Photo by Jamie Moncrief/Copyright

Monday, June 21, 2010

a dandy comes to call, part 2

When Alston appeared in my bathroom, I was surprised -- but not by his contention that I'd misjudged him. After all, that's what scoundrels always say when cornered. "So you're the hero." I cocked an eyebrow at him. "Difficult to believe when you dress like a war profiteer."

He tugged at his waistcoat, the brocade too bright, the buttons too large and brassy. "Ghastly, isn't it? Effective, though. Priscilla was taken in as well."

Deep in the bath water, my hands clenched into fists. If he had purposely misled my heroine, I didn't want to hear any more. "So you're a walking lie."

Alston jerked to his feet, every line of his body stiff. "Duty and honor are my life." The corners of his mouth sagged, weighing down his shoulders. "I just never dreamed that fulfilling one would force me to abandon the other." He slumped back down onto the side of the tub, and I wondered which he had chosen. "It is far more difficult than I supposed to be a spy."

A spy? At last his claim that "I am not at all what I seem" made sense. "You're a Union spy, working undercover in the South!"

He nodded, and the misery on his face quickly erased my elation at having learned his secret. "That's why I'm here," he said. "I need your help. I'm hoping you can write me out of the mess I've made."

I studied him for a moment. He might just be playing to my writer's vanity. But if this was an act, it was a good one. "It sounds as if we have a great deal to discuss."

The light came back into his eyes. "You'll write it?"

"No promises until I hear what you have to say. Perhaps you wouldn't mind waiting somewhere bath water is growing cold."

"Of course," he said, and promptly disappeared.

I dried off and dressed in record time, then eased open the bathroom door. Raising one of the candles high overhead, I peeked into the bedroom. "Mr. Buchanan?" No sign of the dashing gentleman in the garish waistcoat. My gut twisted. What if he had departed, never to return?

I tiptoed through the darkened house, finding him at last in the kitchen. "Thank you," he said, gesturing to the candle as I set it down in front of him on the butcher block tabletop. "The light sources of your period are difficult on the eyes. That's why I waited to speak until you were in your bath. It's the only time you light candles."

I pulled out a chair and sat down across from him. "Before I agree to do this, there's something I must know." His gaze met mine, level and unblinking. "If you want to set the record straight, why aren't you talking to Julianne MacLean, or Linda Howard, or...or...Nora Roberts? They could write you out of anything, and people would be certain to read your story. Why me?"

He swiped the back of one hand across his eyes. "You're Southern, and as stubborn as my Priscilla. If anyone can convince her to forgive me, you can." He paused. "But above all, I know how much you value honor."

Realization dawned. "And you sacrificed honor to duty." Alston's head dipped once, slowly. I stood and slid my laptop off the kitchen counter. "In my time, this machine is how a writer takes notes. Do you mind?" He motioned me back to my seat. I raised the lid of my MacBook, clicked on Word, and opened a new file. "So, how did you become a spy?"

Alston's face twisted in the computer screen's glow. He pulled a flask from an inside pocket of his jacket and downed a long swig. "It all began eighteen months before I met Priscilla, when my father betrayed me in the worst way imaginable. I was so desperate for revenge, never thinking where it might lead..."

He talked late into the night. Long before he finished, I knew he was right. So what if a Civil War romance would be a tough sale, perhaps an impossible one? His was a story that had to be told, and I wanted to be the one to tell it.

Little did I know that in helping Alston find his answers, I would find so many of my own.
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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

a dandy comes to call

The book I'm currently shopping to editors and agents is nothing like the book I had in mind when I sat down to write it. In fact, about the only parts that have survived are the setting (my hometown of Wilmington, N.C.); the Civil War time period; and the names of three characters.

The book I set out to write was intended for pre-teens in the 10-12 age range. My premise was that young people were forced to grow up much faster in the mid-1800s, and so took on extremely adult roles and responsibilities. I thought young people of today would be surprised to learn about some of the jobs they might have held if they had lived 150 years ago. I wanted to show teens from a variety of backgrounds and classes, and I wanted to have their stories revolve around the fall of Ft. Fisher, the amazing-but-relatively-unknown Civil War battle that had been steeping in my brain for nearly thirty years.

