I have a collection of old newspapers that were published in the places where my stories are set. It’s surprisingly inexpensive to buy (for example) an issue of an Albany or a Boston paper from the year 1814, and they are almost always in very good shape — pages intact, if somewhat fragile.
My favorites are the advertisments, for the hundred different kinds of information they provide. The beginning of Lake in the Clouds uses my recasting of a couple dozen such ads in an attempt to set the stage for various storylines in that novel.
This is an ad from a Canadian paper dated 1786 (there was slavery all over the continent, something many people don’t realize) offering a reward for the return of a runaway. The details of clothing the young man was wearing are very useful to me when I’m trying to get a feel for a place and time. Such ads also make the facts of slavery much more vivid and undeniable.
One thing I like to do is to set up little mini-plots that span all the novels, and exist solely within newspaper references. The Mathers brothers and their marital woes are one such plot. This mention from Lake in the Clouds:
HEREBY BE IT KNOWN that Meg Mather, lawful wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her husband in the company of a Frenchman known as Andre Seville. She took with her the subscriber’s infant son, a French Negro slave girl called Marie, and a mantel clock. A reward will be paid for return of the boy, the slave, and the clock, but a husband so maligned by such shameless and sinful behavior is glad to be free, and will give no reward, nor will he allow the wanton back into his home. He therefore warns all persons from trusting her on his account. He will pay no debts of her contracting. Jonah Mathers, Butcher. Boston Post Road.
And from Into the Wilderness:
“Lydia Mathers,” Elizabeth read,
the wife of the subscriber, has eloped from her lawful husband in the company of one Harrison Beauchamp, known gadabout and suspected thief, taking with her a good pewter jug, twenty pound in coin, three silver spoons, a snuff box, the slave girl Eliza and her husband’s good underclothes. By this notice her much injured husband thinks it prudent to forewarn all persons from trusting her on his account, being determined, after such flagrant proof of her bad behavior, to pay no debts of her contracting. I treated her well.
Thy-Will-Be-Done Mathers of Canajoharee.
The Mathers continue in the same vein in Thunder at Twilight. I keep wondering if one of them will show himself more directly, but so far neither Thy-Will-Be-Done nor Jonah has come around a corner to surprise me in mid scene.
L’Île de Lamantines
Working on the setting for the first three chapters of the new novel, along with bits of dialog and description and an overall plan. Coming together slowly. When a lot of action is dependent on geography I usually do some close sketches to keep myself oriented as I write. This is the rough sketch for the fictional island in the Antilles that I’ve been working with. It’s called L’Île de Lamantines, or Island of the Manatees (click to expand, but be warned, the full sized graphic is big).
I add to the notes on the sheet as I come across details in my reading. When I’m finally finished with this it will be quite crowded with text.
… that’s the wrong term. There’s a period when the story is coalescing, coming together in strange ways in my head. I think about details and snippets of dialog and ask myself questions: what is it Hannah wants here? why is this character so persistant? what does the air smell like just now?
I keep myself busy with research and reading, reading, reading (a study on the history of the British army called Redcoat just now). Making notes to myself, and losing them and spending an hour looking for the notes and then starting all over anyway. Studying maps. Maps are great for helping the process along (for me personally).
Somebody asked on the discussion board at Yahoo whether or not plot comes first, or how that works. I can only answer for myself, and here it is: yes and no. I have the greater historical framework to pay attention to, and that is a kind of mega-plot I can’t change. Or not much, anyway. From there, it’s a fairly organic process for me. I have an overall knowledge of what’s going to happen (at least, I think I do; sometimes big things change half way through because a character just refuses to go along with what I had planned). While my conscious is busy thinking things through (okay, in this next chapter Jennet will have to…) my subconscious is getting up to tricks, and will spring surprises on me at the oddest moments. While I was writing Into the Wilderness I had no idea that Julian had seduced Kitty until she came around the corner in the middle of the night and ran into Elizabeth. Then it made perfect sense. Julian was a healthy male without female companionship and with a terrible habit of acting out on his worst impulses, what else was he going to do? That’s the way my plots develop: by hook and crook.
Just now the whole fifth book is simmering, and I’m jumpy and will remain jumpy until i get the first chapter nailed down. Gabriel García Márquez (One Hundred Years of Solitutude) once said that it takes him forever to write the first sentence, and everything flows once he’s got that down. For me it’s a whole chapter. I have thirty pages written that I will rewrite and rewrite until I’m comfortable that I know the setting and the characters and where they’re headed (at least at first).
If you know Márquez’s work or any of the authors who are known for magical realism, you might notice that I actually lean towards such things myself once in a while, in a small way. Think of Treenie.