Friday, May 8, 2020

Thornlea: First Glimpse

As I promised, today I’m posting the first glimpse of Thornlea that readers will encounter in chapter two of Forge of Freedom. This is set in Elizabeth’s point of view, and I’ve removed the dialog and most of the action that will be woven throughout. It’s still in rough draft, and I’ll probably end up doing some reorganizing and rewording. Take that into account and please be charitable!

Chapter Two

I might as well be in Scotland.

Smiling, Elizabeth Howard Carleton studied the rear of the brooding, towered building that loomed before her. The imposing grey limestone manor of her husband’s Virginia estate could not possibly have looked more like a Highland laird’s domain. Adding to the effect were the lilting strains of fiddle and pipe that reached her from the back of the nearby summer kitchen, where several of the Scottish and Irish servants were taking a brief break from their duties to dance an exuberant jig.

She had stepped out through the side door of the large stone carriage house, converted for use as the Rangers’ hospital, only to stop, as she often did, arrested by the picturesque view. Yet even in these peaceful surroundings war made its uneasy presence known. Indeed the vista would have given the impression of a blissful, dreamlike idyll were it not for the uniformed troops and Indian warriors in native dress riding or striding purposefully along the pathways and lanes between the property’s buildings.

Although remote in its mountain fastness, the estate was as bustling as any town. The manor’s sweeping emerald lawns were currently occupied by Carleton’s brigade of Rangers, nominally under the command of General George Washington, but in reality an independent force that Carleton personally funded and that answered to him alone. What she could see from where she stood behind the manor’s south wing, however, was but a tiny portion of the more than 20,000 acres he owned, spanning verdant meadows all along the broad valley’s floor, where his extensive herds of horses and cattle pastured, and vast mountain forests that blanketed the high ridges on either side.

A cool breeze tugged at her plain blue linen petticoats and white apron and teased strands loose from the riot of dark auburn curls that pins and her simple white cap could not restrain. It teased as well the smoke rising all across the sprawling camp from fires hung with steaming kettles for the evening’s mess and from the kitchen’s chimney where supper simmered for the manor’s residents and servants. The afternoon was rapidly waning, and from behind the western mountain wall of the Blue Ridge, lingering sunrays streaked the sky’s impossibly clear blue overhead and cast long fingers of shadow across the valley, setting the landscape in vivid relief.

Hues of scarlet, crimson, and russet, citron and amber drew her gaze to the tall trees between the buildings and edging the meadow the manor occupied, enclosed by a wide loop of the Thorn River. The brilliant leaves flamed among the dusky greens of pine and cedar and holly, the chill wind fanning them like fire.

She drew in a deep breath of the crisp, smoke-tinged air, musing that the place looked as though it dated to a distant century. Yet it had been built by Carleton’s uncle, Sir Harrison Carleton, only forty-seven years earlier, in 1732. Sir Harry, a Scottish laird’s eldest son, had fled his homeland for Virginia in 1715 after the British defeat of the Highland clans and death of his father at Sheriffmuir, leaving his young brother, Carleton’s father, to assume the clan laird’s heredity title of marquess. On her and Carleton’s arrival there from France in mid July, he had explained that it had been Sir Harry’s intent to recreate his ancestral home.

A pang pierced her at the memory. If only Carleton could have stayed with her there! Knowing too well the urgent mission that had again wrested him from her arms, she could not oppose his leaving. But at times such as this the sense that he was in very great danger overwhelmed her, and a terrible fear pierced her heart and stole her breath. She added another anxious, silent plea for his safety to those constantly hovering in her thoughts.

Reminding herself that the Almighty’s purpose for them was always right and perfect, even when it did not seem so, she pressed her hands against her back and stretched to ease its ache. A protesting ripple caused her to grimace, and she ran one hand along the curve of her rounded belly, smiling at the surprisingly vigorous kick beneath the tight skin and muscle.

When the babe quieted she returned her attention to her surroundings. Rows of tents interspersed the estate’s many outbuildings, and the stillness of the peaceful scene was broken by the soft hum of voices, distant rattle of wagons and harness,  nearby plop of hoofs and scuff of footfalls on the graveled lanes, and occasional chime of birdsong. To her left the summer kitchen surrounded by the kitchen gardens lay outside the south wing’s entrance, with the laundry house a short distance behind. Off the main building’s far end she could just see the edge of the graceful terraces that extended its width down the gentle slope to a wide lawn where a stone bridge spanned the river near the springhouse. On the river’s far side the ridge’s flank began to rise through dense forest, first gently, then steeply to the shadowed summit of the western ridge.

She turned to glance southward where a smokehouse, still, capacious barns, expansive stables and paddocks filled with sleek horses, smithy, other workhouses, and clustered former slave cabins ranged farther down the broad Thorn Valley. Directly across on the flank of the eastern ridge, orchards and a vineyard denuded of most of their bounty this late in September blanketed a warm slope open to the sun.

She had not followed the road all the way to the end of the valley because of her pregnancy and the warning that within a mile the road dwindled to a narrow, rutted, stony path difficult to traverse except on foot, and then with difficulty. But she longed to see the place where she had been told that the river’s headwaters rose from a trickle below a narrow gap in the ridges’ folds and cascaded down a rocky watercourse before widening as it snaked back and forth across the tree-dotted meadows of the valley floor to finally pass through its broad mouth on the way to join the larger Staunton River. That would have to wait until the spring.

And by then, in God’s mercy, Jonathan will have returned, and our babe will be safely born.

Please let me know what you think of this section. Can you see the scene vividly, or would you suggest improvements? I always appreciate honest critiques kindly given!

The images are my own or in public domain.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Constructing Thornlea: A Visit to Muchalls Castle

Muchalls Castle front view
In yesterday’s post I described my efforts to set Jonathan Carleton’s Virginia estate in a specific area of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Today I’m going to describe what the exterior of the manor house looks like. The intention of Carleton’s uncle and adoptive father, Sir Harrison Carleton, was to build a structure that visually evoked the Highland seat of their Scottish clan. L-plan castles were common from the 13th to the 17th century in the British Isles and across Europe, favored because they offer strategic vantages on the adjacent walls from which defenders can blanket the fortress’s entrance with deadly crossfire in case of attack. So it seemed a logical option for an 18th-century reconstruction of Clan Carleton’s manor house in Virginia.

After searching the internet for images of Scottish castles, I fortuitously came across one that closely resembles what I have in mind: Muchalls Castle which overlooks the North Sea in the countryside of Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to find many interior shots, so we’ll have to focus mainly on the exterior. But good enough. Let’s take a tour!

Rear view showing back of west extension
This castle’s lower level is the original 14th-century Romanesque, double-groined tower house built by the Frasers of Muchalls. A barrel-vaulted passage gives access to a reception chamber where the laird would meet with business visitors, storerooms, a guard room, and a dungeon. This level also houses the medieval groin-vaulted kitchen with its original flagstone floor and huge walk-in fireplace. Its interior wall is much thicker than those in the rest of the castle to support the upper levels, which it’s speculated might once have included a defensive tower. The wall also encloses a concealed spiral staircase that servants would have used to carry food up to the dining room above.

View of bartizans
The Frasers sold the property to the Hays in 1415, but by 1619 it had passed to the Burnetts of Leys. The 17th-century castle was begun by Alexander Burnett and completed by his son, Sir Thomas Burnett, in 1627. The second floor (first floor in Britain) was built over the original structure. On the corners of the castle’s upper levels Burnett added round turrets supported by corbels, two of which are shown at left. Called bartizans, they form circular nooks with small lookout windows inside many of the bedrooms.

Rear of side wing with additions
The castle’s original defensive features include numerous arrow slits in its exterior walls. Burnett also added a subterranean crypt, massive chimneys on the building’s crow-stepped gable ends, an entrance courtyard with crenellated walls and two sets of triple gunloops flanking the arched gates, and high stone-walled terraced gardens. Subsequent owners expanded the structure to the present day four-story castle with a wing extending from the west end, visible in the photo above and the one at right showing the rear of the side wing. Thornlea lacks those additions, so you’ll have to imagine it with a flat exterior wall along the side wing and the end of the main wing.

Great Hall plasterwork over-mantel and ceiling
The second level includes most of the main reception rooms, including the great hall, a drawing room and a study. The ceilings of these rooms are totally covered in original 17th-century plasterwork featuring coats of arms and biblical and other historical figures. Dating to 1624 and in practically perfect condition, they’re considered among the finest examples of plasterwork in Scotland. The great hall fireplace has an original plaster over-mantel with Egyptian-style caryatid figures and King James’ Arms. It’s so large that one can walk erect inside it, and a bench is built in where several people can hold a meeting. It also contains a hidden feature called the Laird’s Lug, a secret listening system that allowed the laird to overhear conversations in the great hall from his suite directly above! Let the intriguer beware!

The third level consists of a number of bedrooms including the Laird’s Bedroom, the Priest’s Bedroom; the Queen’s Bedroom, in case she were to visit; and even the Queen’s Winter Bedroom. Each of the bedrooms has a fireplace and what would have been dressing rooms in the 17th century, now converted to bathrooms.

