How did all these interesting people get "left by the side of the road?" Blame it on the author who was still learning how to write creative (or fictional) biography.
I really thought I was prepared to write Nellie Chase's story. After all, I had been reading about the Roundheads for 25 years. But when I tried to check some of the facts of Nellie's life, I hit a major snag. There were some 174 women named Nellie Chase, or some derivative thereof, who had been born in the 1830s in Maine and who were still alive during the Civil War. Which one was the one I wanted to write about?
Eventually I was able to narrow my choices down to two individuals. One was born near Bangor, grew up in a family of boys, disappeared from the records in 1860, re-emerged in Nashville in 1864, married a man in Tennessee, settled in Kentucky, and then disappeared again, this time for good. The other was born in Saco, Maine, in a family with one sister, disappeared from the records in 1860, re-emerged in Baltimore at the end of the war, married a well-known lawyer from Saco, and returned to her hometown to live out her life with a large and happy family whose lives I could trace well into the twentieth century. With little else to guide me, I had to make a choice, and I gambled on the Nellie from Saco.
Originally I had intended to have Nellie narrate her story herself, interspersing her own reflections with third-person chapters that she was writing for her granddaughter's benefit. Those interludes were some of my favorite pieces of writing because they seemed to capture the character's innermost thoughts. They worked well until I learned that Nellie had never had a granddaughter, or even any children. There went my entire structure for the novel. I had to start over.
The firsst section of "Left by the Side of the Road" contains several of the first-person interludes that represent Nellie's thoughts at various early stages of the novel. Five chapters that represent the alternative ending that I discarded in deference to the facts follow them.
You'd think I would learn that lesson, wouldn't you? But, no, it happened again. In 2011, I realized that my new book, The Road to Frogmore, was giving me trouble. I knew there was something wrong with it, but I couldn't figure out what it was.
The story of the Gideonite missionaries and the Port Royal Experiment had no lack of colorful characters. It's full of fascinating people. It had all kinds of exotic scenery—swamps, pluff mud, tropical vegetation, glorious sunrises, sandy ocean beaches. It had drama—a background of America's Civil War, heroic acts of bravery, enormous pain and suffering, and a life-changing struggle for freedom. Why, then, couldn't I make any progress with the book? The story was simply too big to handle.
But, oh, how hard it was to cut out all those great tidbits. I had what amounted to half a book already written — some 50,000 words I had created during the past year's National Novel Writing Month. The chapters were just sitting there, waiting, but I couldn't tell where they were going next. A couple of weeks later, I started cutting hunks out of those chapters. I got rid of the unnecessary characters, but they continued to haunt me. And what was I to do with the corpses? Their chapters ended up as section two of "Left by the Side of the Road."
And still i had lost characters. In section three, you'll find important Civil War figures whose wonderful stories kept cropping up in my first three books, only to be left behind again. Gideonite Solomon Peck was invited to preach to the Roundheads. General Hunter's attempt to free the abandoned slaves had repercussions at the Leverett House as well as on St. Helena Island. The theft of a Confederate boat by local slave Robert Small delighted both groups. And eventually the first Beaufort experiments at inducting former slaves into the Union Army resulted in the formation of several black regiments at Port Royal. And in turn those black regiments brought such pivotal people such as Lottie Forten and Harriet Tubman into the wider picture. Their stories are here, too.
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