Keel boats & Jemima

I had a letter from Janet with a couple questions about the Wilderness novels:

I have really enjoyed all your books, However, there are a few points here and there that have puzzled me. First, in Endless Forest, I don\’t understand why Callie and Ethan think Jemima could possibly have a legal claim on the orchard. Didn’t she steal the deed and sell it off to that preacher? Callie bought it back and presumably has the documents to prove it, so she didn\’t inherit it from Nicholas. I would think that would put and end to all claims from Jemima. Any inheritance claims by her son would be on the money Jemima realized from the sale (presumably spent).

One more thing– in Queen of Swords, how could Nathaniel and Bears possibly get to New Orleans by river in only two months It would take them at least two weeks to get to Pittsburgh and about 12 weeks to get down the Ohio (contemporary accounts give that as the time by steamboat, much less keelboat). Add another few weeks to get down the Mississippi and that puts the journey at a minimum of four months.

It’s always interesting to get questions like this because my first reaction is to panic, and then, almost always, I figure it out and can stop panicking. 

First, regarding Jemima. She did indeed sell the orchard to the preacher. Then his nephew tried to assault Lily, and to keep the kid out of jail, he sold it back for a pittance. The town made a collection to make sure Callie would get it back.  

Maybe Jemima wouldn’t have succeeding in taking the orchard away from her daughter, but she could have made life miserable while she tried, and dragged it out as long as possible.  

Drawing by John Russell

The more interesting question is the travel time from Paradise to New Orleans. Generally how I research things like this is to consult travel diaries of the period as well as timetables — sometimes they are still available — from commercial transport companies.  I vaguely remember looking through material on traveling south on the Mississippi, but the details are hazy.  I’ll have to dig back through my notes to figure it out again.  I do remember some interesting trivia: a keelboat that traveled down the Mississippi to New Orleans was usually broken up for firewood, because there was no good way to get it back where it came from.

Here’s one short article on transport before steam.

Here’s a really interesting article about the Army’s reconstruction of Lewis and Clark’s travel by keelboat by John Russell

So again, I’m happy to answer questions. Sometime I’ll have to go through and tag the posts with questions that people ask about most. Ethan and Callie’s relationship is one of them. And then there was the unforgettable letter from Miss Middleton.

Of course, sometimes I do get things wrong. I’m only human. 

 

Sex

I had a very earnest email from Cynthia with a question that deserves an answer:

I am captivated by the life, struggles, and victories of the characters in your Into the Wilderness series. The one thing I find dissonant and disturbing is this intense and at times shocking elaborate sexual revelation. Being a Christian woman who discerns what to read by God’s directive moral command, it leaves me uncomfortable to say the least. Especially the homosexual endeavor in Lake in the Clouds. I know my option is to put down your books and not pick them back up, but there is a quality to your storytelling that I find enjoyable except for that. Why? include it at all. It seems to me it does not enhance your characters, and without it, these books are appropriate for women of all ages. Just curious.

One of the basic truths about storytelling and fiction, in my view of things,  is this: not every book is for every reader. There are well-written, important novels out there that don’t work for me personally.  I can have objections to a novel that are about style, or approach, or subject matter. Hundreds of critical review praising it to the heavens, thousands of five stars reviews by readers: if it doesn’t work for me, that’s something for me to wonder about and explore for myself. It’s not about the novel. For every novel I come across  I have to decide whether the novel is worth my time.

Cynthia is disturbed by sex scenes in my novels because, as she puts it, they are in conflict with her beliefs as a Christian.  

For me personally, religion is not an issue; my understanding of right and wrong is not founded in any scripture or any faith. I am what is generally called a Freethinker. Wikipedia has a good general definition:

Freethought (or “free thought”) is a philosophical viewpoint which holds that positions regarding truth should be formed on the basis of logic, reason, and rationalism, rather than authority, tradition, revelation, or other dogma. In particular, freethought is strongly tied with rejection of traditional religious belief. The cognitive application of freethought is known as “freethinking”, and practitioners of freethought are known as “freethinkers”.  The term first came into use in the 17th century in order to indicate people who inquired into the basis of traditional religious beliefs.

