Mason-Dixon Line is credited with being the border between the North and South, the C&O Canal was the border between Union and Confederacy.
Not only did canallers have to deal with the normal issues of living and working on the canal, but armies were traveling along the towpath. Canal boats were being burned and confiscated. Saboteurs were trying to blow up the aqueducts and burn the locks. Loyalties were tested.
With my setting decided, I realized I was going to be writing my first historical novel. I started researching the canal history and canal life. As I learned more about the people who lived and working on the canal, I started to get an idea of who I wanted the characters of my books to be.
They took shape and I gave them their individual stories and personalities that seem to have resonated with readers over the past decade.