In yesterday's blog, I started to describe the epiphany that made me discard 35,000 words and start over with writing The Road to Frogmore. First came the answers to some vital questions:
A: Laura Matilda Towne is a thirty-something, single, Unitarian, Abolitionist medical student in Philadelphia.
Q: What is her goal?
A: To prove the validity of the abolitionist belief -- that if slavery is abolished, the former slaves can become loyal and productive citizens of the United States -- by joining a band of teachers and missionaries known as the Gideonites.
Q: What obstacles (adversaries) stand in her way?
A. Her loyalty to family, unfinished medical studies, lack of governmental support for the idea of emancipation, and the multiple dangers of South Carolina in the middle of the Civil War, among others.
Q:What's my "elevator pitch"?
A: Laura Towne abandons family, friends and career plans to travel to South Carolina in the middle of the Civil War to help prove that freed slaves can become loyal and productive citizens.
Next came a close scrutiny of my cast of characters. And here's where I had to launch into mayhem and murderous rampage. When I listed all the names of real people with whom Laura came in contact during her first years in South Carolina, there turned out to be hundreds of them -- and most of those had to go.
I examined both individuals and groups, always asking the same question: Did this person help or hinder Laura in a significant way? If the answer was yes, the character stayed. But if I could not make a case for individuals as "significant", I killed their characters, no matter how fascinating their personal stories seemed.
Here are some of my victims:
1.The members of the Roundhead Regiment, including Nellie Chase and her small family of ex-slaves. True, they were in Beaufort when Laura arrived. They met on several occasions. Laura and Nellie had a few similar slave encounters. But there is no evidence that Laura was influenced by Nellie and company. That they reached somewhat similar conclusions speaks only to the validity of those conclusions. Although I have had readers of A Scratch with the Rebels and Beyond All Price ask for more, these characters have already had their moments in the sun. This new book is not their story.
2. Robert Smalls. The out-take of his chapter just appeared on my other blog. His is a wonderful life story. He has a connection with Laura's group of Gideonites because his wife and children live at Coffin Point, the plantation run by Edward Philbrick. Laura visited often, bringing medical care to the freedmen there, and when Smalls pulled off his great act of derring-do, I'm sure Laura was among those who cheered him. But while others of the Gideonites hustled Smalls off to Washington to show that a slave could do great things for the country, his accomplishments had no permanent effect on Laura or the children in Laura's classroom. This is not his story, either.
3. Harriet Tubman. Who hasn't heard of this plucky little slave woman from Maryland, who led escaped slaves along the Underground Railroad, penetrated Confederate lines to spy for the United States, and led a raid into the interior of South Carolina to rescue slaves and bring them to safety in the Low Country? Laura knew her and admired her. Harriet certainly made an impact on St. Helena Island when she turned up leading over 700 newly freed slaves, hoping that someone would house them, feed them, and teach them what they needed to know. But did her actions influence Laura and her ability to achieve her goal? Not really. Harriet Tubman deserves her own books. This is not one of them.
4. The Gideonites themselves. What a fascinating group of people these are! A total of 73 people traveled to South Carolina in the spring of 1862, all determined in one way or another to prove the rightness of the abolitionist cause. They are socialites and sheltered spinsters, old and young, teachers, ministers, lawyers, philanthropists, and failed businessmen. And every one of them has a back story that explains why they gave up everything to risk this venture. How can I ignore the spiritual leader of the group who finds himself on trial as a kleptomaniac? The opera singer with seven children who writes such lurid prose that she can almost be classified as a pornographer? The cotton agent who beats one of the other Gideonites to a battered and bloody wreck? The wealthy socialite who cannot lower herself to do actual work of any kind? The free black woman who confounds everyone who sees a clear color separation between teachers and students by being both teacher and black?
The Gideonites as a group are worthy of study, and and as individuals their stories make great reading. Once again, my reasons for choosing to feature some of them and ignore others depends on the impact they have on Laura and her goal. If they play a crucial role in the plot, they stay. If they go home early or have little or no thing to contribute to the main story, they get reduced to the status of bit player or go away entirely.
5. The former slaves themselves. There are hundreds of them, and without them, Laura's reason for being disappears. Each of them has a tale to tell, as Austa the Pornographer discovered. But to focus on each one of them would be impossible. Instead, I have chosen to let one strong woman, Rina the Laundress, speak for all of them. Rina is present for the whole story. She will comment on events and tell the stories that the others cannot pass on. Think of her as a one-woman black chorus, speaking for all of those who were once enslaved.