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. 



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. 

Back to Scotland: Dawn on a Distant Shore

I had a comment from Liz to  my last post, asking about my decision to set part of Dawn on a Distant Shore in Scotland. It was a good question, but I think I need to answer it more fully. So here goes.

The reason I sent the Bonners to Scotland in Dawn on a Distant Shore is really quite simple or at least, it started out that way. I had this crazy idea that it would be funny if it turned out that Hawkeye was of high birth.

At the time I was in contact with Frederick Hogarth, an expert on heraldry and genealogy of the British Isles, and formerly the editor of Burke’s Peerage.  I asked his opinion on how I could pull off giving Hawkeye this backstory.

Mr. Hogarth is an incredibly generous person, and he went to huge amounts of trouble to show me how to handle this. He came up with the family crest and all the bits and pieces, provided me with the layout of Carryckcastle, including blueprints and sketches, and pretty much constructed a complicated  family tree. It was so interesting to work through all the details that I had a really good time pulling it all together. Now, if  he had told me there was no realistic way to structure the backstory, I would have let it go. But his enthusiasm and extraordinary support made it all possible.

After answering Liz’s question I asked myself  what had become of all the images and information that Mr. Hogarth provided.  His website (Baronage) is still in existance, but hasn’t been updated since 2007. I haven’t been able to find out what happened to him, sorry to say. 

But I can say with complete surprise that the information about Dawn on a Distant Shore posted in 2002  is still there. How’s that for a shock? Given the age of the Baronage website I’m reproducing some of that page here for posterity. It also gives me another opportunity to thank Mr. Hogarth and acknowledge his tremendous contribution to bringing the backstory together.

From the Baronage website, by its editor:

To produce plausible, fully-rounded characters an author will often compose substantial back-stories that shape their novels without actually appearing in them. In her best-selling series, of which the first titles were Into the Wilderness and Dawn on a Distant Shore, Sara Donati wove a hidden tale that created the fascinating situations in which her characters fought for their lives, but one of which readers are only dimly aware. The arms of one of her principal characters tell some of this story, and Miss Donati has kindly allowed us to publish it.

The introductory pages of the second book, Dawn on a Distant Shore, feature a family tree showing the descent of the 4th Earl of Carryck from the 5th Lord Scott of Carryckcastle, his great-great-grandfather killed in the service of Charles II, but the backstory begins several generations earlier with Sir Colin Campbell of Glenorchy. (In this summary the historic characters will be printed in red.) [Note: I have adjusted the colors to make the distinctions clearer.]

Glenorchy’s elder brother was the ancestor of the Earls and Dukes of Argyll, and his own eldest son was the ancestor of the Earls of Breadalbane. (He himself is recorded in history as one of the cleverest and most unprincipled rogues of his century, at a time when clever and unprincipled rogues were active everywhere.) From his third wife, Margaret Robertson, he had a daughter Margaret who married David Johnstone of Carryckcastle, from which marriage there was an only child, Catriona, and from his fourth wife he had a son, John Campbell of Auchreoch, who was killed at Flodden in 1513.

John Campbell of Auchreoch had a bastard son, John Campbell, who was badly wounded at Flodden, escaped, and was nursed back to health by a girl, mute from birth, Mary Scott, with whom he fell in love (as very sick patients tend to do). Her father also had been killed at Flodden and she was in the care of her great-uncle, Walter Scott of Ballerlaw, who, when he learned that the two wished to marry, settled his estate on them on condition that John Campbell took the name of Scott. (Such arrangements were  not then uncommon.)

Let us look at the heraldry so far.

Scott of Buccleuch,
the Chief of the Scotts
Scott of Ballerlaw,
a distinct branch from early times,
differenced by a buckle and a change
in the tincture of the bend’s charges
a break in the male bloodline
The idiosyncratic addition of the second buckle (above right) reminds us that the laws of heraldry as we interpret them today were not yet, in the early sixteenth century, set in concrete. The new John Scott of Ballerlaw remembers he was born a Campbell and seeks to be not quite a Scott. (This Campbell link is a critical factor in the story.)

