"Roundheads and Ramblings"
What’s more fun than peeking into someone’s diary and
learning all their secrets? Well, how about an entire novel, written as diary
entries that chronicle the story of a marriage?
Henrietta’s Journal is a historical romance. Henrietta is a
20-year-old English girl, raised among the sheltering walls and dreaming spires
of Oxford. In 1832, her diary begins with the first day she meets Julien, a
handsome and wealthy cotton broker from Charleston, South Carolina. The two
could not be more unsuited to one another, but their attraction is immediate
and unbreakable. A whirlwind courtship, a hasty marriage, and a stormy journey
across the Atlantic-–and Henrietta finds herself in a strange new world. Charleston in the 1830s is an insular society
controlled by a small group of families who consider themselves a new
aristocracy of culture, wealth, and refinement. Their public buildings are
modeled on Greek and Roman styles. Their children receive classical educations.
They spend their days recreating the past, while relying on black slaves to do
the hard labor that makes such leisurely white lives possible. As a ruling
social class, they do not welcome outsiders.
Henrietta declares she will never be a slave-owner. Julien
replies by agreeing, because in South Carolina, a married woman is not allowed
to own property of any kind. Henrietta tries to hold onto her independence;
Julien and his father will not even allow her to choose the name of her
first-born child. Henrietta’s every word and action are noted down for
criticism and correction. Julien’s younger brother, a lecherous and vicious
drunk, is forgiven for any misdeeds because he is still young. She soon gets
the message. Men may do as they like. Women must do as they are told.
The book is a love story, but it also provides a revealing
look into the contradictions and injustices of the South in the years leading
up to the Civil War. The bonds between husband and wife are frequently tested
by their differing value systems. Henrietta soon finds that she has compromised her own beliefs in order to keep the peace
within her disapproving family. Then the principle of compromise takes on a
life of its own, leading her further and further into a world where
prostitution, rape, murder, opium addiction, and kidnapping are all excused as
The Amazon print version should be functional by the
When I’m getting ready to start writing a new book, I take
the time to find out what was going on during the historical period in
question. Normally I’m looking for wars,
major battles, presidential elections, economic crises, inventions, new laws—any
event that might change the lives of my characters. When my story is set in Charleston,
South Carolina or the Low Country between Charleston and Savannah, I check the
weather conditions, too. That’s a region prone to hurricanes, major temperature
fluctuations, insect infestations, earthquakes, and lethal epidemics.
This time, however, I was in for a surprise. I was getting
reading to write Henrietta’s Journa
set in Charleston in the 1830s, and I wanted to know if there had been any
hurricanes. The period turned out to be relatively quiet on the weather front.
Only a couple of tropical storms threatened, and those barely brushed the city.
I was not expecting to find two major astronomical events. They were both so
spectacular that I had to write them into my story. What caught me most off
guard was the realization that just as I would be getting ready to announce the
upcoming publication of this new book, two similar events would be
happening in South Carolina in 2017.
The first event was a massive storm of meteorities witnessed
all across the South on November 13, 1833. No mere meteor shower, this! People
were terrified, many declaring that the world was coming to an end as the
sparks seemed to be falling all around them. The occasion was the Leonid
Shower, which occurs in mid-November every thirty-three years. In 1833, the
earth’s orbit took it very close to the orbit of the comet Tempel-Tuttle and was said to have caused some 100,000
shooting stars per minute. Another legend says that the song “Stars Fell on
Alabama” was written to commemorate the event . And witnesses declared that this famous woodcut was an accurate depiction of what happened.
Now, in 2017, we are told that an even greater
meteor storm will fill the skies on Saturday, August 12. This one
comes from the Swift-Tuttle comet and is called a Perseid shower. Although
articles on the internet are claiming that it will be the brightest shower in
human history, its expected 300 shooting stars per hour cannot hope to rival
what Henrietta Ainesworth witnessed in 1833. Still if you want to get a feel
for what Henrietta’s experience was like, it wouldn’t hurt to look up at the
sky on Saturday night.
