Like to solve a good trivial question?
Here’s one. Of the four items mentioned below, which is most important for an author starting a new novel?
A. Having your mother proof-read it when you’re done.
B. Buying a manual typewriter from an antique store so you can feel like a real writer.
C. Writing the biggest action scene first so all the other scenes are easier to write.
D. Conducting in-depth research so your scenes are realistic.
If you answered D, you win the carnival lamp with the lady’s sexy legs.
A couple of my fellow Writing Wranglers & Warriors – Doris McCraw and Nancy Jardine – have written posts about the research they conduct for their works-in-progress – topics like women doctors in the Western states of the U.S. West and Roman Era places in Scotland. When I decided to write a Civil War novel, I knew I would have to research the time period and the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, even though I’ve been a Civil war re-enactor and was a prolific reader of all things Civil War.
War’s Blessed Shadows begins in 1861 Southeastern North Carolina. Its main character, Bill Bradley, is a teenager from Kenansville. He falls in love with a girl from Duplin Cross Roads, just a few miles west of Kenansville. In any other time, he’d court her and they’d be married. But the bugles are blowing and musket fire will soon erupt north in Virginia. The tug of duty pulls Bill away from his sweet Becky. He enlists shortly after his eighteenth birthday in late September 1862 with the Eighteenth North Carolina and heads to Virginia to join the regiment’s companies needing to refill the ranks after losses at the Battle of Antietam.
I had him ride a train up to the environs of Fredericksburg, since I knew a battle would take place there in mid-December. I even worked on outlines for chapters detailing company, regimental and brigade maneuver training, then marching to Fredericksburg to head off the Army of the Potomac. Guess what? Wrong!
Something bothered me as I outlined scenes. Something just didn’t feel right. A whisper borne by the wind tickled my ear: Do more research. If you research it, the truth will come.
So I did. The Eighteenth N.C., a regiment in Colquitt’s Brigade, part of A.P. Hill’s light division, an elite unit in Stonewall Jackson’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, wasn’t bivouacked anywhere near Fredericksburg. Remember, the Army of North Virginia had just fought the Army of Potomac on September 17 near Sharpsburg, Maryland, a battle now called Antietam. Nearer to Harper’s Ferry than Sharpsburg, the Eighteenth N.C. now camped at Bunker Hill in the Shenandoah Valley, once in Virginia, now in West Virginia. I was off by one hundred and seventy five miles. I’m doing a lot more research now, not depending on deduction and faulty logic.
After Lincoln made Burnside commander of the Army of the Potomac, the Union general decided to make a dash past Lee’s lines and capture Richmond, the capital of the new Confederate States of America. He initiated his plans in mid-November. Yes, in mid-November when weather can be capricious. And in November 1862 it was ugly, horrible weather. When the Eighteenth got the orders to start marching out of the Shenandoah Valley toward Fredericksburg, the gray clouds were spitting out sleet. A.P. Hill’s men managed to make a 175-mile march in twelve days (including two days of rest), stopping at a plantation house a few miles from Fredericksburg. I’m now including a chapter detailing this march from hell. See how research helps?
Lee managed to put his Army of Northern Virginia on the Fredericksburg side of the Rappahannock River opposite Burnside’s federal forces. That’s because the dreadful weather and a mix-up between the Washington, D.C. command and Burnside prevented pontoon bridges from reaching the Army of Virginia. Instead of bridging the Rappahannock without opposition, the Yankees would face artillery and musketry fire. Burnside decided to duke it out with Lee at Fredericksburg, a decision that nearly destroyed the Army of the Potomac. Lee’s men slaughtered the Yankees as they tried to assault entrenched Confederates atop hills and ridges overlooking Fredericksburg. Hill placed his light division, including Colquitt’s Brigade, on level ground at Longstreet’s right flank. The chapter containing this battle scene has a working title: Baptism of Fire. I’ve done a ton of research on it… page after page after page. And I also plan to buy a book on the Eighteenth North Carolina that will give me an up-close-and-personal view of the battle. I should be able to make the battle vivid for readers, showing the fighting through the eyes of Bill and his friends, Charlie, Kenny and Daniel.
The issues impacting the North and South during the Civil War are alive and well in the USA today – slavery then, race relations now; states’ rights then, states’ rights now. With armed Rappahannock militias holding an Oregon bird sanctuary hostage, Black Lives Matter protests in the streets, a massacre of black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church, folks today are debating many of the same issues their ancestors worried about back then.
But I don’t want to forget the human element – men facing death and maiming on battlefields and love stories on hold until “Johnny comes marching home.” The tale should be fun to write once the chapter-by-chapter outline is complete. One final thought… as I do the outline, I often listen to a song by Storyhill for inspiration – Better Angels. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTMx6-LJomo&list=PLB121F866E5095811&index=1
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I have a published fantasy trilogy, Larenia’s Shadow. The three books – The Emperor’s Mistress, Thief’s Coin, and Assassins’ Lair – can be purchased on the websites of Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords.