How You Begin a Novel

I HAVE just finished writing a novel about the Mohawk Valley during the Revolutionary War, and I feel a little as if I had caught a big fish.

Fishing and writing are alike, and there are two ways of doing both. You can equip yourself for the first of the season with waders, a Leonard rod and English creel, a Hardy reel, eighteen-foot leaders with the opaque and invisible finish invented by Mr. Hewitt, and fifty-seven varieties of dry and wet flies; you can use them according to scientifically established facts of water and weather, and test the light with a camera gauge, and kill the resultant fish with a ‘priest’ and know that you are doing the sport as the sport ought to be done; or you can take your rod and line and reel and basket and put on sneakers and get wet, if you really want to, and eat scrambled eggs for supper. That is the way I fish, but I enjoy it twice as much, and I flatter myself I know more of what the stream is doing than if my conscience were loaded down with paraphernalia. It is also a little the way I write.

I suspect that the true historians who may have got this far have already made a neat little note in the margin, ‘scrambled eggs.’ I don’t care. I am not writing history about known figures like Alexander Hamilton; I am trying in my books to give the story, from their point of view, of plain ordinary people.

So, when I set out to write about the Revolution in upstate New York, I was not thinking of Washington, or Schuyler, or Arnold, or Gates, but of people who were trying to bring up families, who were getting old or getting married; and as I began refreshing my knowledge of events with known historians I became more and more surprised to see how little I could find out about the ordinary man and woman.

With my usual optimism I made a start at writing with what I had gathered together, for I thought I knew a good deal about the subject anyway. And I went ahead for a hundred and fifty pages quite easily. But then one morning, on reading what I had done, I was dismayed to find that I was producing the regular historical romance, with all the trappings of horseback rides, and uniforms, and sherry and port and Madeira and brandy. The whole state lay beneath my eyes, and the imaginary characters were cantering here and there across the map with the rapidity of 1936 Ford V-8’s. In other words, New York State in 1776 was turning out to be almost exactly as Robert W. Chambers had described it. (I admire Mr. Chambers’s work very much; there have been few writers who knew their subjects or who could document their waiting more thoroughly than he. Yet he was writing for the modern magazine reader who wants his action fast.) I saw, then, not only that my imitation of him was a description of impossible events and deeds, but that the characters I was setting forth simply were not real people.

I threw away my pages and did some more reading. Within six months I made another start, with an entirely fresh set of characters. This time, however, I reread my work when the pages totaled one hundred. And, though I liked them better, I still found an element of spuriousness. At least the people, again, did not seem flesh and blood. I went back to reading; and from time to time — to keep my hand in, as it were (and possibly I hoped to find I had done enough research) — I would take another crack at writing.

I am not going to catalogue the false starts. I saved all but the first, because each successive one contained more useful material. (When I finished the book, three years after, these false starts totaled nearly eight hundred pages!) But I am merely mentioning them to show how an historical novelist like myself blunders until he hits upon what seems to him the right solution.

For as I read I went further and further from accepted sources. I began to read the earlier histories (which in many events, by light of modern research, are known to be inaccurate). These histories are such works as Simms’s Frontiersmen of New York, and his Trappers of New York; Stone’s Life of Joseph Brant; Lossing’s Field Book of the Revolution.

In these books we find the historian ambling about the country taking down the reminiscences of the survivors of the war or their children. Naturally they were inaccurate in many cases about who killed whom, but they were talking about real people. They were telling about things, too, that had the ring of truth. For instance, I learned how to make those drinks, ‘flip’ and ‘kill-devil’; I knew how the party slept after a husking bee; I got lists of valuation of crops, and of local taxes; I learned a little about Colonel Alden’s notions of spelling and what Dr. Petry charged for healing a scalped head; I learned that Joseph Mayall ‘was remarkably well calculated ’ to open a pioneer farm, and that Herkimer’s leg was buried prematurely and dug up and placed in the coffin; I found out how long it took to ride from Stone Arabia to German Flats, and the number of buildings burned in Schoharie; I learned how men were flogged, water taken from birch trees, stockings woven, what people ate for supper, why dogs howled after an Indian raid, what the inside of a prosperous house looked like and the colors kitchen beams were painted, what the currency looked like with each new issue by a hopeful Congress, how pigs were raised, and who lived in which settlements.

These were the things that people remembered. I started from them, and from as much of the lives of the real people and their way of living as I could work in. I realized that I was no longer writing about a war and nations, but about my own community and countryside, in years when deer might be scarce as they are to-day, and when the drought hurt the crops just as it did two years ago. I began to have an extraordinary awareness of the present being 1776. Real people began taking their places in my novel, and the main points of their lives made a far better story than I could have fashioned out of my imagination. I began to feel that I was writing history, not in the scholarly sense, but in the sense that every reasonably conscientious reporter is writing history.