Stay tuned to hear about the second event.
I first met the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) folks back in 2011, when I was struggling with plans to write a biographical novel about the Yankee missionaries who went to South Carolina during the Civil War to serve a huge population of abandoned slaves. I had too many stories, too many characters, too many crises, and not nearly enough satisfactory conclusions.
The NaNoWriMo instructions were clear: just sit down and write. Quit thinking and over-thinking. That comes later. Just write, as quickly and as much as you can. Take the month of November--30 days--and write at least 1667 words every day. At the end of the month you'll have written 50,000 words. That's almost enough for a novel. If you complete the task, NaNoWriMo will reward your win by printing your completed manuscript in paperback format so you can see your work in print. Then you'll know where to go from there.
I took them at their word and worked myself into exhaustion for a month. I did it and the result was a 176-page book called "Gideon's Ladies." IT WAS AWFUL! But I learned. When I looked at my raw writing in print I saw every flaw. But I could also see where I had gone wrong and what I needed to do to correct it. So with an awful example before me, i started over, asked myself the right questions, and eventually published "The Road to Frogmore," a much improved version. (And by the way, CreateSpace still keeps that original manuscript in their listing of my works, although it is not available for sale.)
As my writing methods changed, so did NaNoWriMo. They added smaller versions of their contests in April and July, These "Camp" experiences were more like writing retreats. Authors joined others in cabins, where they were more or less matched with others writing the same sorts of materials. The program kept tract of each author's progress but added the combined word counts for each cabin. Cabin-mates could chat with each other, talk about writing problems, or ask for help. Writers were also allowed to set their own word-count goals, which took some of the pressure off.
After my first experience, I had decided that a November writing month was not for me. I had too many distractions that month--travel plans, Thanksgiving, meeting commitments. April and July suited me much better. I wrote a major portion of "Damned Yankee" in April 2013 and a finalizing section of Yankee Reconstructed in July 2015. But each time, I then swore off ever doing another NaNoWriMo marathon. I didn't need that kind of motivation any more, I told myself.
Flash forward to November 2016. My African-American genealogist friend decided to try NaNoWriMo for herself. Me? I was ready to start my next ambitious project--all on my own. And the results? My brilliant friend finished early with a blazing total of 74,450 words. Me? Well, as of today, after 130 days of planning, thinking, dreaming, and scribbling, I have written 11,525 words.
I'll save you the trouble of doing the math. That's 77 words a day. At this rate, I'll be working on this #$%^& book for 1559 more days, with a completion date scheduled for sometime in May, 2021. Clearly, I need to stop hating NaNoWriMo and get back in that regimen.
Yes, I'm committed--again! Starting April 1--and the irony of April Fool's Day is not lost on me!--I'll be showing up for Sasquatch Camp 2017--where we will pursue the impossible and hope to find some bright ideas. I've even ordered the camp shirt.
Alright, my faithful readers, it’s spring, or so the
weatherman, if not the calendar, says. And spring is a time for new beginnings.
I’ve changed the picture on my computer background (flowers, now, instead iof
snow}. Next Sunday we switch to Daylight Savings Time. Out in the yard, my
herbs are flourishing, and –unfortunately – so are the moles, who seem to have invited a whole new troop of tunnelers to explore my open areas. Trees are budding out,
Bradford pear trees are turning the landscape white, and there are sprigs of
green grass everywhere. I’m caught up on housework, and the kitchen is stocked
with prepared meals and Girl Scout cookies. (What’s not to love?)
What hasn’t changed? My writer’s block. My proclivity to
research just one more little area before actually putting any words on paper. That
same outline for a new book, which seems to be expanding its scope without yet
providing a a clear map of how I should go about writing it. I’ve been fiddling with it since last fall,
and if you took a peek at my Scrivener files, you’d find a complete outline
just ready to go. Except that it isn’t.
Recently, a couple of friends have asked whether I’m deep into writing
yet, and I’ve struggled to answer that. It simply hasn't sprouted yet.
The story bouncing around in my head is awfully complicated.
