In 1856, on the Illinois prairie, Norwegian farmers ANDERS and MARIA encounter DANIEL, a young fugitive slave. Will they do their legal duty by turning him in? Or will they break the laws of their new country and put their lives at risk to aid Daniel in his bid for freedom?
That’s not really a story. It’s more like a situation, a setup. But it’s a start.
In historical fiction, an author wants to pay attention to the underlying morality of the situation. But you have to build on that. The story of Anders, Maria, and Daniel, as mentioned above, is incomplete without some sense of where Anders and Maria have come from, to be newly-arrived Scandinavian immigrants in central Illinois.
One also ought to sketch Daniel more fully. What kind of slave life is he trying to escape from? What are his chances? What will he do with his new freedom, if he makes his escape good?
There are more questions than answers.
It’s notable that Anders, Maria, and Daniel all arrived at the same place in 1856—just when the nation’s quarrel over slavery was starting to come to a head. John Brown was murdering pro-slavery men in Kansas about this time. The Dred Scott decision, which gave iron force to the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, would come along in early 1857. Lincoln and Douglas would contest for the Illinois Senate seat in a series of debates in 1858. Brown would show up again, this time raiding the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, in 1859. The pot was coming to a boil.
How would these events affect Anders? Maria? Daniel?
It’s all there in Price of Passage—A Tale of Immmigration and Liberation, coming August 23 from DX Varos Publishing.
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Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, coming August 23. No fooling.
In the old days, Dear Reader, before the world went electronic and digital, clocks were run by mechanisms. To move all gears, pinions, and escapements, there was a big metal spring right in the middle of the works. It was called the mainspring. You would wind a small knob or turn a key to compress the mainspring. The gradual release of that compression furnished all the energy required to make the clock run.
The mainspring of my novel, The Maelstrom, is Anders Gunstensen, a 23-year-old Norwegian farmhand.
A story needs a protagonist to make it go. In The Maelstrom’s braided narrative, each of the three main characters—Anders, Maria, and Daniel—is protagonist of his or her own story. But Anders is the overall protagonist of the book. He is the one who drives the whole plot forward to its conclusion.
The protagonist makes key decisions and takes actions based on those decisions, driving the story forward. If a tale seems vague, meandering, or inconsequential, maybe the protagonist is indecisive. A good story usually has an active protagonist.
Above my desk is a bit of folk wisdom I picked up somewhere along the way:
The Protagonist must PROTAG.
The original manuscript, Freedom’s Purchase, did not stir readers much, because Anders did not protag enough.
In the new version, The Maelstrom, Anders drives the narrative at every key turning point. His decision to emigrate to America starts the flow of action in the book and also motivates Maria to create her own future as a fellow emigrant.
On a steamboat to his planned destination in Central Illlinois, Anders leaps into action to defend the escaping slave Daniel. This futile gesture gets him in trouble but also brings him to the attention of abolitionist farmer Benjamin Lake, who becomes his American mentor.
Anders, indecisive when it comes to love and marriage, is saved by the protagonistic presence of Maria, who has followed him to America. She recruits him into a marriage and farming partnership, to which he commits himself.
But his commitment to farm and family is challenged by another commitment, this one to the cause of freedom. Anders’s idealism drives him to help fugitive slaves—including Daniel, when he makes a new escape. Ultimately, Anders will join the Union Army after the Civil War starts.
When Anders works in Underground Railroad operations, that poses challenges for farm wife Maria. Later, when he joins the Union Army, Maria is left to save the farm and preserve her own virtue all by herself.
In helping Daniel make his second escape good, Anders unleashes a third strong actor in our story—the liberated slave, who takes strong actions to help himself and his fellow slaves.
The Protagonist’s Arc
Major characters in stories are said to have arcs. “Arc” in this case meaning some kind of forward progress. A character who learns new things and becomes a better or more capable person has an arc.
But not every protagonist has a strong character arc. Think of Julius Caesar in Shakespeare’s play of the same name, which you may have read in high school. Caesar, at the play’s opening, is already a triumphant leader, emerging as dictator of Rome. His character never changes. He is denied an opportunity for significant character growth by his fellow senators when they kill him.
Yet Caesar’s ambition drives all the other characters in the play. Brutus, for example, is forced to shed his native caution and strike the fatal blow against Caesar. This change or galvanizing of his personality is a character arc. Brutus has one; Caesar doesn’t.
So it is with Anders. Maria has an arc. We see her grow as she masters challenge after challenge. Daniel has a huge arc. He goes from an oppressed slave with a yen for freedom to a free man and an accomplished fighter for the freedom of others. But Anders remains largely what he always was—a bluff, confident man, and one capable of swift decisions.
