Hatfields & McCoys (and play-pretties)

(UPDATE — 8-31-2014: I mentioned while writing this series of posts that I was revising my Civil War novel at the time and was watching this miniseries for atmosphere. That novel I was revising is Hagridden, and it’s out now from Columbus Press. If you like this miniseries, you might like that novel. Click here for more information!)

I have all sorts of reasons for completely geeking out over the announcement that The History Channel is airing a three-part miniseries on the Hatfields and the McCoys, the first episode of which I watched last night. For one thing, I’ve always loved epic, historical tales of violence, blood feuds, and the deep-rooted psychological aftermath of the American Civil War in the South. It’s why I love Cormac McCathy’s Blood Meridian. It’s why I love Tom Franklin’s Hell at the Breech. And this story of two warring families in Appalachia is the granddaddy, the real-life origin of what has become an American epic myth.

For another thing, I’ve always loved the Civil War, and while the story of the Hatfields and the McCoys is mostly a late-19th century family war — a word that feels heavy but is apt, since these two families almost single-handedly reignited the Civil War — much of what drove a rift between these two families had its origin in the Civil War. Ultimately, the story is one of self-righteous pride, family honor, human psychology, star-crossed lovers, and socio-economic politics, but one can’t fully understand the conflict that unfolded across generations without looking at the Civil War.

This is a point the miniseries is careful to hammer home, starting the series in the middle of a Civil War battle and, before the first commercial break, setting up issues of wartime honor, desertion, and inter- and intra-familial conflict — the old “brother against brother” line that comes up so often in reference to the Civil War.

And then there’s the real motive for me wigging out: I’ve set aside all my other fiction writing to focus heavily on revising my own Civil War novel. I’m roughly one-fourth through that revision at the moment, and as part of my revision process, I’m doing a LOT of side research to make sure my details are right. For example: a few days (and several pages) ago, I found a sentence in my book describing a young woman waking early and dragging on a dress over her men’s longjohns. I’d put it in because she’s poor and isolated in the Louisiana marsh and doesn’t much care for fashion — she’ll wear whatever keeps her warm, and since she’s been killing stray soldiers for a living, she had some old men’s longjohns handy. But re-reading that line, I realized I’d probably better check the details of mid-19th century fashion, and sure enough, I discovered I had to change the sentence. For one thing, longjohns weren’t even an item of clothing until after the Civil War (the first patent for them was registered in 1868). And, even more interestingly, they were originally women’s underwear — men didn’t start wearing them until the late 19th century.

That sentence also made me realize I’d never paid much attention to the women’s wardrobe in the first few drafts of the book — I was more focused on getting the story down and refining the characters — so now I’m double-checking all the references to their clothes. (I’ve learned, for instance, that the women in my book almost exclusively wear “wrappers” but usually don’t bother with the aprons traditionally worn over those dresses, choosing instead to simply cinch the dresses with belts from stolen military uniforms.)

Watching Hatfields & McCoys, I’ve been keeping an eye out for period(ish) details like clothes and tools, as well as tuning my ear to some of the colloquialisms. There was a wonderful moment when Johnse Hatfield is professing his devotion to Roseanna McCoy, and he exclaims to her, “I tell you true, I love you,” which thrilled me: I’ve used the expression “I tell you true” in my own Civil War novel, having come across it as an accurate colloquial phrase of the period. I had thought it was regionally located in the South — in fact, I came across it in a list of expressions from mid-19th century Southern Louisiana — but apparently, if the History Channel is accurate in its dialogue, it extends not only out of the deep South and up into Appalachia, but also beyond the Civil War and into the late 19th century.

Not that there isn’t a history of overlap in time and geography when it comes to Southern dialects. I remember writing a college research paper on hillbilly dialects and coming across the term “play-pretty,” meaning “toy,” and being surprised because I knew the term intimately — it’s what my grandmother always called the toys I played with as a kid. I was surprised because my grandmother was born in Oklahoma and grew up in Louisiana, neither place anywhere near hillbilly territory. But then I learned how hillbilly dialects of the southern Ozarks would extend a bit west of Arkansas into Oklahoma and a bit south into northern Louisiana, and my Granny — my grandmother’s mother — is from that area, too. So it makes sense.

(I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m really hoping someone on tonight’s episode uses the term “play-pretty”!)

As for the miniseries, it’s a bit uneven so far. A friend of mine from high school remarked on Facebook that he was having trouble following the story, and I can see why — it rushes through a lot of key elements of the story, cramming in the set-up of the feud, which smoldered slowly for twenty years before erupting into the worst of the violence, into just the first episode. How they’re going to stretch out the remaining few years over the next four hours I don’t know. Perhaps the pacing will be better now that we’re in the thick of the violence and aren’t dealing as much with the political and psychological underpinnings of the story. But that first episode was definitely uneven, and I had done a lot of reading ahead of the series to bone up on my history; I can’t imagine how confusing it must have seemed to someone coming into the story cold.