It covers a span of more than twenty years and contains multiple conflicts.
There’s a background of the Civil War, of course, but also a family drama, a
spy story based on historical fact, an international incident, a rape, fratricide,
a kidnapping, a hidden identity, and a backstory concealed in a diary written
in code. Its characters include a businessman turned pirate, two paralyzed
people (one by stroke, one by accident), an opium-addicted prostitute, an expatriate English woman born into the lesser nobility, a French family of slave-owners,
and a couple of visitors from my “Yankee” series. Just putting that list
together makes me tired. Sounds fascinating,
you say? Maybe so. But also a web so hopelessly tangled that I haven’t
been able to find a loose end to start with.
So here’s the new thought bouncing around in my
spring-inspired brain this morning. What if I’m not thinking of one book, but
two? First would come the early story—all pre-Civil War, all written in first-person—in
short, the diary of the expatriate English woman who is seeing antebellum America and learning about South
Carolina’s “peculiar institution” for the first time. The reader would meet
most of the characters mentioned above, but in their early years, before their
own lives deteriorate. The book would concentrate on the gradual alteration of
the main character as her childhood innocence gives way to acceptance of the
unthinkable, just as the idealism of the young Republic yields to seemingly
unsurmountable differences between North and South.
The second book would be set during the early years of the
Civil War. The reader would meet the
same characters but in a period during which each of them faces a new
challenge. This will be the book that handles the international incident, the
piracy and blockade-running, the collapse of “King Cotton,” the mystery surrounding the identity of one of the characters, and the fall-out from earlier scandals that everyone thought were
What think you? I’d
love to pick the brains of future readers.
In November 2009 I joined NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the first time. The NaNoWriMo goal is to produce 50,000 words in 30 days -- which amounts to 1667 words every day. The rules do not demand that anyone produce deathless prose. The goals are speed, creativity, allowing characters to develop, and ideas to flow. In November 2009, I produced 62,000 words in 28 days. I even got the certificate! But what was important was that many of those words ended up in my latest book, "Beyond All Price." Many of them didn't, of course, but I was off to a great start, and the motivation carried me right through to publication.
The NaNoWriMo process seemed easier in 2010. II was better able to just sit down and let the words flow. What was developing on my computer screen was by no means a finished product, but it served as a great base from which to build a real novel. I was getting a feel for the characters, and some of the individuals began to speak in their own voices, which is always a delightful turning point.
Now, I've done that, several times in fact. Technically I've won the darn challenge three times. But I finally had to admit that (1) 50,000 words is not long enough for a novel; (2) it is impossible for me to write without editing as I go along, partially because I can't type the letter “I” to save my soul; and (3) a story written without taking time to think about what you are writing doesn't turn out to be a very good story.
I have, however, learned a bit more about myself and about the writing process. Here are five rules I would now be willing to carve on a stone:
1. Don't start writing until you have some idea of where you're heading. These little daily chapters utterly fail to provide direction. An impartial reader can not tell who the important characters are, or what the book is all about.
2. Have a timeline. My events tend to be confusingly out of order.
3. Don't confuse "show and tell." My academic background reveals itself all too clearly when I fall into lecture mode. I thought I was writing conversations, but the result all too often sounds like a typical schoolmarm telling a class of students what they must know for the test. I wrote so quickly that I forgot to let my characters show what was going on through their words and actions.
4. Know your characters. Each one needs a distinct personality, recognizable in both their actions and in their speech patterns. If the reader can't tell the characters apart, the author has failed again.
5. Write because you have something important to say. The reader deserves to understand what is important about your story and why you care.
So I quit doing NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago -- swore I'd never do it again. And I haven't, except for a couple of summer camps where the goal was shorter. Still, when November rolls around, I get this irresistible urge to pound the keys. So here I go again, but this time I’m headed into a new novel with six months of preparation behind me. I have character sketches, a timeline, a complete chapter-by-chapter synopsis, and lots of notes on the accompanying history.
I'll keep you posted on progress. Cheerleaders welcome