Some readers may call Anders impulsive. But from Anders’s point of view, he only acts out of his true nature and the logic of the situation. He does what seems to be called for.
Whether he is impulsive or logical, the key thing about Anders is that he protags. He is the mainspring. He calls the tune to which the others dance.
The result is an entertaining and informative book. I hope to bring it to you in print before long, because you really ought to read it.
When Anders Gunstensen, original protagonist of my historical novel The Maelstrom, flees from servitude under his cruel uncle, he runs into headstrong seventeen-year-old Maria Nybro, daughter of a local boatbuilder.
Anders might be the subject of a police search. He needs to stay hidden. He hides in the boathouse of Maria’s father. Maria rushes to evict a squatter from the boathouse, only to discover it is Anders—long the object of her heart’s desire.
Maria relents from evicting him, but Anders declares he will be off on the morning tide to America. In that moment, Maria resolves that she will go too, no matter what it takes. Maria combines a stubborn determination with an unwavering internal compass. She knows what is right, she knows what she wants, the two are one, and she will make it so.
Maria Gets Her Man
Transplanted to Illinois, she will make her own way as a new immigrant, caring for her addled old Aunt Osa. To gain financial independence she snags a menial job in a prairie hotel. She pursues Anders and makes him see the advantages of a merger. They marry, combine resources, and buy a small farm, which they name Søtstrøm—Norsk for “sweet stream.”
Like all farm wives, then and now, Maria has a hard life. In all weathers and hazards, she cares for Anders and Aunt Osa. She also helps in the fields with the farm work. Though giving birth to two healthy babies, she is also acqainted with sorrow when another child dies in infancy.
Her husband Anders not only works hard to establish their farm—he also involves Søtstrøm and its residents in their new country’s fight against slavery. This complicates to Maria’s life. She meets the challenge head-on, driving off violent slave catchers at gunpoint.
With the little farm yielding good harvests, the nation plunges into civil war. Anders marches off to fight, leaving Maria to manage the farm with the aid of a drunken old hired hand. Maria must produce a living for herself, her two children, and Aunt Osa.
Meanwhile she is besieged by a predatory and amatory creditor, who wants to claim both the farm and Maria herself.
Through all these trials, she grits her teeth and does what she needs to do. She uses not only brute force but also imagination and creativity to solve problems.
I have said before that The Maelstrom is a tale of differing white and black perspectives on American freedom, and the character Daniel represents the black experience.
But Anders and Maria offer two sharply different takes on the white immigrant experience—male and female. While Anders does his manly duty as a warrior, Maria does more than simply keep the home fires burning. She braves harsh vicissitudes and bullying men to preserve the farm she and Anders have built.
Each of the three main characters—Anders, Daniel, and Maria—has an important story to tell about the rigors and opportunities of American life in the middle of the nineteenth century.
I want to tell you how an abstract invention with an attribute of blackness came to life and made an old white fabulist spin a new bicolored tale.
Daniel, a runaway African-American slave, entered my historical novel Freedom’s Purchase as a catalyst for events motivating the main character—Norwegian immigrant Anders Gunstensen—to join the fight against slavery in the 1850s. Daniel was not really a character himself but, rather, a literary device.
In the revised version titled The Maelstrom, Daniel is one of three main characters weaving a braided story of the struggle for freedom. I committed to telling the story from three points of view. And as soon as I began writing chapters from Daniel’s point of view, he came to life.
To pants, or not to pants?
When characters take over a story, speaking and acting for themselves, demoting the author to stenographer, that’s considered a good thing. It can be a problem, though, if the author already has a plan for the shape of the story.
Writers fall into one of two camps: outliners or pantsers. Outliners construct the plot before writing any action or dialogue. Pantsers write by the seat of their pants; they start typing and follow the story where it leads.
Characters taking over a story should be no problem for a pantser. It is what the writer hopes will happen. But to an outliner, a character who takes over may seem to be hijacking the plot.
Few of us, however, are pure outliners or pure pantsers. The latter still need to ride herd so the story moves in a satisfying direction, while the former are often forced to revise their outline when the characters start acting on their own.
If it’s a historical novel, the plot must accommodate well-known facts. For example, you can’t allow your characters to change the Civil War so the South wins.
(Okay, Gentle Reader, you’ve caught me out. Actually, one can write a contra-factual novel. Many people have done it. But then you’re using the Negative Heuristic: following a possibility that did not materialize to see what might have happened if it had. For example, what if Pickett’s charge had succeeded, Lee had won at Gettysburg and rolled on to threaten Philadelphia, and the North had sued for peace? Such stories can be fun, but they’re not historical novels. They’re counter–historical novels.)
