Monday, April 14, 2014

The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn

Today I’m celebrating the newest novel of my good friend Lori Benton with a day-before-the-release-date party, and one lucky winner is going to receive a copy of The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn! Below Lori shares how she developed the story. Please leave a comment on this post before midnight Friday, April 18, to be entered in the drawing!

Where do you get your story ideas? That’s a question fiction writers are often asked. It’s often difficult to answer.

Ideas are everywhere. In the movies we watch, the books we read, the conversations we have, the news we’re exposed to. Life abounds with story ideas. Like scattered seeds, they are constantly being planted in a writer’s mind. They can lie dormant for the longest time, forgotten by the writer herself, until suddenly they sprout, and a story idea springs from seemingly nowhere, its roots untraceable except by more digging than most writers have time to do. Rather, we delight in the unexpected tender shoot and do what we can to nourish it, hoping it will sink those mysterious roots deep, and grow.

And then sometimes we do remember exactly where a story idea came from. That’s the case for my new release, The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn (WaterBrook Press, April 15, 2014). The first spark of inspiration for that story came straight out of the pages of history.

While researching an earlier novel set in 18th century North Carolina, I came across the mention of the State of Franklin—an attempt of the citizens living west of the Blue Ridge Mountains to form a separate state, just after the Revolutionary War’s ending. Had they succeeded (and they nearly did), Franklin would have been the fourteenth state admitted into the Union, instead of Vermont.

Why did they get the notion to do such a thing in the first place?

I think it’s accurate to say that the State of Franklin movement came about in large part due to geography. Several of the river valleys west of the Blue Ridge, known as the Tennessee country, had been settled well before the Revolutionary War. But those frontier settlements were a long way removed from the political centers of eastern North Carolina. With hundreds of miles between them, many of them sometimes impassable mountain miles, the settlers on the frontier became frustrated with the government’s lack of response to their needs.

In 1784, one group of these frontier citizens declared their region independent of North Carolina. They formed the State of Franklin and elected a governor—war hero John Sevier—but they never drew enough support from outside the region for their efforts to succeed. In fact, the region itself was divided, with the folk who clung to their identity as North Carolinians at odds with their neighbors who called themselves Franklinites.

This first post-Revolutionary War attempt at independent statehood spanned a brief but tumultuous period (1784—1789), and was marked by courthouse raids, fisticuffs, siege, and battle. For a little over four years the people of the Tennessee Valley region lived under the jurisdiction of two opposing governments, each vying for the same territory, taxes, and allegiance of the people.

How, I wondered, could such a situation result in anything but chaos for those folk simply trying to wrest a living from their farms or places of trade? Hadn’t they just lived through a devastating war between two rival governments? What was an Overmountain man and his family to do to get a little peace? And then there were the Chickamauga Indians seeking to sweep the whole lot of them back east across the mountains—and honestly, who could blame them?

It was a setting that begged for a story to be woven through it.

I began a file to keep track of those tantalizing hints of conflict surrounding the failed statehood attempt. Over time, as I read more about North Carolina, the sparse contents of this file would nudge me, suggesting story possibilities. Gradually a cast of characters clustered around it, they began to speak to me, and The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn took shape.

The story opens late in the summer of 1787, well into this unsettled situation in the Overmountain region. I thought it a fitting setting for a story about a privileged but subjugated young woman, Tamsen Littlejohn, and a rootless, enigmatic Overmountain man called Jesse Bird, who find themselves thrown together in a moment of crisis with a bewildering set of paths to choose toward security and safety—much as confronted the people of the frontier valleys. Tamsen and Jesse are faced with a choice of what sort of person each wants to become, what sort of life they want to live, and must decide what they are willing to risk to pursue that choice. And might the real question be—are they meant risk their hearts and make these choices together?

I’m excited to share with readers this stirring romance set against an epic period of history often neglected in the classroom: the formation of the State of Franklin on the heels of the Revolutionary War, the turmoil it caused on the North Carolina frontier, and how near it came to being our fourteenth state.
Thank you for sharing these fascinating insights into your creative process, Lori!

Readers, if you haven’t yet read Lori’s debut novel, Burning Sky, you need to purchase a copy asap! Her writing is lovely, evocative, and gripping, and Burning Sky will stay in your heart long after you turn the last page.

And I’m confident that The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn is going to be every bit as captivating. Leave a comment on this post to enter the drawing, which will close at midnight on Friday, April 18. Please include your name and email addy in your response so I can contact you if you win. I'll announce the winner here on Saturday.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

New TV Series

Since my last post about the Culper Spy Ring and agent 355, I discovered the new AMC series Turn based on—guess what!—the Culper Spy Ring. Talk about a coincidence! Just when I was studying that particular subject, a TV series about it shows up. Needless to say, I was very anxious to watch the first episode.

As I’m sure everyone is aware, I thoroughly enjoy action-adventure stories, particularly those with a historical setting—which is why I write them. And I wasn’t disappointed by Turn’s storyline, acting, and general look and feel. The filmmakers did a surprisingly creditable job of creating a historically accurate script, settings, and costuming. The acting was solid and the plot engrossing and suspenseful. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series and hope it’ll stay on track.

As in every story, written or filmed, the focus of this first installment was to introduce the characters, portray their individual situations and the factors that send them on their journey, and set up future episodes. If we’re going to care about the men and women who inhabit the story, we have to understand and sympathize with their motivations and goals. In accomplishing that, the writers and actors did their jobs very well.