The exterior differences are minor. Faced with Virginia limestone, Thornlea appears grey rather than brown, and, of course, doesn’t have a rear addition. But otherwise, Muchalls Castle is a very good stand-in for the manor. Tomorrow I’m going to post an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Two that will hopefully help you to visualize the estate and manor more vividly. Be sure to join me to take a look!

Images of Muchalls Castle are from Wikipedia and Alchetron and are in the public domain.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

The Road to Thornlea

In Public Domain
Catskill Clove by Asher Brown Durand, 1864
When you write novels you’re going to need names. Lots of them. For novels based on real historical events like The American Patriot Series, some of your characters and settings might be historical figures and places, which happily eliminates the need to name them. But that leaves your fictional characters and the settings they inhabit, all of which you want to be memorable, including their names. And choosing the lot of them can be hair-rippingly frustrating, especially if you’re obsessive like I am!

Thankfully some do come easily, like Elizabeth Howard. But other names require considerable pondering, research, making lists, combining and recombining different first and last names if they’re people, and striking out options until the character or place steps forward and reveals itself to you. Like Jonathan Carleton, for instance. Just like his character in the series, he was stubbornly, exasperatingly enigmatic, and I had to wait, tapping my foot impatiently, for him to finally emerge from the mists. And then he rather exploded onto the page, the rascal!

But occasionally a character or place is already there, fully named, when you arrive, as though they were given, as though they existed in the dim recesses of time long before they stepped to the fore. Charles Andrews and James Stowe were two of those characters. And the name of Carleton’s Virginia estate, Thornlea, was also one simply “given.” In the chapter in Daughter of Liberty where Elizabeth and Carleton first meet, Andrews refers to the estate and gives a brief description.

“Oh, it’s just a modest plot of land—twenty thousand acres or so running up into the Blue Ridge. Most of it is heavily forested, but enough is cleared to pasture about three hundred head of cattle and a hundred horses. I swear, the main house rivals the great manors of England, and the countryside around it is second to none for beauty.”

All of that simply spilled out onto the page without any forethought. I had no idea.

Pfly / CC BY-SA (
Roanoke River Watershed 
Nor, in spite of scattered references to “Thornlea” in the previous books of the series, did I have any idea whatever of exactly where this estate would be set, other than in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, or what it would consist of. I only knew vaguely that at some point the story would go there. Well, Forge of Freedom is the last book in the series, and the hour of reckoning has come! So I’ve had to buckle down and try to bring it to vibrant life.

I discovered early on that I would have to locate an approximate real-world area where the estate is set to figure out its landscape, flora, and fauna. I also had to take into account the events of the British Southern Campaign since Carleton would be involved in opposing those actions and Thornlea would be his base of operation. A detailed topical relief map of Virginia led me to a lovely deep valley carved into the Blue Ridge just south of the Roanoke River, which back then was the Staunton River, and a short distance north of the Poor Mountain State Natural Area Preserve. Above is a map of the Roanoke River watershed to give you an idea of the general location. As you see, it’s strategically located not far from the North Carolina Border. In order to explain the name Thornlea, this became Thorn Valley, named for the hawthorn and black locust trees growing thickly in it (thorn), and for the meadows (lea) where Carleton’s herds of livestock graze. Who knew?! And where in the world did that come from three decades ago when I first started writing Daughter of Liberty with no idea of making it into a series??? A moment of serendipity or something else? Whatever the case, the river that runs through it consequently became the Thorn River.

In Public Domain
Landscape Beyond the Tree
by Asher Brown Durand 
For the sake of visualization, I searched for historical paintings of similar mountain landscapes to stand in for Thorn Valley. For now, several of Asher Brown Durand’s 19th century landscapes of the Catskills on the northern end of the Appalachian chain fit the bill pretty well. Shown at the top of the post is a view that looks much the way I envision the overlook at the valley's entrance. The one to the right portrays what might be a vista of the valley floor on the road leading toward the estate.

Now to figure out what the manor house and surrounding establishment look like. Which means drawing a map of the estate, finding exterior photos of historical Scottish mansions or castles that look like what I’m imagining, and then drawing floor plans of the house. So far I’ve come up with a rough map of the estate, which could stand to be cleaned up but is good enough for me to keep the characters’ movements consistent. However, the house will have 4 stories, which means the floor plan is going to take a bit of work to figure out so I can have my characters move around in it without pesky continuity errors cropping up.

In tomorrow’s post, I’m going to share photos of Thornlea’s double and the first, currently somewhat rough, descriptions woven into Chapter Two of Forge of Freedom. Please let me know your thoughts about all this, and be sure to join me back here tomorrow to take a closer look!

Images are from Wikipedia and are in the public domain.