Archivist by day, writer by night

Karen Stokes, South Carolina Historical Society processing archivist and author, goes through donated papers in her office in the Fireproof Building.

By day, Karen Stokes digs through boxes of old diaries, letters and other papers.

At work in the Fireproof Building on Chalmers Street, Stokes, processing archivist at the South Carolina Historical Society, carefully arranges and files the contents of those boxes so people interested in the state’s history can easily find information.

“Some of these things have been up in someone’s attic for 100 years and most are not duplicated anywhere else,” she says.

Stokes, who is passionate about Confederate South Carolina history, has worked at the society for nearly 20 years. Occasionally, her days are spent transcribing the historical papers so the society can publish them in nonfiction books.

By night, Stokes reveals another side: She fires up her imagination to write historical fiction.

“There was great drama, passion and sacrifice and tragedy,” says Stokes. “In Abbeville, one woman received communication that her brother and two of her sons were dead on the same day. To me that’s very moving, I have cried while reading” some of the materials.

“When you read someone’s letters, you get to know them well. Most of my writing is inspired by letters,” says Stokes, author of “Belles, A Carolina Love Story,” from Ring of Fire Publishing in 2012.

She based the book on a collection of letters written by women of the Middleton family from the 1830s to the 1930s.

In the novel, Stokes focuses on Charlestonians who took refuge in Flat Rock, N.C., during the Siege of Charleston in the Civil War.

“They are made-up characters but real events. If you can make it an entertaining story, you teach history at the same time. I don’t think that period in South Carolina’s history is very well covered by fiction.”

Working as a processing archivist has given Stokes a sense of how people talked and the things that were important to them during the period she writes about. She changes the names of those inspiring her writings and some details.

Those familiar with Stokes’ work ethic say she’s very good at what she does.

“In terms of processing archivists, she’s the best I’ve met,” says W. Eric Emerson, director of the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and former executive director of the historical society.

“To process 18th-century and 19th-century documents, you have to have an eye for detail.”

Not only does Stokes have the perfect temperament for her archivist job, she has the ability to recognize characters and stories that can be applied to her fiction writing, Emerson says.

“I’m just the narrator, the storyteller,” Stokes says. “I guess I have my own style and dialogue but the conversations are based on letters and actual things found here.”

One of her books, “The Immortal 600: Surviving Civil War Charleston and Savannah,” was published by the History Press this year.

It focuses on 600 Confederate officers, prisoners of war, who were transported from a camp in Delaware to Morris Island in 1864. The men were situated between Union forts and Confederate fire during the Siege of Charleston.

“My (main) character is a Charlestonian and very much attached to Charleston,” says Stokes. “I can imagine how he and the other men felt seeing the shells go into Charleston each night.”

She also has written a manuscript set in the South Carolina Midlands.

“I am writing about the area Sherman came through where they were pretty much reduced to poverty,” she says.

“It’s about a man who comes home from war to find that his plantation has not been burned. He assumes his father died a natural death and is devastated to learn he was murdered.”

And right now she’s working on a book geared toward young adults.

“It’s sort of a novelette. It’s a first-person narrative by a 17-year-old girl whose father, impoverished by the war, moves to a farm on Charleston Neck. She sees a ghost who wears grey.”

The story focuses on finding out who the ghost is.

“I write episodically,” says Stokes, who majored in English in college. “I write the way a woman puts together a quilt. I might do the 14th chapter first.

“I write it out long hand. Then, I edit as I type. I try to be as authentic as I know how to be, but also entertaining.”

Reach Wevonneda Minis at 937-5705.