Kelli Estes Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kelli Estes
Photo: Chad Estes

Kelli Estes

An interview with Kelli Estes

Kelli Estes discusses the background to her novel, Today We Go Home Again, which shines an illuminating light on history and the female soldiers who have served the USA from the Civil War to Afghanistan.

The main characters in Today We Go Home served in the military. Did you ever serve?

As a kid, I didn't think anyone in my family had ever served in the military, because it was never discussed. Only later did I learn that my father served in the National Guard. I grew up thinking that only boys served in the military, so it never crossed my mind as an option for me. But, even if I had wanted to serve, I would not have qualified, since I am totally blind in my left eye.

What inspired the story? How did you discover that women served in battle in the Civil War?

As I was searching for new story ideas, I did an online search for strong women in history and got a result of several names, three of which were women who disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. This was the first time I had ever heard that any women had been in battle during that war, and I was fascinated to read these women's stories. This led to books, articles, and anything else I could find on the subject, and it wasn't long before I knew I had to write about these brave women. One thing that really frustrated me in my research was learning that Victorian sensibilities twisted these women's service into something somehow shameful, and I knew I had to set the record straight. Also, right about the time I was discovering this history, I was following with great interest the political and social discussions about the changing policies regarding women in today's militaries, and I thought it would be interesting to see how a present-day female soldier might be impacted by learning about her Civil War sisters in arms and how their experiences were similar or dissimilar to her own.

What research did you do to bring this novel to life? Did you visit any Civil War sites?

Coming from a place of very little knowledge about the military, I had a steep learning curve. I read dozens of books about today's military, especially women in the military. I also read dozens of books about the Civil War and about a handful of books (all I could find) on women who fought in those battles. Once I knew Larkin would have served in Afghanistan and befriended an Afghan girl, I also read a number of books on women in Afghanistan. Clearly, I did a lot of reading! Oh, and I mustn't forget all the videos and documentaries I watched on Netflix and YouTube on various subjects having to do with the Civil War, the war in Afghanistan, and the U.S. military. Beyond that, my family and I took a weeklong trip to Tennessee, where we spent a day walking in the steps of my characters on the Shiloh Battlefield, as well as visiting other Civil War and antebellum sites around Nashville. I visited the Tennessee State Capitol building on the day before Thanksgiving (not smart planning on my part) to discover that the information desk was not staffed. Fortunately, the state troopers on duty were incredibly knowledgeable about the history of the building and were very helpful in answering my questions. Our day in Nashville also included a visit to the Tennessee State Museum and hours of wandering the streets with me trying to imagine it as it was in 1862. As for other research, I live in Woodinville, Washington, so the present-day setting did not pose too many challenges. Larkin's PTSD did, however, send me to more reading (books, articles, websites…). I was very lucky to find several people, including veterans, mentioned in the acknowledgments who were so generous with their time and knowledge and who answered all my random questions. I owe a lot to each of those individuals.

How long did it take you to write Today We Go Home?

It is sometimes difficult to quantify how long it takes to write a book because I spend so much time researching a vague plot or character idea before I ever put words to paper. I am also a plotter, which means the bulk of my research and story plotting is done before I ever type Chapter One. In general, I developed the idea for the story while concurrently doing research on the topics and themes for about one year. Writing the first draft took me four months, followed by roughly seven months of revisions and edits (with some breaks for holidays and travel). All together, that adds up to about two years.

How did you choose the settings: Woodinville, Washington; Stampers Creek, Indiana; and the movements of the 9th Indiana Infantry?

For me, setting is very important, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how the setting impacts the characters. Because this book was so research-heavy for me, I decided to set the present-day story in the town where I live: Woodinville, Washington. As for Stampers Creek, Indiana, I found the tiny town (which really isn't a town anymore) on my family tree many generations back, and I wanted to learn more about it. I make a point to follow my curiosity, and it always leads to fascinating discoveries. Because Emily came from Indiana, I looked up Indiana regiments and found that the 9th Indiana Infantry was the first regiment to leave for battle and they were present at the Battle of Shiloh, which clinched the deal for me.

Are there any other Civil War women you wish you could have fit into this story?

Oh boy, are there! Hundreds of them. First, there's Jennie Hodgers, who lived most of her life, even after the war, as Albert D. J. Cashier. She served three years in the 95th Illinois and was never discovered to be a woman until near the end of her long life while living in an old soldier's home. She was buried with full military honors, as a man. And then there's the unnamed woman with the 20th Army Corps who fought in the Battle of Stones River while five months pregnant who was only discovered when she gave birth in her tent four months later. Similarly, a corporal in a New Jersey regiment who had served in at least three significant battles became severely ill while on picket duty. After being carried by his officers to a nearby farmhouse, he gave birth to a baby boy.

I also mustn't forget the unidentified woman in the 29th Connecticut Infantry who gave birth in the trenches during the siege of Petersburg. Florena Budwin enlisted with her husband, and both were captured and sent to the gruesome Andersonville Prison, where her husband was killed by a guard. Revealing her true gender would have secured her release, but she kept her secret. When Union forces were advancing into Georgia, Confederate authorities moved some prisoners to Florence, South Carolina, Budwin among them. She kept her secret for a year until she fell gravely ill and the prison doctor discovered she was a woman. Although she was moved to a private room and given care, she died of pneumonia one month before all sick prisoners at Florence were paroled and sent north.

The story of a woman known only as Charlie really sets my imagination on fire. In May 1863, the New Orleans Daily Picayune reported that Charlie followed the man she loved into the 14th Iowa Infantry (although the newspaper may have recorded her regiment incorrectly). When she was discovered to be a woman and she realized she would be sent away from her lover, she took his revolver and shot herself in the heart on the parade ground.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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Today We Go Home jacket
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