Tag Archives: novel

Finding New York in 1745

I thought that I would find tons of readily available material about 18th century Manhattan when researching for my latest book. I was wrong. I did not predict the depth and longevity of scarring left behind by the British occupation of New York during the revolution, nor did I fully grasp the minute repercussions of history being written by the winners.

I found plenty of material about Dutch-era Manhattan, as New Yorkers seem to love their Dutch history. The Dutch, after all, weren’t British. The internet boasts a plethora of maps, anecdotal stories, artwork, family history, architecture, etc. of the original colony. There is a fond collective memory of naive early days. Unless one is researching First Nations history, which is a very different story (note first paragraph, ironically).

The 17th century ends with the secession of Dutch power and most casual histories of New York give a nod in a paragraph or two acknowledging the colony was British before moving on.

The bulk of American history doesn’t start until the revolution does. Everything one might be curious about is well documented from that point on. I should not be surprised that American history starts with its inception—but it’s like there was nothing worth mentioning before 1776.

At first I grew very frustrated by the minimal resource materials available online. Then it occurred to me that if I couldn’t corroborate many of the details of my setting, then neither could many of my readers. Once I embraced this realization, I felt liberated to write whatever I wanted within the loose framework of what I had been able to research.

I was successful in finding a handful of contemporary maps, which I refer to often. I sometimes take walks in my imagination, inspired by annotations on the map of markets, palisades, ports and forts, churches and commons. (Note that the above map is from 1662.)

During the year 1741, just before my characters arrive in New York, a well-documented tragedy occurred which was not dissimilar to the witch trials of Salem. This time the hysteria developed following several arson incidents which were blamed on the swelling population of African slaves, who at that time made up 20% of New York. While this event is not directly referenced in my novel, the documentation around it reveals a fascinating glimpse into the cultural make-up of the city in that era.

My favourite research treasure (and one which I’ve been promising to dedicate a post to) has been a small collection of newspapers from the mid 1750’s that have been made available online. I suspect the interest in publishing these particular issues is the documentation of troop movements during the Seven Years War (known in the U.S. as the French and Indian War), but buried in the back pages are local news stories and a slew of advertising, all of which are priceless sources of information.

Apart from Maps and Newspapers, another favourite source of life at the time is a You-Tube channel published by a three-generation family of historical enactment suppliers, who in their own time re-enact recipes from the colonial era. They also publish question and answer videos for people who wish to make their reenactment experiences as true to history as possible, and some of the details have been invaluable.

Everything else in my novel is made up from my imagination. But my story is about two young people who fall in love, and that type of situation hasn’t changed much in thousands of years. So I think a little loose interpretation of history will be ok.

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Back on the Horse

I’ve finally wrapped up a tough work contract that absorbed all my time for the past ten weeks, with no more than a single day off in the past six. I knew going into the job that I would lose writing time, but I decided that the opportunity was worth the sacrifice given that the job was not expected to carry on for more than four or five weeks. Well, surprise—the work extended to more than double the expected duration.

Interesting thing about this particular film job: the period setting was identical to my novel-in-progress (England and the Colonies in the mid 18th century). The only difference was that the scripted colonial location took place in Virginia, whereas my novel unfolds in New York and Philadelphia. As an art director, I spent many hours neck-deep in research since part of my job is to match the look of the period. But while I took advantage of swimming in my own novel’s setting, I did not have the time to delve into my story.

How does one get back into a big story after such a long and intense break from the material? I always find the best way to get back into a project is to re-read the manuscript. The characters come to life and the story fills the mind again in a way that feels like getting into a freshly made bed. I’ve started tackling the 83,000 words I’ve put on the page to date. I’m enjoying the read, which is a good sign—and also see clearly where I need to do some re-structuring. Reading with fresh eyes is one unexpected advantage of having to take a break from a manuscript.

The timing of the end of my work contract lined up perfectly for taking part in NaNoWriMo again this year. I would have signed up if I were ready to start a new novel. However, I’m still working on an unfinished gap in the middle of the novel from last year. Instead, I’m doing “unofficial” NaNoWriMo. I’m writing every day, working to a word-count goal, and aiming to finish the middle of the book by the end of the month.

I’m finding it a challenge and suffering from immense blank page syndrome, but I’m glad to get back on the horse.

I’d be interested to hear how others deal with major interruptions in their work flow. Please feel free to share in the comments below.

 

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From a Flood to a Trickle.

I have to apologize to followers new and old for the gaps in posting.

I have been writing, but the minimal time I’ve had available of late has forced me to choose between working on the new novel or talking about the old novel. I have chosen the former.

Sales of Tempt the Ocean continue at a slow pace (very slow), but do continue. I confess I was thrilled when the earnings broke the two-digit milestone. Disheartening when compared to self–published authors who claim to make a living off their novels. I don’t know how they do it. I have to remind myself that it’s a mistake to compare my own progress to that of others.

