Saturday, July 5, 2014

 
Writing Crossing the River
 
This coming January my novel Crossing the River and I will be spotlighted in a new authors’ internet magazine put out by PnPAuthors Promotions. (http://pnpauthorspattimariandpeter.ning.com/)  I was asked to provide something about how I became an author and how I develop characters and a story line.  What I provided, not entirely what was requested, is to be found below.  I hope you find it interesting.  – Harold Titus
 
 
 
Teaching English to eighth grade students ignited my love of literature and my desire to write.  This is not to say that previously I did not care to write.  I wrote a short story while I was a junior in high school.  I enjoyed doing historical research and the writing of lengthy term papers during my senior and graduate years in college.  I wrote fifty-some pages of what I envisioned would be a Civil War historical novel while I was in the Army.  I wrote several short stories very early during my teaching career.  Only after I retired from teaching, however, did I become serious enough to attempt to write to the best of my ability a full-length historical novel.
 
I wanted to combine my desire to dramatize universal truths about mankind with a singular event in American history.  That event, I decided, should be the series of deadly clashes that occurred April 19, 1775, between British soldiers and Massachusetts citizens along the main road between Concord and Charlestown.  Original and secondary sources abound with accounts of the experiences of ordinary people who volunteered or were forced to participate.  Because any complicated event is the composite result of the actions of many individuals, I focused my narration on the thoughts, emotions, ambitions, and conduct of many of the day’s participants.  Crossing the River is the end-product of my labors. 
 
Most of the novel’s characters were actual people.  In depicting them, I tried to limit myself to what I had discerned in their writing or what contemporaries or respected historians had disclosed about them.  For instance, Paul Revere wrote quite a bit about his “midnight ride,” his capture by the British, and his subsequent release.  Four junior British officers reported their experiences in personal journals.  Five or six individuals, about whom I knew little, I made fictional characters in order to personify observations I wanted to make about people, life, and war.  I changed their surnames and made certain that their stories did not alter the day’s historical facts.
 
It took me seventeen years, spaced around other activities of my life, to complete the novel.  Writing fiction isn’t easy.  I discovered I couldn’t just "turn it on."  There were moments when my brain was working and words and phrases came to me cooperatively but more often they did not.  About two hours a day at my computer was approximately the time I allotted myself because I knew staying at the task longer would be counterproductive.  I learned additionally not to review the next day what I had just written other then to correct conspicuous writing errors.  Serious revision needs to occur weeks, if not months, afterward.  Reading what you have written with fresh eyes (oh so humbling) is essential to good revision.  Crossing the River is the product of layers and layers of gritted-teeth modification.
 
I quickly learned my limitations.  Every original passage needed revision.  Frequently after five or six attempts to improve a scene or chapter, more often than not I found what I had written only slightly better.  Sometimes the remedy was not to revise but to delete.  Or, sometimes, on the seventh try, my mind would open up and the problem would be solved. 
 
Writing action scenes and dialogue is easier for me to do than communicating feelings and expressing abstractions.  Here is one of the most difficult paragraphs I wrote.
 
In his study one hour each afternoon, recalling past friendships, recreating personal and professional accomplishments, Thomas Gage warded off his anxieties.  Intermittently, he indulged in flight of fancy: Tom Gage, suave, virile lothario; Thomas Gage, vanquishing general/enlightened prime minister.  Revitalized, he returned to his duties primed to vanquish each new outrage directed upon his competency.  Once or twice every fourteen days or so his methodology of self-renewal failed him.  This afternoon his apprehensions and resentments had not receded.
 
I enjoy authors that offer incisive social commentary, create well-rounded, authentic characters, and demonstrate a strong command of language.  A component of the latter is the use of sensory detail.  I can’t tell you how many times I wrote in the margins of my students’ writing the words “show it!”  Students, and poor writers, summarize way too much what they wish to narrate.  To train my students to record with precise words what their eyes actually see of a particular event, I had them observe and record what unsuspecting students do when they are placed in stressful situations.  I wanted my writers to present sharp visual evidence of the observed person’s emotional state.  “Write what your eyes see, not what your mind interprets and generalizes,” I would say.  “Don’t give me ‘He was nervous’ or ‘I saw he was angry.’”

One of my students would bring from another classroom the selected victim, a stable person I had carefully chosen, a student who was self-confident, strong in character, and well regarded by his peers, an individual, I believed, who would consider his selection, after his ordeal had concluded, a compliment.

When the chosen one entered my room, I would feign anger.
 
“You keep writing while I’m busy with Jack!’ I would shout at the class.  “I don’t want to hear a sound out of any of you! Now’s not the time to get on my bad side!”

I would then turn to “Jack” or “Sarah,” who would already be exhibiting considerable apprehension.

“Jack, you know I keep a bag of Brach’s candy in my desk drawer, don’t you?”

Jack would respond, and several of my students would write down something about what he had just done with his hands or how specifically he had moved his feet.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you that question.”

Jack, answering or nodding, would present something else for my students to record.

“Well, here it is!” I would then glare at a student in one of the rear seats.  “Hensley, I told you I wanted no fooling around!  Right?!”  Hensley would answer.  “Noon detention!  Be here five minutes after the bell!” I would respond.

I would then confront Jack.  “I’ll get right to the point.  I was a bit surprised when one of my students told me he saw you looking into my desk drawer yesterday afternoon.  I checked it out and found a bunch of my candy missing.  I don’t want to jump to conclusions here.  I want the truth.”

Jack would say something, professing his innocence; and I would then surprise him by offering him several candies.  I would then tell him that he had been called into the room to be the subject of a writing assignment, that I had chosen him because he was a strong individual well-respected by his classmates, and that he was welcome to stay a few minutes to watch the next victim be interrogated and observed.  I would have several students read their visual detail observations.  I would suggest how some of their sentences could be tightened up and made more visual.  I would then send my messenger off to bring back the next victim.

I value writers that employ sharp sensory detail especially in scenes that use dialogue.  I recognize that a writer doesn’t have the time to observe and record in his mind, or even on paper, the many little things people do while they converse; but he or she should use precise sensory detail occasionally to convey both emotion and a sense of presence.  Good writers do.