Of course, considering the fact that the Americans were at war with Britain at the time, Turn did depict realistic violence and bloodshed. I would have preferred to have less of an up-close view of it, although compared to the majority of TV dramas and movies we see nowadays, it wasn’t as bad as many. But the truth is that war is not romantic. Far from it. I’ve heard it said that the purpose of war is to tear up things and kill people, and indeed it is. War is gritty and dirty and violent and ugly. If everyone truly understood that, perhaps we wouldn’t have so many of them.

In Turn, the producers could have pulled shots back and avoided focusing so closely on the gore without sacrificing realism. I’m hoping that now that the motivations of the characters have been established future episodes will focus more on intrigue and less on violence. I personally don’t enjoy seeing the evil humans perpetrate against each other portrayed graphically any more than anyone else, and I’d caution anyone who might be disturbed to take that into account before watching Turn. I wouldn’t recommend it for younger children. But as a historian I have to be a realist. I study the ugly things that happen in life as well as the glorious things so I can write accurate historical fiction that convicts readers about the fallen state of humankind and illuminates God’s redemptive purposes for our lives.

What’s needed is balance in how graphically we as writers portray real life. When we sanitize history, we don’t present an honest picture of our need and God’s grace. When we overdo depictions of violence, we run the risk of turning readers off to our message, desensitizing them to sinful actions, or glorifying sin and raising passions that may lead them to engage in it. I don’t want to do that in my work. I want to honor the sacrifices of those who endured the fiery trial to ensure our freedom by portraying history honestly and in a way that fully glorifies God. And I depend on the Lord to guide me in that calling.

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Real Female Spy of the Revolution

For the past few days I’ve been reading George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. The authors cover in detail the activities of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated in New York City beginning in 1778.

Area of Culper Ring's Operations

Although I’ve run across this important spy ring before while researching the series, this is the most detailed account of their activities I’ve read. Crucible of War ends about a year before the Culper Ring began operating, and I’m especially intrigued to discover many similarities between agent 355 and my fictional character Elizabeth Howard. Elizabeth’s family ties, activities, capture, and imprisonment aboard one of the prison ships in New York Harbor at the end of Crucible of War and the beginning of Valley of the Shadow mirror agent 355’s history, although her eventual fate was much more dire than Elizabeth’s will be. I wasn’t at all familiar with this agent, which makes the similarities in their stories all the more striking.

Agent 355 was clearly a courageous and resourceful woman who did our new republic a great service. It’s truly a tragedy that she didn’t survive to enjoy the rewards of her contributions. The following account is taken from the National Women’s History Museum website.
It is believed that “355” was a member of a prominent Tory family, a position that would have allowed her virtually unrestricted access to British political and military leaders operating in the New York area. For her part, “355” helped expose Benedict Arnold’s treasonous role in the surrender of West Point and neighboring military outposts, an act that earned him a £20,000 gratuity from the British government.

She also facilitated the arrest of Major John André, the head of England’s intelligence operations in New York, who was eventually hanged as a spy on orders from General Washington. While in New York, the debonair André kept company with any number of beguiling and available women. Taking advantage of this, “355” worked the parties he gave and attended, paying careful attention to what he offered during conversations that were often plied with considerable quantities of ale. Any substantive information “355” gleaned from these indiscretions, such as the deal to hand over West Point for payment, was surreptitiously passed by way of the Culper Ring to an appreciative George Washington.

It is believed that “355” was actually Robert Townsend’s common-law wife, with whom he had a son. When the junior “Culper” learned that his prized operative and lover was to bear his child, he pleaded with her to forgo her dangerous espionage work. She refused, believing, and rightly so, that the information she was providing was of the highest value. “Three-fifty-five’s” days were, indeed, numbered, thanks, so the historical reflection goes, to the traitor Arnold, who gave her up once he had defected to Great Britain following the arrest of André.

In October 1780, “355” was captured and ordered held in fetid conditions aboard the prison ship Jersey, which was moored in the East River. While incarcerated, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Robert Townsend, Jr., after the Culper Ring operative. She died shortly thereafter.

To new intelligence service hires, “355” is often cited as an inspirational example of a trusted field agent, who has retained her anonymity even 222 years following her death. The young woman’s contributions to America’s War for Independence did not go unnoticed by the head of the fabled Culper Ring, Abraham Woodhull, who wrote that she “hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence” and could “outwit them all.”

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Back to Valley of the Shadow!

Chart of New York Harbor
It’s been way too long since I last posted on this blog. So much for good intentions! But now that the final edit of Northkill is off my desk and to the printer, I’m focusing again on book 5 of this series. Elizabeth and Carleton have been in limbo way too long, and they’re letting me know about it. If you’re not a fiction writer, I’m sure it’s hard to understand how fictional characters can take over your life and stir up trouble, but they do!

While I’ve been occupied finishing Northkill, I’ve also been accumulating lots of notes for exciting scenes in Valley, and my first task is to transcribe all of those into the working copy. The entire first part of the book will cover Elizabeth’s rescue, including a dangerous gamble by Dr. Pieter Vander Groot, and I mean to make it as breathtakingly thrilling and wrenching as possible.

There’s much more involved in this installment of the story, however. My plan is to cover the Continental Army’s trials at Valley Forge, critical trips back to Grey Cloud’s Town for both Andrews and Carleton, and the summer campaign of 1778, which includes the major battle at Monmouth Court House.

This volume will end with a bittersweet redirection of Elizabeth and Carleton’s immediate future that will inaugurate the battles on the high seas. Plenty more action, adventure, intrigue, and romance is in store for the cast of the American Patriot Series. Be sure to stay tuned for regular updates!

Friday, November 1, 2013

New Interview Posted

I have a new interview up on fReado! Please click on the link to take a look!