One piece of advice I have: order a small number of printed copies to keep on hand. I never ordered a set of copies of my book to distribute by hand and that has been a mistake. I have since had people ask to buy a copy of my novel outright and have not been able to provide one. A colleague mentioned a book store in our neighbourhood that highlights local independent authors by selling copies directly, but again, I have none to sell. And when I had an opportunity to product-place my novel on screen this summer I had to pass it by since I did not have any copies to loan.

I have no news about making Tempt the Ocean available on other platforms outside Amazon.

I can say, however, that I managed to write a good 1400 words on labour day last week, and I’m plowing through a borrowed copy of A Storm of Swords so I can return it to the library in time. If I don’t have time to write at least I can read and post the occasional Tweet.

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Excerpt from Servitude (Work-in-Progress)

“Evaline, it is unfathomable that you should find every pattern in this shop objectionable,” said Eva’s mother.

Eva understood her mother’s point. The shop had no shortage of the latest silk patterns and new colours for the season. More birds and flowers and sea shells and butterflies than she could dream of festooned each set of new selections. Most of the fabrics met well with her approval, and stood above the items she already owned. But the beauty of the silks was not the problem.

“Maman, it is not the fabric which is objectionable,” replied Eva.

“I don’t want to hear it,” snapped Elizabeth, lowering her voice.

“Why don’t you pick something suitable,” Eva flung back at her. “This entire arrangement is for you and Papa’s interest. I have no say in it at all.”

Eva ducked out of the reach of her mother’s arm and ran out the door of the shop into the street. She shivered in the cold spring morning air, having left her overcoat inside the shop. She looked back at it through the glass, deciding whether the risk of its retrieval was worth more than her discomfort. She caught her mother’s glare fixed on her, and turned her back to the store. Why could her parents not have found a husband less horrific? Why in all of London was there not a handsome well-to-do gentleman willing to liberate her from this predicament and insist on making her his?

Eva could see her own breath as she exhaled. She rubbed the cold from her arms. In her distraction she missed an approaching couple who jostled her aside. Their rudeness interrupted her daydreams of marital rescue. Eva noted that back inside the shop her mother had decided to indeed take matters into her own hands and was poring over several new imports and a variety of laces.

Across the street, a crowd had gathered around a new print shop. Cartoon prints filled each window pane from the inside. Eva could hear gasps of surprise and loud chuckles from where she stood. She looked back at her warm cloak but decided that its retrieval would be an invitation to entrapment once again. She shivered and set out in the cold to have a look at what was so funny in the window across the street.

Eva was much smaller than most of the crowd—and not only because she was not yet a full adult. With two slight parents she had not much hope of ever being of average size. She attempted to squeeze through a break in the crowd, but a heavy, roughly dressed man beat her to it, shutting her out. Determined, she moved around the crowd to the other side of the print shop. The crowd swelled as greatly on this side, pushing her into an adjacent alley. This was too much for Eva, who despite a sheltered upbringing had spent enough time around her family’s various shops to know that alleys were the cesspools of dangerous vagrants.

Eva looked down the short stretch of covered cobblestone to see a hang-dog group of men strutting towards her. In the dim light of the alley, which opened up to another bright road at the far end, Eva could not make out more that their silhouettes. Still, she could see that most of the men appeared worn and broken, except for one of them who walked upright and strong with the pride of youth. Perhaps he was a son of a member of the gang, or perhaps he led them. Either way he would be the last one she’d want to face. As the group bore down on her, Eva didn’t know which way to turn. She froze in the mouth of the alley.

The men burst into the sunlight, their faces as frightening in daylight as her imagination had made them in the dark. They moved around her as if she were nothing more than an inconvenient post. The smell of sweat and coffee lingered in the air as they passed. Unlike the others, the young one stopped directly in front of her, only inches away and standing a full head above. Her heart fluttered against her closed throat. She forced her gaze up to meet his, across his half-open linen shirt, his bare chest which glistened with sweat, under his chin with its faintest fuzziest shadow of a future beard, finally reaching the barely familiar face of her long-lost Sam. Relief burst from her with such force that she threw herself into his arms.

“Sam!” she cried.

“Please don’t,” said Sam, peeling her arms off from around his waist. His voice was colder than the air.

Eva swallowed her flush and began to straighten out her skirts as a distraction. She shivered with the removal of his body warmth.

“Why don’t you have a cloak?” asked Sam. He sounded annoyed, as if her lack of warmth obligated him to take care of her, and this were the worst of outcomes.

“I do,” she defended. “But I left it in the shop with my mother. She’s purchasing a new outfit for me.”

Eva’s gaze stretched back down the other side of the street to the silk shop. She saw no sign of her mother, but knew there was not much time before Elizabeth expected her to return to have her measurements taken—she had changed so much lately. If her mother came out looking for her and found her talking to Sam…

“How nice for you,” groaned Sam, moving out into the sun to get passed her. “I guess you’re showing your appreciation by removing yourself from the process?”