The writers do gloss over some major elements of the story (and make at least one glaring stand on the story — historians remain unsure who exactly killed Harmon McCoy, but the miniseries puts the blame squarely on Hatfield relative Jim Vance). But the acting is superb, and the mythology remains compelling however it gets told, so I’m looking forward to tonight’s episode!

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

6 thoughts on “Hatfields & McCoys (and play-pretties)

  1. Samuel, as a writer who has jumped feet-first into historical periods (in short stories and in my first novel) I know that ‘accuracy’ is one of the troublesome areas. There is always a degree of artistic license allowed – I recall that when I first watched the film ‘Gladiator’ I was no more than 30 seconds into it when I noticed an inaccurate detail. When I got to the fifth, I thought “Hang it all – I either sit here like an anorak and note down all the factual errors, or I enjoy the film!” I did the latter. One’s first priority as a writer of fiction is to engage the readership.

    To that end, may I beg you to keep one thing in mind. Almost every historical novel, play, and film that I have come across – particularly those set in the American Civil War or during the American Colonial Rebellion of the 1770s – is as stiff as a military collar. This is mainly because the characters involved are iconic to Americans. We forget that they were not supermen, not knights in some tale by Mallory, they were human beings. They farted, swore, told off-colour jokes, used in-words and argot between each other. Generals were much less likely to say to their staff officers, when perusing a plan of the battlefield, “Gentlemen, I submit that our only viable strategy would be to outflank the enemy”, than “Look boys, basically we’re fucked unless we come at them from the side”. The stiffness gets confribbled down to the bit actors, every ‘Southern Gentleman’, for example, has to behave in a particular way… you get the picture.

    Here’s something else – it’s a device which I will share with you, because I didn’t invent it, and because although I have employed it in rough sketches for a possible novel, it has not yet appeared in a finished work of mine. I know from my own time on this planet that much of what was taken for granted as ordinary (in such areas as speech, in-phrases, slang, popular images, and so on) gets lost along the way. There is absolutely nothing to stop an author using his or her imagination to invent something – a simile, a phrase, a piece of argot – and using it. Who is to say that no person in the 1860s ever said “It’s as hot as a hearth-stone”, or “You got to find the seventh bullet from somewhere”? See?

    Anyhow, to be honest, I don’t need to tell you how to write, do I!


    1. I am 100% with you! I’ve actually written quite a bit about my research process, both in terms of how absurd I can get with it and my reasons for packing it in and just getting on with the story. I have a whole section on the subject here in the website: https://snoekbrown.com/writing/research-for-fiction/

      Generally, I try to ride the line. For me, story comes first and remains the most important. That’s followed closely by readability. But I’m a history nerd and a sucker for accuracy, so I work it in when I can. The right details in the right places can do a whole lot to make up for some wrong details elsewhere.

      For example, here’s a passage of dialogue from the book I’m working on. It’s between the two women and Clovis, a black-marketeer, and while it includes a couple of key colloquialisms and a bit if historical place-setting, it’s also rife with license and flavor:

      He bent to root through the packs but only tilted a few items to peer beneath them. He flipped shut the flap on the rucksack and kicked the haversack with his bare toes. This is shit, he said. This the best you can get for old Clovis?

      This is all they is and you know it, the old woman said.

      It’s as good as we ever got, the girl said, but the old woman put a hand on her arm.

      All you ever got was shit. Hell, petites, I can’t use none of this. It’d be a hassle just to keep it in my store.

      People’s gonna need this stuff, the woman said.

      Clovis stood up, tottering over them, then he stretched his arms akimbo with his fists on his bony hips as though to steady himself on himself. He eyed them both then shook his head.

      New Orleans was taken two years ago, some say General Lovell done run off crying. Them Yankees took Fort DeRussey too. They running now, I hear, had us a good win up in Mansfield, but the Yankees turned it right around in Natchitoches and they’s beating us still even while retreating. It don’t make no difference either way anymore. They pulled Grant out these parts and sent him to Virginia. War’s in the east. We’s done down in these parts, far as I’m concerned. Won’t be but just skirmishes now. He spat into the corner and bent to collect his bowl. I got no more customers to sell this shit to. He tipped his bowl and drank.

      This shit you call it come to you all but free anyway, Clovis. You’ll turn a dollar on it somehow no matter where the war’s at. Come on, vieux, just make a bill.

      I won’t swear that every word of that is true to the period or the people, and I’m not even certain it’s good (I’m still debating the use of “they” in place of “there” or its homophones, though it does help sort out the characters — the local Anglo-Cajuns use it, but the girl, who comes from elsewhere in Louisiana and is slightly more educated, doesn’t). But for the time being, it feels right, and that’s the most important thing.

  2. Have you read “Sometimes A Great Notion” by Ken Kesey? I recommend it since you love family feud lit & are living in Oregon. This, however, is not civil war era, but it is excellent historical fiction about a logging saga in Oregon. I loved the author’s way of setting up the voice of each character without identifying the speaker. I found it difficult to read, complex, but ultimately satisfying to find I knew who was speaking anyway.

    I’ll have to queue the Hatfields & McCoys. Thanks for the post.

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