Quick, what was the most devastating fire in American history?
If you answered the Great Chicago Fire that started on August 8, 1871, you’re wrong. It wasn’t even the most devastating fire that week. While the Great Chicago Fire was burning, an even more horrific fire was raging 250 miles to the north, around Peshtigo, Wisconsin.
I say “around” Peshtigo, because that fire destroyed several towns in an area of 2400 square miles. The Peshtigo fire was still burning four days after the Chicago fire was put out. It killed more than 1500 people, perhaps as many as 2500.
If you went to elementary school in Wisconsin where students study state history in the fourth grade, you may know about the Peshtigo Fire. Otherwise, the odds are good that you never heard of it until this moment. Most Americans haven’t.
Part of the reason is that the Chicago Fire destroyed a large chunk of one of America’s largest cities. And there was that charming story about the cow in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn. The Peshtigo Fire destroyed the telegraph lines that would have carried news of the conflagration to the rest of the world quickly, so it remains relatively unknown.
There’s a lesson here. No matter how big, important, or amazing some facts and incidents are, you won’t know about some of them until you do the hard work of finding them. Neither will most other people, including the ones who may choose to read your book.
The Peshtigo Principle for Authors
When you think you’ve got all the facts and all the good stories, look a little more. Work a little more. The facts and stories that will make your book distinctive may be out there, waiting for you to find them. When you think you’ve done your due diligence, take a deep breath and make one more call. Follow one more lead. Do one more search.
I learned about the Firestorm at Peshtigo from Denise Gess, one of the co-authors of the book by that name. Denise honed her storytelling skills as a fiction author and that makes the book an easy as well as a fascinating read.