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:
Q: Who is the main character?
A: Laura Matilda Towne is a thirty-something, single, Unitarian, Abolitionist medical student in Philadelphia.
Q: What is her goal?
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?
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"?
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
And that's how these cast-offs ended up in a book of their own!