good questions

I’m going to answer all the questions y’all asked in response to yesterday’s post, but I’ll start with asdfg because I had to think about the answer for a while.

She wanted to know how I decide which characters will be upfront in book six, and if I’m bringing in new characters. It’s a good question because as everybody knows, I’m prone to overpopulating my imaginary worlds. Critics often shake a finger at me about this. It’s the most common criticism I get of Homestead, even.

I don’t know why my mind works this way. I have written short stories that have very few characters (there is a link to a set of three such stories in the right hand column) but my novels tend to be crowded. It’s not like I set out with the idea upfront in my mind. I start generally with anywhere from three to six major characters and things just evolve from there.

Take, for example, The Pajama Girls of Lambert Square. When the idea was first developing, I was sure of the two main characters (Julia and Dodge). Both of them have backstories, but in the early stages I wasn’t sure how many characters from those backstories would show up in the novel itself. I did know that the setting itself — a small upscale shopping/community center — would require quite a few characters, and I did sit down and think about who they were and how they fit into the story as a whole. It was this line of thought that brought me the secondary story line about Mayme and Nils (more about them below), and the tertiary story line about Lydia and Leo — which had to be cut because the novel was too long.

If I tried, I think I could do an approximate reconstruction of how the Wilderness novels expanded, character wise. I remember very clearly the moment at which  I realized I’d have to have a whole boat full of characters to follow through with the Scottish-family storyline. My emotions, as I remember them, were a combination of excitement and dread, because I knew it was going to be a lot of work.  Out of that crowd, Jennet hung on and spawned a couple story lines of her own.

So here’s my answer: it’s an organic process. The story evolves and characters spring up to people the story. If that makes any sense at all. Some characters are happy to fade into the background once their storylines are finished, but others won’t go away and demand more time with the readers. Jennet is an example of that, maybe the best example. She bugged me all the way through Lake in the Clouds about when she was going to get to come back (thus the letters she wrote to Hannah).

Now, for Book Six. The Bonners are in Paradise, all of them. The old-time residents of Paradise are there, the ones who haven’t died or moved away. And the new residents are there. I seeded this idea in the last novel by means of letters that mentioned Ethan’s determination to breathe life back into the village, and the challenges of finding families who would be willing to settle in a village on the edge of the wilderness where Mohawks and freed slaves were landowners and respected citizens. Because you know, I might be able to sell a couple families with progressive ideas like that (such people did exist) but I couldn’t sell that as a common thing. Most people back then, would have been shocked at the idea. Quakers, who were so forward thinking about emancipation and abolition, were the logical choice but even then I had to be really careful about romanticizing them as a group. Quakers could work hard toward abolition and still be prejudiced. There are documented cases of freed slaves being relegated to pews at the back of the meetinghouse, for example.

So in book six the only new characters are secondary ones, the newer settlers brought in by Ethan, all of them Quaker. There’s some, but not a great deal, of interaction with them. They are good neighbors but not friends, for the most part.

And that’s as much as I’m going to tell you about that, for now.

Tomorrow I’ll post a little to the question of favorite characters.  You might expect me to give the traditional parental response: I love all my children. But I won’t go that route, because in fiction, as in life, the question is far more complicated than who you love, and how much.

back to plot/story

As the basic conflicts that are going to drive book six evolve, I depend on a lot of visual cues to jog my imagination. Some of these are standards I’ve used for all the books (such as a map of the village of Paradise); some are photos of the setting, buildings, plants, animals. I especially like reading newspapers from the right month and year because that really puts me in the right mind to tell the story.

Every book is different than the one before, so I have to make changes and additions to my reference materials. A case in point is the village map.

You may remember that in Queen of Swords Hannah gets a letter from home that describes the changes in the village, all Ethan’s doing. He has recruited people to come and live in Paradise, farmers and craftspeople. And all of them are Quaker, because as Curiosity puts it, there’s not many people in this world would put up with our strange ways, but Quakers might could.

I’m not going to introduce ten or twenty new major characters, but you will see the new residents coming and going. And one family does have a major role to play. So I had to pay special attention to how they would fit into the village — or how they changed it. This involved a lot of mooning over the map, thinking about crops (corn, flax, vegetables), hunting, and the gradual shift in the economy from trade-based to currency based.

Mayfair's house
There are three people in the Mayfair family that will be involved in book six, and that required a lot more thought as well. These are well to do Quakers, very industrious. Mr. Mayfair bought out the trading post when Anna McGarrity died and Jed moved in with his daughter. The Mayfairs built a house like the one they had in Massachusetts and have set up their outbuildings, pastures and fields in a way that reminds Elizabeth of England.

If you click on this map, you’ll get the full size of the Paradise map as it currently exists. Except I’ve thrown in a few red herrings.

Paradise 1824If you think of plotting a novel as if it were conducted on a giant gameboard, you’d add three more markers for these three new characters. And once you’ve got them situated, you watch them move around. I know basically what’s happening with them and who/why they are interacting with, but that I’ll keep to myself.

television moratorium

This is what I’m doing on the fifth anniversary of the attacks: I’m refusing to watch anything on television that touches on the subject at all. No news, no talk shows, and absolutely no specials or so-called documentaries.

There are many things I admire about Quakers, but the one I’m borrowing just now has to do with silence and reflection. I prefer to spend some time today considering the families of the victims, how they’ve survived in spite of merciless media scrutiny and the contempt of people like Anne Coulter.

Here’s my question: do we really need to keep revisiting those images? My sense is that none of us who turned on the television that morning and watched things as they happened will ever forget what we saw. Going back to those pictures again and again strikes me as morbid. The worst kind of voyeurism.

Far more important, to me at least:

The way our government is busy overseas creating more generations of desperately poor and angry people. The kind who, driven to the wall we helped build, embrace extremism and violence.

The thousands and thousands of civilians who have died and will continue to die while we are busy imposing democracy on them. In order to save the village, we had to destroy it.

The thousands of young people we have sent to fight; the ones who come back in body bags and coffins. Those are images you don’t see, because the government doesn’t want you to.

The way this administration has dedicated itself to the steady chipping away of civil liberties.

These things that are happening. Right here. Right now.