The How and the Why of “River Farm”

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In April of 2013, I took my two young children to visit Mount Vernon. I have been lucky enough to work at a number of historic house museums, but Mount Vernon is my favorite historic house of all. As the three of us sat in the orientation center, watching the introductory film We Fight to be Free, something completely unexpected happened. The film had some silent but strange impact on me. The story moved me and somehow the settings and scenery, the costumes, and the actors made a deep impression. I was especially interested in the film’s narrator, the historical figure James Craik, played by Stephen Lang.

Somehow Lang’s portrayal of Dr. Craik, who was George Washington’s close friend and personal physician, coupled with Sebastian Roche’s performance as Washington himself, fascinated me. I was reminded of what I only know in the abstract, that George Washington, mythical and larger than life though he seems, was a human being like any other—extraordinary, to be sure, but human just the same. George Washington has always been one of my favorite historical figures but it is difficult to imagine what he must have really been like, how it felt to be in his presence or to be a close friend or acquaintance of his. But James Craik knew. He and Washington first met in 1755, during the French and Indian War. Their friendship grew and continued for the rest of Washington’s life, and his old friend Dr. Craik was attending to him when he died at Mount Vernon in 1799.

I didn’t realize it in that darkened theater flanked by my children, but something was happening inside my head. I was beginning to imagine a man who was inspired by the idea of the real historical figure of James Craik, yet who was not actually him. And Dr. James Craig, the character, the doctor who owns River Farm, was born. He too is a close personal friend of George Washington. He joins the Continental Army as a surgeon during the Revolutionary War at the urging of his good friend, and he was born in Scotland just as James Craik was. The rest of the details surrounding the character I created are entirely my own. The real James Craik was two years older than Washington. My James Craig is nearly ten years younger than his famous friend.

In July of 2013, my children and I visited River Farm, the beautiful and exquisitely maintained headquarters of the American Horticultural Society in northern Virginia. Before I knew it, I was imagining this place as James Craig’s farm. It was once owned by George Washington so that connection immediately appealed to me. Its proximity to Mount Vernon made it a logical home for a man who frequently visits Mount Vernon and acts as physician to the people who live there. The stunning house at River Farm does not date to the Colonial time period so I imagined a different house for James, but the unspoiled beauty of the land, the meadow of native plants, the gently sloping hill that leads to the river, are all part of my story.

When I visit River Farm now I can see in my mind’s eye where different scenes from my story unfolded and I can imagine my characters living there, having adventures there, and falling in love there.

I do not know exactly how or why these people, places and elements came together in my mind and resulted in characters I love and a story I am proud of, but what I have written here is the best explanation I can offer. And every time my characters pray to God—to express thanks, to ask for help or guidance, to express fears or hopes or frustration, or happiness—I know that God is the reason I was able to create something out of nothing. I am not claiming divine inspiration or that God whispered into my ear or put words in my mouth or on my page. I cannot understand His mysterious workings and the intricacies of His plan. But I do know He gave me this life and a love of reading and writing as characteristics of the unique person He created me to be. Writing this story increased my confidence in my ability to make a contribution to the world and reminded me that I can do hard things at a time when I was full of doubts about my usefulness and my purpose. I do not know what the future holds for this story I have written, but God knows, and He will reveal His plans to me, just as He does to those who live and love at River Farm.

What about you? Who, or what, inspires you to write? Why do you write and what do you hope to gain from it? I’d love to know!

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