So I have to take religion out of Cynthia’s question and answer it from a different direction: is there any logical, rational reason to omit sex scenes from my novels?

My goal is to tell an engaging story with characters who are as close to life as I can make them. They may face unusual challenges, but in the end they deal with universal issues, things that are common to all of us: simple survival, connections and responsibilities and expectations in relationship to other people and to communities. What makes life worth living, in a more general way.  The way people relate to each other sexually is not a secondary or unimportant element of their lives.

If I write a sex scene, it is because I believe that the scene will contribute to the understanding of the characters.  I don’t write sex scenes to arouse the reader, to titillate or irritate or shock.  Some people enjoy erotica — and there is some beautifully written erotica out there to enjoy, if that interests you — but I don’t fall into that category. In an 800 page novel a handful of scenes that involve sex do not indicate an overwhelming preoccupation with that subject.  

So I write sex scenes for the same reason I write scenes where my characters argue, or laugh, or weep: to tell the whole story. I am sorry to lose a reader because his or her world view requires them to turn away, but I tell the best story I can, and leave this ultimate decision up to the individual. 

Techno Fail: Missing FAQ

I had a very long and detailed FAQ page at one point not so long ago, but as sometimes happens with a weblog this old and cantankerous, it seems to have crawled away to die in a hidey-hole somewhere.

Before you ask: yes, I have backups. But there are technological complications with plugins you really don’t care to hear about. The bottom line: in time I should be able to reconstruct most of the faq page — I did a little of that today. But it also occurs to me that I get a lot of questions and I haven’t added any to the faq page in yonks, as my Brit friends might say. Thus: if you have a moment to look at the sadly denuded FAQ Page, please take a minute to send a note with a question you’d like to see included. Or that you once saw here, but is now missing.

 

Frustration, Dissected

I have been pretty fortunate in my career as a novelist. Ten novels in, working on the eleventh, I have a lot of loyal and supportive readers. Not everybody loves every book, but it would be silly to expect that; there is no novel out there, no matter how beloved generally, that doesn’t have its detractors. People who find it boring, or activity dislike it for whatever reason.

Women's Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection.
Women’s Medical School, Philadelphia. 1900. Dissection: Getting to the heart of the problem.

When you’ve been writing novels for enough time, you know even before one hits the shelves which aspects might not go over well.  If you are writing a series with many dedicated followers and you kill off a major character, you must brace yourself for unhappy feedback from readers. Of course there are a lot of reasons to let a character go; it might have been exactly the right thing to do given the long-term plan for the series, but some readers will not forgive you. They will walk away. Nothing you can do about it. 

When I got past the 250,000 word mark on The Gilded Hour and was wrapping up, I knew that readers would be unhappy about the big cliffhanger. Unless I had the time (and the publisher was willing) for me to hang on another 100,000 words, the cliffhanger was unavoidable and, I hoped, evocative in a good way. 

The one thing I really wanted to do was to have a “first in a new series” label placed in a prominent spot on the cover. I thought this would help cushion the cliffhanger shock. It’s a point I argued  with my editor until I was hoarse, but the editorial higher ups said absolutely not. They were afraid that if it said “first in a new series” people would not buy it for that reason.  

As it turns out, my instincts were right. If it had been clear from the start that the novel was the first in a series, some people might not have bought it, but I think there would be less unhappiness out there than there is. Today I glanced at the Amazon reviews and the first five or so — the most recent — are pretty brutal. People absolutely disgusted with me because they have to wait to find out who did it.  People who loved the Wilderness novels, but find this newest book to be awful.

I’m not frustrated so much with the readers as I am with the publisher. Publishers truly think they have a better sense of what readers like and dislike, but any novelist who interacts with readers simply does know better. I’ve got close to twenty years worth of mail from readers — I would say less than three percent of it strongly negative — to draw on. For example:  The woman who read Dawn on a Distant Shore and then wrote to say that she had heard that most people only had one novel in them, and it seemed I was an example of that. She suggested I go back to my day job. Her tone was utterly polite and concerned, and I didn’t know whether or laugh or just give up. 

There are also a lot of really positive and encouraging reviews, which is what I need to concentrate on. And now I’ll go back to work and try to do just that.