How it all came down
I started my book intending to use the factual structure of my ancestors’ real lives to show fictionally how America’s struggle over slavery might have presented itself to new immigrants. Writing about Anders Gunstensen’s journey to America, I knew his passage through the city of New Orleans must give him some kind of moral reckoning over slavery. He must witness a slave auction and be repulsed, and thus become a freedom fighter.
But after New Orleans—both in my story and in real life—Anders went upriver to settle in Illinois. Since slavery is central to the story, I invented a slave named Daniel, who escapes his plantation and flees to Illinois, forcing Anders to deal with the reality of his plight.
Notice how all this revolves around Anders? Daniel is merely a reason for Anders, his wife Maria, and Maria’s old Aunt Osa to respond to the challenges of harboring and helping fugitive slaves in the highly-charged environment of pre-Civil War Illinois.
A narrow escape
That first version of the book was almost published! I was offered a contract by a traditional publisher. After agonizing for a few days, I turned down the offer, not because the book was flawed, but because the publication contract was flawed.
Now I thank God that Freedom’s Purchase was never published.
Two other publishers, who rejected the manuscript, gave me valuable hints on what was wrong with the story. Those hints prompted a full, tooth-to-tail rewrite, which became The Maelstrom. More important than the new title was the new dramatic structure. It is now Daniel’s story as much as it is Anders’s and Maria’s.
Some experts will tell you, Kind Reader, that a novel can only have one main character. But I was writing about European immigrants coping with the traumatic struggle which was engulfing their new country just when they arrived. Telling a story that revolves around American slavery, I came to see that you can’t tell it honestly without representing the viewpoint of the slaves. Daniel represents a whole people, whose freedom struggle is as important as the well-meaning efforts of white abolitionists.
One rejecting editor said “the escaped slave story” did not begin early enough in the book to maintain reader interest. In The Maelstrom, Daniel’s story starts early and, more important, is seen through his own eyes.
Daniel comes to life
As soon as I began writing from Daniel’s viewpoint, a new person arrived on the scene:
Daniel felt like a motherless child. His heart thumping, he crouched in the weeds between two of Mister Davis’s warehouses, not far from Mister Davis’s wharf. Barefoot, he wore the white shirt and trousers that Mister Joseph Davis of Hurricane Plantation issued to all his male slaves in January of their sixteenth year, with a new set to come every January after that. This was Daniel’s first set of white clothes, which he reckoned made him an adult. All he lacked now—besides his dead mammy, for whom he wept by night—was freedom.
The steamboat idled a few yards away.
Torchlight from the wharf made his task more difficult, yet not impossible. Having Mister Davis himself on the wharf, however, might make the trick easier, if Daniel timed it right. The frail old man stood under the big signboard and chatted with his departing guest—a Yankee, by the odd sound of his speech.
The boat’s gangplank touched the wooden wharf. Mister Davis in his top hat, tailcoat, and gloves, the long-jawed Yankee dressed in a plain suit and carrying a carpetbag—the two white men spoke courtesies of departure. Mister Davis valued courtesy at all times.
Now. While they jawin’. Go.
Daniel darted across the open ground. He slipped into the water. His toes sank in warm mud. He waded chest-deep in brown water to the boat. With strong shoulders, he pulled his slim body over the low rail. The Yankee’s footsteps sounded on the gangplank behind him.
As the boat clerk stepped forward to collect the Yankee’s fare, Daniel crept between two crates in the mid-deck cargo pen. The deck gang shouted as they drew in the gangplank. The side wheels churned, and the boat backed away from Hurricane Landing.
Nobody had noticed Daniel, as if he had become invisible. His fear mask melted into a smile of satisfaction.
Light from the landing faded away when the boat turned upriver.
Thus begins the full story of a main character. Over the course of the novel, Daniel will become a fugitive slave, a member a colony of maroons living in the swamp, a rescuing figure like Harriet Tubman, and eventually, a Civil War combatant. Of all characters in the book, Daniel undergoes the most profound transformation. He even learns to read and write.
I like the book a lot better this way.
Norwegian immigrants like Anders and Maria helped make America what it is today. And immigrants were active both in the Abolition movement and in the Civil War. But when Daniel came to life and took his fate in his own hands, The Maelstrom became a compelling story.
On July 20 in this space I mentioned the new direction taken in revision of my historical novel, formerly titled Freedom’s Purchase, now titled The Maelstrom.
I am happy to report that extensive revisions have been made, based on very helpful feedback by championship-level book coach Christine DeSmet. As a result, it’s a much more compelling and exciting book. Many thanks to Christine, a noted author and a great personal friend of mine for many years.
I am now polishing the polish, and before long the book will be again making the rounds to agents and publishers. I’m quite confident we’ll get a good publishing contract this time around.
So have patience! Before long, you’ll get to read the stories of Norwegian immigrants Anders and Maria, and Daniel the slave, in 19th-century America.