Once upon a time, Northern Virginia wasn’t a rapidly growing region with traffic problems, home to the Department of National Security.
It was, however, a Confederate region of the Civil War, beleaguered by battles and at times overrun with Union soldiers.
Laura Elliott, an author from Great Falls, has chosen to base her third book, “Annie, Between the States,” in Manassas in 1861, creating a fictionalized account of one young girl’s struggle between her family’s devotion to the Virginia Cavalry and her growing compassion for the Union soldiers that come to her home for medical care.
“I had done a lot of reading on the Civil War and grew up in this area,” Elliott said. “The city of Warrenton changed hands 62 times during the war … Loudoun County was a way in and out of Virginia for troops who would go through the Potomac River.”
She decided to write a book about a young girl who was growing up in the middle of this difficult time, basing her lead character on historical figures native to the area.
“Antonia Ford lived in Fairfax City, which at the time was Fairfax Courthouse, and her house was used by Union troops,” Elliott said. “She would overhear the soldiers talking about things and would warn members of the Virginia Cavalry that she knew.”
This lead to complicated feelings and relationships for Antonia Ford, and also led to the development of Annie’s character.
“Annie is 15 and she’s young, she gets frightened,” she said of her protagonist. “She learns to be strong and comes to make good decisions about right and wrong despite the pressures of her surroundings,” Elliott said.
“I didn’t set out to write war stories, I just happen to know a lot of stories about that genre,” Elliott. “It took about two years to put together, but the research was so fascinating that I had a difficult time breaking away from it. There was a lot of travel in researching this book, tracing J.E.B. Stewart and John Mosby, so I had to make sure I had them in the right places.”
SHE READ over 20 books on the Confederate heroes and the war itself, “but once I had the details right, it went quickly. The hardest part is actually sitting down to write it,” having to take months of research and condense it for the storyline, she said.
This book, along with prior novels “Under a War-Torn Sky” and “Flying South,” are written for a young adult audience, namely middle school students.
“The great thing about writing for children is that they want to know the truth, but they want hope too,” she said. “They want to know that people can be better and can try to be better even amidst bad things.”
In order to keep her work accessible to both teenage girls and boys, she decided to write “Annie” under her initials, L.M. Elliott.
“Boys may have been a little less likely to read a book written by a woman about war,” said Ann Voss, librarian at Willow Springs Elementary School in Fairfax. “Boys might think it’d be too girly.”
Voss met Elliott when she spoke at a librarian’s conference in Fairfax County a few years ago.
“I have children that are very interested in reading her books,” Voss said. “I’ve recommended it to some of my reluctant readers and have never had anyone say it wasn’t good.”
Voss was given an early copy of “Annie” and she said she loved it. "I’ve read a lot of Civil War nonfiction and was amazed and pleased with all I learned about Jeb Stewart and Mosby in this book,” she said.
Learning how the Civil War affected people’s everyday lives was an appealing side of the story for Voss, not a native to Virginia herself. “It gives a better look because her family was right there at the crossroads,” she said.
“I was taken with Annie’s story, it was a wonderful read,” she said.
WHILE RESEARCHING the battlefield history of the region to make it accurate, Elliott met Jim Burgess, museum specialist with the National Park Service at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.
“She approached me and asked if I’d be willing to review her manuscripts,” Burgess said. “It needed tweaking, but I give her a lot of credit that she asked someone to help her and she incorporated a lot of my suggestions.”
He said that from what he read of the book, “the story is believable, it’s set in the right time and place and it strikes me as being taken from real life.”
“I think that a novel like this could inspire people to come tour Virginia,” he said. “I think it would even appeal to people beyond our boarders.”
Before deciding to become a novelist, Elliott worked for 17 years at the Washingtonian magazine. Her editor, Jack Limpert, said he was surprised when she decided “to leave a paying job to enter the world of fiction.”
“It always surprises me,” he said with a laugh. “We miss her a lot, she’s very smart and a good writer.”
He describes her writing as “very accessible, very clear. Writing for young adults, she probably makes things a little simpler. When she writes, it’s wonderful to read but not that much different from Ernest Hemingway, clear, basic English.”
“Any time you can make history a living thing, it’s better for kids,” Elliott said. “I’m really excited for the book to come out because of the years I’ve spent working on it, telling the female side of serving in this war.”
“Annie, Between the States” will be available in most bookstores after Oct. 26 and can be pre-ordered at Amazon.com.