Evolution of a First Novel: Finding the Story

Converted Water Tower, Albion, CAThe idea for a historical novel set in 19th century Mendocino County first came to me in the small town of Albion, California. I was spending a weekend in an old converted water tower and reading about William Richardson’s first lumber mill in Albion. By that time, I had already untangled most of the obscure history of Cuffey’s Cove and started imagining how I could bring all those incredible stories to life. I could use some real people like Nathaniel Smith and add my own characters to fill out those stories and show how the average person lived and was effected by such a massive historic event. I could put the reader in the woods wrestling redwoods to the ground, hauling them by ox to the river, and struggling to keep control of thousands of logs being swept downstream to the coast during the spring freshets. I could paint the wasteland and ghost towns and broken people the boom left in its wake as it moved ever northward towards new stands of timber. Why, the story would practically write itself.

Three years later, after extensive research that has led me as far afield as Saint Louis, Nicaragua, Baltimore, New Orleans, and Hong Kong, I am halfway through the second draft of the story. In that time, my eyes have been opened repeatedly to the breadth of the saga I’m attempting to write. The novel has now spread into a trilogy. I changed the initial setting of the first book from Mendocino City (the village of Mendocino) to Albion. I replaced one of my main characters (Jarod Walsh was replaced by a more intriguing Alastair Morgan) and I changed the title (The Relentless Harvest may remain the series name but the first part of the trilogy will be entitled The Standing-Ground). Scenes have been removed, reexamined, and occasionally reinstated. Characters have appeared then disappeared again. Timelines have shifted repeatedly.

Albion Mill looking westward, 1934 by Roger Sturtevant

Albion Mill looking westward, 1934 by Roger Sturtevant

Amid all these changes, I’ve clarified the series themes, refined the first book’s premise, deepened the stories and increased the involvement of the other two main characters, Nat Smith and Lily Perkins. The first book now serves as more of springboard for the two novels to follow. Book one is about identity and the average person’s struggle for agency against what seems insurmountable forces. The second book echoes that theme but from the perspective of the truly disenfranchised — the Native Americans and indentured Chinese who were unwittingly ensnared in Manifest Destiny’s net. The final book provides yet another perspective, that of aspiring as well as established lumber barons, the age old story of big fish being eaten by even bigger fish. All these stories are tied together by themes of greed, ambition, and the ever conflicting forces of the American Dream and American Enterprise. I took the title The Standing-Ground from Walt Whitman’s poem “The Song of the Redwood-Tree,” a poem in which he reconciles himself to the destruction of redwood forests in deference to modernity and progress.

Digging Peasant by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Digging Peasant by Vincent Van Gogh, 1885

Now that I’ve reached this point, I’ve asked myself repeatedly if there was a better approach I could have taken from the beginning. The answer is yes. And no. Yes, I could have spent more time on the initial storyline. I could have organized my material in a better way. I could have waited longer before I started writing. At the same time, many of the ideas and changes came as a result of writing or from reaching “dead air” in the narrative. In an effort to get through those stretches, I conducted research that hadn’t occurred to me earlier, thought about the plot in new ways, and reconsidered some of my existing characters and scenes.

I’m sure that I’ll benefit from those early missteps when I begin the second book but I’m not convinced the process will be radically different. History is something you often stumble over rather than retrieve methodically. Rather than eschew that reality, I’m choosing to embrace it and allow myself a broad field. The complex network of history sometimes fits together in the most surprising ways. The characters I sculpt from that raw material may also surprise me as their lives play out on the page. It’s those unexpected twists and turns, those tidbits out of left field, that are the most compelling part of any story.

4 Replies to “Evolution of a First Novel: Finding the Story”

  1. Hi Keith,
    As usual, your post is intriguing and I enjoy how you openly share your research and writing processes. “.
    Slipping Story” was also illuminating and reminded me of some of my own twists and turns in developing characters, especially when I inserted real folks and had to be sure it was feasible for them to have been in SE Arizona when I wanted them to be!
    Hope you are soon in print…Arletta

    • Thanks, Arletta. The amazing thing about using real people is stumbling on new information long after the original story outline. That happened with James Kenny. Learning about the desertion changed the middle part of the story. I hope to complete this rewrite by Feb. Until then, no more snooping around for me.

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