You can't figure out how to get to where you're going until you know where you're starting from. That may sound like a formula for a travel column, but it applies equally well to the design of a book. It also applies equally to the writer and to the reader. It's called establishing a point of view. If the writer has not decided on a point of view, the resulting book will wander around from character to character without focus. And if the reader cannot recognize the point of view, the story will make little sense.
There are actually five points of view from which to choose:
I've been hung up over this kind of decision for weeks. When I wrote my 50,000 words of "Gideon's Ladies" for National Novel Writing Month" (NaNoWriMo), I just typed away, without ever considering point of view. The result was a mishmash. Each day's output had a slightly different focus, and a second reading revealed that I had no idea where I was going.
The story of the Port Royal missionaries is, of course, a mishmash in itself. People come and go. Leadership changes. The events of the Civil War impinge on what is happening in the Low Country with unexpected results. The missionaries become involved in one dispute after another, and their alliances change with every change in the political winds that blow through their affairs.
I began to understand the magnitude of the problem when I tried to use Randy Ingermanson's "Snowflake Pro" software to outline my novel. It's a 10-step program, and I only made it to step two before I knew I was lost. Step Two asked for a one-paragraph synopsis of the story: the set-up, the disasters that occur, and the ending. Sounds simple, right? Hah!
Story takes place in South Carolina during the Civil War. OK. That's the set-up. So far, so good.
Now for disasters. Those we have in abundance. Storms, raids, murders, boll weevils, smallpox, yellow fever, vandalism, fistfights, searing heat, killing frosts, hangings, invasions, battles, conflicting laws, drownings — the list just goes on and on.
But whose disasters are they? An emancipation proclamation is a disaster for a cotton agent who sees his workers walk off the job to celebrate their freedom. A threat of invasion is a disaster for the missionaries whose sponsors call them home, but it's a victory for the plantation owner who sees the slave schools close and his field hands come back to work. The failure of a cotton crop because of worm infestation is a disaster for the cotton farmer but a blessing for the field hand who can now devote full time to the crops that will feed his family through the winter. The missionary-teachers celebrate the firing of a corrupt cotton agent, who must return home in disgrace. The cotton agents smile when they see a prominent minister recalled for lining his own pockets with money that should have gone to the plantations. It all depends on point of view.
I began to find my way when I started asking the right questions. Whose story is this? Who is most affected by the events? Who has the most to lose? Tomorrow, I'll try to explain the factors that went into my final decision on Point of View.