“It’s not nice for me,” declared Eva. “She’s buying an outfit to flaunt me, like a fancy horse. They are marrying me to an old man!”

Eva’s voice cracked in its crescendo. She felt her eyes fill but choked back her tears. For whatever reason she suddenly needed Sam to understand what she was going through, and how desperate her situation really was.

“Help me, Sam,” she cried, grabbing his hand and holding it up against her face. His skin felt rough but warm against her cold cheek. A drop spilled over from the pool in her eyes and rolled down across the back of his hand. She kissed the tear away.

“What can I do?” asked Sam, snatching his hand away and rubbing it against his breaches. “What am I to you?”

“You’re my only true friend,” explained Eva.

“If that’s the truth, it is a sad one,” said Sam. He turned his back and started off in the direction his crew had gone. One of the men stood waiting for him, long down the street at the far corner.

“Wait!” called Eva. “Where can I find you?”

Sam’s back stiffened. When he turned back to her the anger in his eyes scared her.

“At the Parish where my mother and I receive our poor rations,” said Sam, before turning again and heading down the road. Sam’s tone hung heavy with finality. That he didn’t mention which Parish told her he had meant his statement as a warning to leave him alone, to let her know that he was destitute and out of her reach. His information was not an invitation to future acquaintance, but Eva stored the kernel of it away for future use. She had a vague idea where Sam and his mother might be living, or guessed at least that they would not be far from where her father had cut Sam’s widowed mother off from her livelihood and thrown her and Sam into the street.

Eva watched Sam walk away until he reached the far corner of the road. Once there the elder man waiting from his crew boxed Sam’s ear before the two of them carried on out of sight.

At the throes of another shiver, Eva shook off the incident and turned back to the silk shop. This time her mother was standing outside, a cold hard stare fixed on her daughter. Eva’s warm cloak hung over one arm, while in the other she carried a wrapped package of niceties from the shop. When Eva reached her mother’s spot across the street, her mother slapped her wrist.

“Did you get your fill of smut?” hissed her mother. At first Eva thought her mother had seen the entire exchange with Sam, but when her mother then wrapped Eva’s cloak around her cold shoulders, Eva realized her mother referred to the cartoons in the print shop windows. Had her mother seen Sam, she would have demonstrated no evidence of kindness.

My favourite was the caricature of the parents selling their daughter on an auction block, Eva wanted to say. But instead she chimed, “No, Maman, I couldn’t get close enough to the windows to see any.”

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NaNoWriMo Recap (Long Overdue!)

I started a short blog post a week after NaNoWriMo ended, ruminating on a post-partum writing-blitz funk I found myself in. I never finished the post, as the funk rolled into the holidays, followed by a scramble to prepare for a three-month contract away from home, and attempts to squeeze in some promotion for the published novel. I am shocked to return to the post only to discover I wrote the thing two months ago! So without further blah-blah-blah-ing, here are some reflections on my Nano experience.

I took November off to write—something I have never done before officially (unofficially I have refrained from actively seeking new contracts in the interests of spending time with words … but often to my detriment as the gnawing worry of lack of income undermines the ability to sit down and concentrate on a novel). This time I had the luxury of knowing I had work lined up at the end of the month. I treated the November novel month as a contract with myself, determined to write a minimum of four hours a day and aiming at six or eight.

I decided to write a story inspired by a visit to Annapolis several years ago when on visiting one of the historical houses I learned about indentured servants. I wondered what it might take to persuade someone to voluntarily put themselves in complete servitude in exchange for travel to the Americas. Could love be a motivator?

The week before writing officially began, I dedicated my time to putting together character studies and period research. I’ve set the novel in 1740, beginning in London, jumping to New York and Philadelphia, then back to London, over the course of five years. I did not intend to write another novel about crossing the Atlantic, but that seems to have happened. I would have liked to have had more time for research but I ended up working on my last contract right up to late October.

Nano encourages word count, with a winning participant culminating a total 50000 words over the 30 days of November. I managed an average 2500 per day, with my best day writing just shy of 6000 words. I tied the structure of the novel to the calendar days, knowing when I wanted to hit certain plot points. The most difficult points to achieve happened in the middle of the month, and with a week to go I jumped ahead to the third part of the novel. I wrote the final sentence on the last day of November, some time late afternoon or early evening, to great satisfaction. I finished with 74000 words down on (virtual) paper, and a giant hole in the middle of the story. The last sentence? [spoiler alert!]:

“Each of them basked in the promise of a future that neither of them had ever dreamed possible.”

I guess as much abuse as I put my characters through (I’ve learned I like to abuse my heroes), things turn out all right in the end.

My goal now is to fill that giant middle-of-the-story hole and edit the rest of the 74000 word manuscript. I intend to publish each of the three parts electronically through this year, and release a full print version at the end. I’ve been rereading the novel this week as a first step, and am happy to find myself fully engrossed.

Stay tuned next week for what I’m doing to create my “author platform.”

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