Sometimes a character gets in a writer’s head and won’t let go until their story is told. Laurie Glenn Norris shares her own story of a three-decade journey researching and writing the novel, Found Drowned, based on the life of Mary Harney and the true, unsolved crime surrounding her death.
Q: What did you study at university?
A: My degree is in anthropology and history. I love doing research.
Q: When did you first hear about Mary Harney?
A: In 1995, I was working at the Cumberland County municipal office as a summer student. At the end of my desk were a few local history books written by local historical societies, and I took home The Lore of Cumberland. There I found “The Mary Harney Story,” written by Grace Trenholm, telling the story of this young girl who had gone out on a September evening to bring the cows in and never returned. People went to look for her but as time went by… Grace mentioned that a body turned up on PEI and also that the father was implicated. Something clicked inside my head, making me wonder, “Did that really happen?” I questioned if it might be more than a made-up story, if it had a kernel of truth in it.
Q: What did you do to find out more about Mary Harney?
A: While working as a summer student, I was doing title searches, spending a lot of time at the Cumberland County Museum going through newspaper reels. It was my chance to do my own research. Starting in September 1899, I looked at every newspaper from that year and back until I got back to 1877—and there she was. It was the September 15 item in the Patriot [newspaper in Charlottetown]. Once I had a date, I started going through other papers from the weeks before and the weeks after. I found the story and had a sequence, and from there, I had Mary. I read that her mother and father had been charged with murder, and I started to wonder—what went on in the Harney house in Rockley? I began to create these scenarios, and sentences and paragraphs formed in my head, and I tried to figure out what Mary would have looked like because I never came across any photographs.
Q: Why did you research everyone involved in the original investigation?
A: I wanted as many details as I could possibly get. I didn’t know what happened to Mary in that particular incident, but if I could know as much about the characters who really existed, maybe I could discover more about what might have happened. It helped to know the personality of the doctor and detective. I also felt I needed to know about the medical procedures and how detective’s work went at the time. Some of the characters actually existed, some I made up.
Q: What is it about Mary Harney that made you want to give her a life and a story?
A: One of the newspaper articles talked about someone describing her as “mentally clouded” and I thought, “That wasn’t Mary describing herself that way.” So who was? Was it a family member who had a stake in what happened? This young girl died, at 17 or 18 years of age, and her story was over, and I wanted to pay tribute to her in some way. There’s a good chance what I’ve written was far, far, far from what really occurred, but I wanted Mary Harney’s name to be known. My heart is with non-fiction, but I also love novels or short stories that are taken from true historical incidents.
Q: You had to make a choice about how to end Mary’s story. How did you decide what to do?
A: I went to a writing workshop, and we were asked to consider what if our story had a different ending. I hadn’t started writing Mary’s story so I thought, “What if I did something differently?” And that’s how the ending came about.
Q: It took you 25 years to see this story published. What was it like living with Mary all that time?
A: Not a day would go by that I wouldn’t think, even for two seconds, about Mary and what I had to do. Mary was always in my mind saying, “I haven’t done that yet” while I was going to grad school and getting married. There were long stretches when I didn’t write because I didn’t think I could do it, and there were parts I thought were too hard to write, to figure out. But I felt I had to tell this story. For me, Mary’s story ended too abruptly. I wanted to extend her life and make it more meaningful. She was a real person, not a foolish girl with a clouded mind. Grace Trenholm did a great thing, writing down that local history, because without that, Mary would have been forgotten unless someone went back to those old newspaper stories and thought they sounded interesting. ■