Almost immediately, four characters between the ages of 13 and 15 began clamoring for my attention. Priscilla was a Wilmington girl, daughter of a prominent merchant, wealthy and a bit spoiled. Jaime was the son of a Cape Fear river pilot; when I met him, he was on his first blockade-running mission. Ben, son of a prominent Union admiral, had just arrived on the flagship of the Union blockading squadron to serve as a cabin boy, and participates in an attack on Jaime's ship. Caleb, a slave boy, fishes for the food that graces the table of his mistress, who owns the boarding house in Smithville (today's Southport), the town where all the Cape Fear river pilots live. The book also had several minor characters, including a bona fide dandy war profiteer conceived as a pure plot device. My dandy didn't even have a name. All I knew about him was that he was a scoundrel.

I had written several chapters about each of my four young people and thought it was all going quite swimmingly when my online critique partner, intrigued by all the plot points she was helping me to brainstorm, asked if she could read a few chapters. I sent her what I had and then waited for her critique. It was nothing like what I expected. "You do know," she said, "that you're writing a romance?"

When that comment popped up on my instant messenger screen, I was so shocked I nearly sprayed the coffee I was drinking across the room.

My critique partner is a romance writer, and since what she said wasn't what I wanted to hear, I concluded she was merely projecting her own sensibilities onto my work. Undaunted, I kept writing. A month or two later, I had the chance to attend an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) workshop led by Pam Zollman, a gifted writer and former Highlights for Children editor. As part of the workshop, Pam offered one-on-one critiques. Hopeful that Pam would see in my manuscript what I saw in my manuscript, I paid my fee and sent in a few chapters.

On the day of the workshop, I could barely wait for my private time with Pam. When my turn finally came, we had a great chat. She was extremely complimentary, though she thought four main characters were at least two too many for readers to get fully invested in. She suggested I pick two to concentrate on and let the other two become minor characters. And then she threw me the zinger. "I think there's a very good chance that what you're really writing is a romance."

One wacky comment I could ignore. But the same wacky comment from two people I respect? That "coincidence" could not be swept under the rug so easily. So I asked Pam what gave her the idea my middle-grade novel was really a romance. "The dandy," she said. "He's very dashing, and I think there might be something between him and Priscilla." And then she said something my critique partner had been saying to me for months. "You really should consider joining RWA (Romance Writers of America) and see if that helps you discover what's going on with this story."

Now, when the universe sends me signals, I try to be receptive. Maybe not at first, but hit me over the head a few times and I'll probably notice. And I'm not one of those people who automatically ridicules romances as trash; there are good and bad books and writers in every genre. When I was in high school, I read lots of what were then called "gothic" novels, and loved them. No one spun romantic tales better than Victoria Holt (Menfreya in the Morning) and Catherine Gaskin (A Falcon for a Queen), my two favorites. Their stories were full of beautiful women who lived in castles and wore velvet gowns and roamed the moors and won the hearts of dashing gentlemen against impossible odds. Reading their books was as satisfying to my romantic teenage heart as a box of Godiva chocolates is to my middle-aged soul today. But I was a children's author. I'd never thought of myself as anything else. I didn't want to write a romance. Did I?

Puzzled, I set the project aside and went back to editing an earlier manuscript. And then, one night, while I was soaking in a bubble bath and enjoying a glass of wine, the dandy stopped by for a chat. 

I was, to say the least, surprised. My crit partner's characters routinely interrupt her ablutions to discuss how she's telling their stories, but it had never happened to me. 

"You know you're getting it all wrong," the dandy said, his black eyes twinkling in the candlelight. "This is my story."

"No, it's not," I said. "You're nothing but a plot device. You don't even have a name."

"I'm the hero," he countered, completely undaunted. "And I don't appreciate you depicting me as a drunk and a scoundrel."

"Only a scoundrel would show up uninvited and plop down on the side of a lady's bathtub," I retorted. "I'd like for you to leave now, because I'm ready to get out."

"I'm not going anywhere until you hear what I have to say." To emphasize his point, he leaned back against the wall, stretched out his long legs, and crinkled his eyes at me from beneath the shock of glossy black hair sweeping across his forehead.

It was obvious at this point that I wasn't going anywhere either, even though the tips of my fingers were already beginning to wrinkle. Sighing, I added more bubble bath, turned on the whirlpool to stir up a nice, thick blanket of foam, and settled in for the duration. "So," I said. "What is it that you think I simply must know?"

"My name," he said, "is Alston Buchanan. And I am not at all what I seem."
To be continued.....
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