The Long Ride of Ride the Fire
My characters have always been real to me. I had arguments with Alec Kenleigh and Cassie Blakewell while writingSweet Release. I spoke so often with Brighid Ni Maelsechnaill and Jamie Blakewell while writing Carnal Gift that it seemed they lived in my house. But Nicholas Kenleigh and Bethie Stewart took over my world even before I started writing Ride the Fire, the third book of the Kenleigh/Blakewell family trilogy.
Nicholas came to life for me while I was scrambling to finish Carnal Gift. One day he just appeared, his story completely fleshed out in my mind. His presence was so powerful, in fact, that I wrote him into Jamie and Brighid’s story – only to cut him out later.
“You’ll get your own book,” I told him. “Don’t worry.”
I started Ride the Fire in February 2004, with my head so full of Nicholas that I got lost in his story. I felt his self-loathing for not having been able to save his friends from the fires of the Wyandot, his anguish at having watched them die, his guilt over having left his family behind. And I felt his emptiness, a grief so strong that it had become nothingness.
I knew that Bethie would fill that emptiness for him. She would reach inside him and heal those deep hurts – but not before he had done the same for her.
Before I could write their story, however, I needed to learn about their world so that I could see through their eyes. Having already written two historical novels set in the 18th century, I had much of the research I needed at my fingertips – major political events, the events of the French and Indian War, clothing, etc. But to be true to my characters I still had much to read and understand.
Not ever having been to Ohio, for example, I’m not familiar with the local flora and fauna. Red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks are the first birds of spring in Colorado, but what could I expect to see in March or April in an Ohio forest of 1763? I knocked about in birding books and historical accounts left by farmers and trappers to understand what the landscape of Ohio might have been like before the age of strip malls.
I’d already written Irish characters from roughly the same period, but Bethie was Scots-Irish, an Ulster Scot. That means her family came from the Lowlands of Scotland, had lived for a time on the Ulster Plantation in Ireland and carried that culture with them into the Colonies. To recreate that progression, I researched the culture of the Scottish lowlands, followed immigrants to Ulster and then to the Americas. What I learned helped to define not only Bethie, but her mother and stepfather as well. Strict Presbyterians with no love for the British, they would have arrived in the Colonies determined to build an independent life for themselves. They would have spoken a variant of Scottish called Ullans, though Bethie’s speech would probably have been modified somewhat by her limited contact with other ethnic groups. Luckily for me, I found a guide to Ullans Scots, which I relied on in crafting the dialogue for the Scottish characters, allowing their ‘accents’ to vary based on their age and the time they’d spent in the Colonies.
I also devoted a fair amount of time to researching the cultures of the Indigenous peoples who lived in the Ohio River Valley – the Shawnee, the Wyandot (Huron) and the Delaware. It was important to me that my book not portray Indian people as ‘the bad guys,’ that the characters have some depth to them and that their own actions be explained through their eyes as much as possible. My research included historical accounts maintained by these various Indian nations, as well as paintings and drawings from that period and scholarly historical accounts. The University of Colorado library offered the linguistic help I needed to render at least a few words from these various languages into my story.
To help me put it all together, I read accounts from settlers who’d survived Indian raids on their settlements and accounts of Indian people who’d suffered attacks at the hands of settlers. It was a violent time, with nothing less than the fate of a continent at stake.
With my research completed – or so I thought – I gave myself over to Nicholas’ and Bethie’s story, sometimes getting only two hours of sleep a night before heading off to work in the morning. I was able to cut my job back to part-time, which allowed me to stay submerged in my characters and their world for longer stretches. When I say I got -lost-in their story, I’m not exaggerating.
One morning – it was probably close to noon – I staggered out of bed and down the street for a caffe latte. Nicholas and I were having a little discussion about the climax of the story. He was sharing his opinion, and I was in full agreement with him, though I wasn’t all that confident I’d be able to carry it off by my deadline.
At one point I got sick of listening to my own doubts and said to myself, “Oh, shut up!”
At that moment, I just happened to be passing a couple of older women, who were sitting at a table in the coffee shop having a conversation. They stopped talking and gaped at me in shock. And that’s when I realized I had spoken aloud.
“Oh, not! Not you!” I said to them, horrified and embarrassed. “I meant me!”
Somehow that didn’t make it any better. I got my latte and crawled back home, mortified.
I was about halfway through the story when I realized my research was incomplete. Nicholas and Bethie had arrived, after many travails, at the relative safety of Fort Pitt, and yet I knew nothing about Fort Pitt. Specifically, I didn’t know what the various parts of a fort are called. They have real names, military names, and saying -the what’s-it- or ‘the thingy’ wasn’t going to pull it off. Nicholas, after all, had a military background. Is he going to say, “Put the cannon on the thingy”? Not bloody likely.
I contacted the Fort Pitt Museum and asked if there was someone available to discuss the map of Fort Pitt, which I had printed off the Internet, so that I could label it.
My call was put through to Douglas MacGregor, the educator at the museum, who sent me a labeled .jpg of the fort and discussed the various terms I would need to know so that I truly understood them. But Doug did far more than that. He went into the museum’s collection and photocopied the orderly book that was kept during the siege of Fort Pitt, which Bethie and Nicholas were about to endure, and he photocopied two soldiers’ diaries from the siege, as well.
Suddenly, I had in my hands the real historical account of an event endured by real people, an event that was about to ensnare my characters. The orderly book documented the orders given by Captain Ecuyer each day, including his growing dislike of settlers’ dogs. The diaries gave more in-depth accounts of various skirmishes, of hunger and uncertainty, of death and grief. I was able to work much of that material into my story, placing Nicholas in the thick of the action, as a good alpha-male should be. This enriched the narrative tremendously.
Having so painstakingly tried to recreate history, I then found myself in the position of having to completely twist it. I needed the Paxton Boy’s Rebellion, the uprising at the end of the story, to occur while Nicholas and Bethie were in Philadelphia. That meant moving it forward in time by five months. Though I had newspaper accounts of the event to keep it authentic, including essays and articles written by Benjamin Franklin, I had to ‘cheat’ to make it all fit into one book. Despite having taken such liberties, the end result is the most historically accurate novel I’ve written. As a history junkie, that’s important to me. But it’s only important because it’s the history that brings the characters to life. After all, this story isn’t about history. It’s about two people who triumph over the pain of their past because of their love for one another.
In the end, the hardest part of writing Ride the Fire wasn’t the research or even the lack of sleep. It was letting go of two people I had come to love. As I came to the end of the story, I found it myself growing profoundly sad. I wrote a 70-page final chapter, unable to stop writing, because it would mean saying good-bye, not only to Nicholas and Bethie, but to the entire Kenleigh/Blakewell clan that had been a part of my life for so long.
But there’s a reason they call it -deadline.- And in the end, I had no choice but to stop typing and start cutting that 70 pages back to something reasonable. I rewrote the last few pages several times, and then said good-bye.