Daniel—A Minor Plot Device Goes Rogue

Dear Reader,

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.

The Captive Slave, painting by John Philip Simpson (1782–1847). Public domain.

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 counterhistorical 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.

Parting thoughts

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.

Next Time: Maria—The Unstoppable Woman

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Terror at 20,000 Words

OUTLINERS figure out what the story is, then write it. 

PANTSERS are writers who “fly by the seat of their pants” and get surprised by their stories. 

Which one are you? Or, which would you be, if you were a writer?

I have always been an Outliner. Now, however, I’m changing my tune, and it scares me to death.

The Haven of Preparedness

Outlining may be considered a premeditated act. An Outliner commits Fiction in the First Degree.

Dentistry in my day. Public Domain.

This approach has a lot to recommend it. Once you have the whole plot engineered in outline form, you know where you are going. All that remains is to render it in prose. 

But the way I personally think of it is: I must do the hard part first, the part I don’t like one bit, the part that intimidates me, which is making up the story

Inventing plot twists, character actions, and dramatic events is like having all my teeth drilled and filled, one by one, and then extracted, without benefit of Novocain. That’s why I prefer to take refuge in historical novels. The main events have already happened and are known. All I need to invent is a few details. Even that seemingly small effort can leave me wounded and edentulous. 

Writing prose, on the other hand—with its delicious prospect of future revision, and further revision; polishing, and then polishing the polishing—is a pleasant gambol in Elysian fields. Given any encouragement at all, I could spend the rest of my life merrily revising a single chapter.

Elysian Fields by Carlos Scwabe, 1903. Public Domain.

Fabulous

The problem is, people want a story. People consume stories wholesale. People hunger for story. And The Magic of Story is the reason I got into this game in the first place.

I was seventy years old then. In the five years since, I have learned a lot about writing. Mostly about the technique of writing. About craft. About marketing.

But the most important thing I’ve learned is that a story is more than the words by which it is told. It’s more than the plot turns along the way. A story is the verisimilitude of a live person’s meeting and overcoming—or perhaps succumbing to—challenges that are interesting and exciting. A story is the telling, or the showing, of “life as she is lived.”

To bring a story to life by draping a string of phrases over an outline is a highly artificial skill. Only a few people can do it well, like an actor bringing a character to life on stage by sheer technique. For what I’m trying to write now, that just won’t do.

I must become a method actor. 

A Pantser.

Izzy—or izzn’t he?

A few years ago, I wrote some light-hearted short stories about a 1950s boy named Izzy Mahler. I was thrilled when three of them were e-published by The Saturday Evening Post. (You can read them herehere, and here.)

These Izzy stories replicate my own boyhood. Every detail comes straight from personal experience, with minor re-arrangements to enhance the drama. 

Now, I am starting a book about Izzy Mahler. It’s not a collection of Izzy short stories but a full, front-to-back novel aimed at young people, starring an Izzy slightly older than the one who appears in the Saturday Evening Post stories. 

The story this novel tells will have a bit more substance. I could never write anything really dark; but growing up in the 1950s was not all Leave It to Beaver. Kids had problems to face.

I started by outlining a plot for this book. It took a great deal of mulling over, but ultimately it went well: I emerged with a real spiffy outline. Then I started to write the text, based on my outline. I got seven chapters in before noticing that, although the writing was going very well, the book was going astray. The story was going off the rails by staying true to the outline.

There was no spontaneity to it. No real voyage of discovery for Izzy Mahler. 

I had made a rookie error. I mistook my protagonist for myself. 

If Izzy is merely a smudged copy of me, his saga will be a failure. My actual boyhood served me well enough, but it was not the stuff of stories. Whatever unhappiness I owned, whatever traumas in my upbringing, they cannot be cured by rehashing old grudges or inchoate yearnings on paper. That is not fiction, it is whining.  

Protagonizing

What is needed, if the past is to have meaning for the future, is an imaginative restaging, starring a better and more interesting person than me. That would be Izzy, you see. But this improved Izzy will not take pleasing shape from an outline. Izzy needs to be a true protagonist. He must burst forth from his circumstances and shove the story rudely in its ultimate direction. 

Melancholy protagonist? Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. William Morris Hunt, oil on canvas, circa 1864. Public Domain.

In this account of things, Izzy is someone who flies by the seat of his pants. To capture him alive, I must follow his example.

Someone told me:

“The protagonist must protag.”

Don’t waste your time looking up “protag” in your Funk & Wagnall’s. No such word appears. It’s just a writer’s in-joke, meaning that for a book to enthrall readers, big things must happen; and the central character must be the one who makes them happen.

If I have a main fault as a writer, it’s that my characters are too much like me: Timid, passive, inert. Lord, preserve my little hero Izzy from such a fate. But Izzy will only seize his destiny if I grasp the nettle and make him strong where I am weak.

That is why Pantsers are always saying things like, “I thought it was a story about lust and betrayal, but then my hero took it in a whole different direction.” 

The plunge. . . . Photo by Clarke’s County, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

All I can do is put Izzy on paper and confront him with challenges that he must address. Just fly by the seat of my pants, and hope the story will be worth reading.

But right now, in the moment of doing, it feels like I’m riding the world’s tallest roller-coaster. My carriage, on the top level, has just tilted sharply downward and started its plunge. 

Pray for me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer