Saturday, February 28, 2015

Writing "Alsoomse and Wanchese" -- Introduction

One reason that I retired from teaching at the age of 56 was to take advantage of my school district’s generous early retirement package.   If I were to provide my school a specific number of hours of curriculum development during the first five years of my retirement, I would receive during those years additional retirement compensation.  One of the projects I undertook was to write a somewhat novelized account of England’s first attempt to establish a colony on America’s Atlantic coastline.   I refer to the colonial settlement of Roanoke, Walter Raleigh’s endeavor to establish a base that would serve two purposes: raid Spanish treasure ships passing through the Caribbean islands and discover, extract, and export to England gold, silver, and other valuable natural resources.

My “novel” was about 150 pages long.  It was essentially a work of non-fiction whose people thought, spoke, and acted.  Years later, after my Revolutionary War novel Crossing the River was published (2011), I reread my Roanoke manuscript to assess its flaws and decide whether I wanted to revise it.

I was disturbed that I had committed probably the worst of a novice writer’s sins.  My narration summarized (told) too much; it did not demonstrate (show) enough.  Here is an example. 

            The watch had alerted Arthur Barlowe of the sighting of Indians.  Yes, he saw them, three, standing by a canoe that they had beached on the island near where Barlowe's ship and that of Philip Amadas had anchored two days before.  They were staring back at him.  Unabashedly.  As though inviting him to communicate. 

Barlowe decided to initiate Walter Raleigh's other instructions.

            He had not yet found in the great sound of water that Verrazzano had called the "Inland Sea" an island that they could easily defend.  He and Amadas had left Plymouth April 27, 1584, piloted by Simon Ferdinando, the same Portuguese seaman that had explored Norambega for Humphrey Gilbert five years earlier.  The two ships had picked up the trade winds at the Canary Islands, arrived at Puerto Rico in the Caribbean to take on fresh water, avoided the Caribs on Guadeloupe, entered the Gulf Stream off Cuba, and sighted the Carolina banks between Cape Fear and Cape Lookout July 4.

            For nine days Ferdinando had searched for an inlet before finding one with scarcely twelve feet of water at high tide.  Subsequently, the two ships had entered Pamlico Sound and anchored off Hatarask Island.

            Barlowe, Amadas, and Ferdinando had immediately rowed ashore, and Barlowe had declared possession of the land in the name of the Queen.  Almost immediately he had noticed the profuse growth of wild summer grape, dominating the low, sandy terrain, reaching to the very edge of the water.  He believed this to be an important economic discovery; for Englishmen drank great quantities of wine, imported mostly from Spain.  Here was a land that benefited from, he suspected, a warm Mediterranean climate.  Additionally, there were trees, lots of trees: cedar, pine, cypress, sassafras, and tupelo.  For shipbuilding.   For excellent furniture, perhaps.

            On their second day of discovery one of Barlowe's men had fired his arquebus at a flock of cranes.  Huge flocks had ascended like an undulating wave, issuing an echoing cry, like an army of men shouting all together, Barlowe had thought.  If the savages are not already aware of our presence, that sound will inform them! he had thought.  He was encouraged to see their quick willingness to bear witness.

Another flaw was that I had focused almost entirely on English characters.  The few native characters that appear in the manuscript are one dimensional.  What were their fears, aspirations, internal conflicts? I asked myself.  It was as though I had considered these natives superfluous.  The characters in the excerpt below are essentially bodies with names.  My purpose here was to provide important historical information through the use of dialogue.  Conspicuously lacking is individuality of character.  The scene is, succinctly stated, an information dump. 

           “The white men are not gods,” Wanchese repeated.

            Several of Wingina’s advisors nodded agreement.

            “I believe they are men of an old generation many years ago,” Granganimeo responded, “dead men returned to this world again. That they remain dead for a certain time only. That another generation is now in the air, invisible, waiting to follow them.”

            “If they are of the sprit world, they have very large appetites,” declared Osacan, Wanchese’s friend.  “They are men only lacking color, from a distant land. And their god is not to be feared.”

            “Their god is to be feared.  His power is in Hariot’s sword and looking-glass.”

            The others faced Ensenore, Wingina’s frail father.

            “Why then are they without food, helpless and starving with food about them?” Wingina asked quietly.

            Ensenore spoke carefully. “They came without women and they refused our women so we believed they were gods, pale spirits as Granganimeo has said. I do not know if they are gods. If they are men, their god has given them great power over us. He has given them the skill to kill any of us without a weapon and from any distance. We suddenly are ill, and then we die. Their god wishes that we give them food. If we do not, he punishes us.”

            Wingina stared at his father without speaking. He was not convinced. He wanted Lane’s men gone from his island forever. If they did not leave voluntarily, he would find a way to destroy them.

Finally, not one person in the manuscript is a fictional character.  Any novel that attempts to recreate some aspect of the past needs invented characters.  How could I portray effectively the Carolina coastal Algonquians’ way of living and thinking without them?  I needed to tell stories about individual people to create a mosaic, a context to make more meaningful those major events that did occur when Englishmen and Algonquians came together and eventually clashed. 

What had subjectively attracted me to this subject matter was clearly missing.  Rewrite it, or chuck it?  I decided to accept the challenge. 

I want to explore themes like the clash of incompatible cultures, the exploitation of the vulnerable, man’s need to conquer and control, the dangers of resistance, man’s overall purpose, his need to adhere to religious beliefs.  I want to create fully-dimensional characters, individuals with whom readers can identify, human beings deserving emotional judgment.  I want to present specifically the Algonquian point of view.  I want to write a novel that demands the best of what I am able to produce.

I may not get there.  I’ve barely begun.  I’ve written five chapters.  At this later stage in my life writing another novel gives me a special purpose.  I will be posting in future installments my difficulties and how I have attempted to surmount them.  It would be fun to hear from you.  My email address is