Michael Morris told a small crowd gathered at the FoxTale Book Shoppe earlier this month, “The line between real history and the made-up world gets messy sometimes.” He learned this lesson during the year and a half that he spent researching and writing his first work of historical fiction, Man in the Blue Moon.
Michael says the book is a gift to–and in many ways from–his grandfather. In the last years of his life, Michael’s grandfather lost his eyesight and his mobility, but never parted with his gift of storytelling.
“He was such a good storyteller,” Michael remembered. “You might get him to tell the story two or three times to weed out fact from fiction. But one of his stories never changed.”
Michael’s grandfather grew up in the small community of Early, in the Florida Panhandle. His great-grandfather ran a crossroads country store, and one day Michael’s grandfather and his brother went to Appalachicola to pick up a delivery that was arriving on a steamboat from Bainbridge, Georgia. When they returned and opened the lid of the crate, a man climbed out of the box.
The man shipped himself to Florida because he was running from a murder that claimed he did not commit. Although a court had exonerated him for the murder of his wife, he was hiding from his wife’s family, who had vowed to exact their own justice. Michael’s grandfather said the stranger stayed on their farm for three months until one day he just disappeared.
In Man in the Blue Moon, Ella Wallace is a former debutante and promising artist who married poorly. Her husband, a gambler and opium addict, has abandoned Ella and their three sons when the novel begins in 1918, leaving them to fight foreclosure on land that Ella’s father left her. Just like the true story, she and her sons go to Appalachicola to retrieve a parcel paid package from the fictional Blue Moon Clock Company; Ella thinks she can sell the clock and pay down her delinquent mortgage note. Instead of a clock, they discover a man on the run and quickly discover there’s more to him than his encroaching past.
Michael began his research by recording his grandfather on his 99th birthday. From this oral history, he immersed himself in research about life in the Florida Panhandle in the early 20th Century. He read books about the flu epidemic and women’s suffrage, two storylines that appear in Man in the Blue Moon. He made several research trips to Florida and wrote much of the manuscript at a friend’s home on St. George Island. But two resources that would greatly influence the novel arrived via serendipity.
The first arrived when Michael was on a research trip to Appalachicola. “I went to pick up some supplies at the Piggly Wiggly, and outside sitting at a card table was a woman selling a self-published collection of historical photographs of the town,” Michael said. “I bought it and that was so helpful to me. To actually think about scenes looking at those pictures. You never know what you’ll find at Piggly Wiggly.”
The next was a book entitled The Foxfire Book that Michael found in his grandfather’s belongings when they moved him into an assisted living facility. The book is a compilation of stories from a magazine called Foxfire that captured life in the Appalachian Mountains in the 1960s. Michael read that people in these mountain communities believed that certain people had the power to heal thrush, pull fire from bodies and stop bleeding. The idea was so compelling that Michael made Lanier Stillis, the man in the box, a North Georgia native with these healing abilities that eventually become his undoing.
Ann Hite, author of Ghost on Black Mountain, was in the audience for Michael’s reading at FoxTale. She nodded as Michael said Ann had given him her “seal of approval” for his depiction of life in North Georgia.
Michael finished the manuscript for Man in the Blue Moon shortly before his grandfather passed away last June at the age of 101. His grandfather knew about the manuscript before he died. However, he had no idea that one of the true stories from his childhood, captured on his grandson’s digital voice recorder, were part of a rich tapestry of real life events, rural mysticism and the haunting Florida landscape that live in this vibrant historical novel.