The broad aspects of the war disappeared. I abandoned all ambition of describing Saratoga and framed my picture with the boundaries of Tryon County, going outside its bounds only as one of my characters was taken out of it. In such a scene I began to find that it was necessary to learn what the weather was like on a certain day, for the sense of actuality was so overwhelming that I could not merely imagine it. I had to know. This often presented problems, but more often I found the weather in the journal of an officer. For instance, in a small campaign describing the demolition of the Onondaga towns, Captain Thomas Machin must have felt the cold, for he mentions the snow in April. Again, in May 1781, Colonel Cochran’s description of the flood of the Mohawk that washed out Fort Stanwix tells anyone who knows the valley at all what the flood looked like at German Flats. A New England paper in 1776 mentions the unusually fine lambing throughout New England and New York. These are the simpler facts, made to hand for the novelist. Others had to be inferred through my knowledge of the country, I had been raised in it; and, when I found mention of the state of a certain road in May, it was easy to tell that the frost had been late in leaving the ground.

I suppose that such local details are not important to the larger view of history, but my excuse to the historian is that the Revolution was won and lost in the Mohawk Valley. It was the granary of the Continental Army; securing it would have fed Burgoyne’s army through the winter even though Clinton had not joined him. To tell the story of its long defense by local efforts may be a small thing when one considers all the thirteen colonies; yet it tells the story of the Revolution better, to my mind, than any wide survey that must perforce ignore the daily living of the people.

I found also that there were bits of unadvertised information that an author could use. There was the 1905 Dodd, Mead reprint of The Minute Book of the Committee of Safety of Tryon County, which, with its notes, provided me with the location of the homes of many of the settlers. It also showed the gradual beginning of fear of an Indian war. One could read between the lines that the settler had not given much thought to the Indian. He was an insignificant brown neighbor more or less confined to recognized areas. He had little to say in the running of the county. He could be seen half drunk in a tavern now and then and be kicked out. His dogs damaged the sheep more than wolves or bears. But he was n’t anybody in particular.

Suddenly the aspect of war gave the Indian the power to do damage to human beings — not just a drunken Indian trying to beat up a lonely settler, but brown men with muskets and an infinite supply of powder if the Johnsons had their way. This letter was ordered by the Tryon Committee to be written to General Schuyler on July 13, 1775: —

. . . Capt Jacob Clock informed this board, that this morning about an hour before Day three Indians of Fort Hunter came to his house from Oswego in their Way home, that he was informed by a free Negroman, a servt of him, that they each had a Bag of powder on their horses, that they staid about an hour and then went off. . . . We have sent off a party of people by Way of a Scout, to find out, if possible, the Rout of the Indians, and to give us early Intelligence. . . . Our ammunition is so scant that we cannot furnish three hundred Men so as to be able to make a stand. . . .

They did n’t get the powder for quite a while, and yet Indians were carrying a bag apiece. The Indian was not the plumed copper paladin that Chambers and Cooper have painted him. He was a man in a dirty shirt and an old felt hat, perhaps a little like a down-andout tramp, who had suddenly had power thrust upon him. But you did not realize what he was unless you lived next door to him. You certainly did n’t find out from reading history or romance.

What the Indian managed to do in this situation, with Tory help and guidance, can be seen from the following figures. In 1776 there were 2500 men in Tryon County eligible for militia service; in 1781 there were less than 800. The only settlements were those within racing distance of the Mohawk or Schoharie forts.

To unify my story I used a fictional couple starting out in life. The characters closest to them were also imaginary. But the majority of the other folk in the book were real people who performed historic acts — not to be found in our history books, but in the local narratives, in the pension applications after the war, on the militia rolls of the state, in court-martial proceedings and bounty claims. In using these people I was also faced with, to me, a new problem. In some cases, from the exigencies of story or space, it was necessary to compress two or more persons’ experiences into the life of one. The question was, where I had falsified the facts of a real person’s life to the extent of having him marry someone he did not marry, ought I to change his name? I reflected for some time on this point and finally decided that where my real character in the book performed some act for which he was locally famous I should call him by his real name.

In the case of Adam Helmer, for instance, I had a man who performed one of the great feats of valor of the Revolution, yet in the book I wanted him to be a younger man, unmarried, — for I did not have space for his family life, — and also, to wind up my story, I wanted him to marry someone he never married at all! But if I called him Heinrich Smith and let him run his race against the best runners of the Iroquois and save German Flats by winning it, I should be robbing a great reputation of one of its best deeds. Again, in the case of another character, John Wolff, I combined a rather shadowy real figure with another man unjustly sentenced to Connecticut Mines. But in neither case did I materially alter the character, as much as I could find out about it, from the original man, and in neither case was the background of action or fate historically incorrect.

Whether I decided wrongly must be determined in the future. In any case it seemed wise to acknowledge (in the book itself) that I had taken liberties with the lives of certain people. For the rest, and there were plenty of them, they played their parts according to recorded fact.

To that extent my dish of eggs is scrambled; yet, now it is done, I have the feeling that it is more nearly history than a purely military résumé. And as for the fictional side — after all, even the historian writes history. Look at our different Washingtons, and Burrs, and Hamiltons, and even Jefferson — the Universal Patron Saint!

One odd piece of ingenuity I do regret not having found a place for. A party of Middleburg militia, having rounded up a band of Tories and spies and a few odd Indians, had nowhere to keep them safe overnight, until one brighter than the others thought of forcing them to mount a ladder on to the roof of a high stone house which was so steep that the prisoners were forced to straddle the ridgepole. The ladder was then removed and the militia went to bed. Perhaps it will make a story.