The new Laird of Ballerlaw and his wife, Mary, have a son, Robert, who marries his first cousin once removed, the heiress Catriona Johnstone of Carryckcastle. Subsequently he is created Lord Scott of Carryckcastle by James V, and the following year he entails his lands on his successors in that title, which failing to his nearest heirs bearing the name of Campbell and of the blood of his paternal grandfather John Campbell of Auchreoch.

Let us now look at Catriona’s arms.

Johnstone of that Ilk ~ the undifferenced armsAn early branch makes the chief black, and another cadet line then makes the cushions silver.Johnstone of Carryckcastle ~ yet another cadet line replaces one cushion with a crescent.

 The eldest son of Robert Scott and Catriona, Robert, 2nd Lord Scott of Carryckcastle, quarters his mother’s arms ~ with Scott of Ballalaw in the 1st and 4th quarters, and Johnstone of Carryckcastle in the 2nd and 3rd quarters. He marries Jean Scott of Balweir; their son, the 3rd Lord, marries Flora Johnstone of Craigieburn; and their son, the 4th Lord, marries Mary Scott of Glenkerry, whose son, the 5th Lord begins the family tree printed in Sara Donati’s second book.

The 8th Lord, Roderick Scott, 3rd Earl of Carryck, marries Appalina Forbes, an heiress whose arms we shall next consider.

c-forbes  c-forbe1c-forbe2c-forbe4
Lord Forbes
Chief of Clan Forbes ~
the undifferenced arms
An early branch replaces a charge with another, a mullet for a bear’s head  A younger son later takes abordure argent for difference . . . . .. . . . .subsequently another cadet charging the border with red mullets. 

The marriage with Appalina brings into the family not only the Agardston estates, but also her father’s shipping fleet and her unmarried brothers’ fortune made from trading in the American colonies, both ingredients essential to the story. However, our interest is in the Forbes of Agardston arms which Alasdair Scott, the 4th Earl of Carryck and 9th Lord Scott of Carryckcastle, places in the 3rd quarter.

carryck-4.5The composition of the Earl of Carryck’s arms reflect the changes down the centuries and offer a good example of how many of the arms of our older families have developed. It should be noted that the 2nd and 3rd quarters are the arms brought in by heiresses, not just arms of families with which the Carryck lords have married.

So here you have it, Hawkeye’s genealogical backstory. This is what made the telling of the story in Scotland possible.


Whatever became of Will and Amanda Spencer?

Petzi asked a question I had been expecting to hear sooner or later. She wonders about Elizabeth’s cousin Amanda Spencer and her husband, William Spencer, Viscount Durbeyfield and what happened to them. The last time you saw the Spencers was in Lake in the Clouds; they lived in Manhattan with their son, Peter.

Handbill_advertising_a_petition_to_the_House_of_Commons_for_Parliamentary_ReformAmanda is the daughter of Elizabeth’s indefatigable Aunt Merriweather. She and Will relocated to New York city from England in large part because Will was implicated in the London Corresponding Society, a group that advocated reform on the French model.   If he had stayed in England he could have been arrested by the Crown on charges of high treason. Of course, that wasn’t quite threatening enough to keep Will out of England when his cousin needed him (Fire Along the Sky).

The Spencers lived just opposite Battery Park when the area was was home to the rich and fashionable.  Will was a couple years older than Elizabeth, and Amanda a few years younger.

Will and Amanda are, of course, long gone by 1883. Peter was born in 1795, and is no longer in Manhattan, if he’s alive at all.

 Sometimes I work out a full story line for a character, and sometimes I don’t. By not setting down a firm storyline I leave some room for plot development. So the answer to Petzi’s question is: I dunno. Not yet, at any rate.