The Adventures of Charlie Smithers is a novel that took place in 19th century Africa, so was promptly labeled as historical fiction by many publishing houses (a genre that, for some reason, they do not accept). There's little enough historical content, so I hesitate to agree, for all the good it does me, but after flogging every publisher that was calling for submissions, and being continually turned down, I resolved that my next novel would be contemporary as all get out, and as literary as anyone could ask for. So naturally, I launched into Josiah Stubb, a story that took place in the 18th century, based on the second siege of Louisbourg. I don't know what gets into my head sometimes, but that's the way it goes with writing - at least that's the way it goes with me. The story presents itself, and I write it - I mean, there's really not that much choice. So there I was, up to my eyeballs in historical fiction again, only this time even deeper than ever.
Still, I have interest in that period. As a whole, I think that Canadians know very little about that time: only that the British success was the prelude to The Plains of Abraham the following year. But given that building the fortress was one of the most ambitious undertakings by the French in North America, and that it was deemed by many to be impregnable, the obvious question arises: How did the British take it?
It was compelling, and before I knew it, I was pouring over every book that I could find on the subject, as well as spending untold hours on Google. Let's be clear, though, as a rule I hate doing research, as I imagine that most fiction writers do. That's the surest way of taking an interesting subject and boring me silly, until something that was meant to be enjoyable actually becomes work. But there is a case to be made for taking yourself seriously. I mean if you consider yourself as a serious writer, and you're going to tell a tale based on fact, then you have a responsibility to do everything in your power to get those facts right. Keeping that in the back of my mind was a great motivator throughout the process.
I began Josiah Stubb on the 15th of August, 2010, and finished the rough draft shortly after the New Year in 2011. That may seem like a long time for a rough draft, but bear in mind that there were frequent interruptions as the emerging story revealed ever more questions demanding answers, and then it was back to the research table again until I was ready to proceed. That could be hard sometimes. I'm not patient when it comes to writing. I want to get at it as soon as the idea comes to mind. I'm hooked on the journey, the place where it takes me, and anything that gets in the way is regarded as a distraction. In the case of Josiah Stubb, there were distractions aplenty. That's probably why I felt so unsure with what I had when I was finished. The continuity had been broken so many times that I wasn't sure if there was any flow. As a rule, I make a serious effort to edit my work before letting Heartless Editor get her hands on it (which might explain why I get so hysterical when she gives it a thumbs down - I mean, when you think that you're down to nudging commas around, and inserting the odd semi-colon for effect, and she points out some rather serious errors, that will require what seems like an immense amount of work to fix, denial is a pretty enticing alternative), but this time I gave her the (very) rough draft, more or less saying, "Here! You figure it out, because I can't." She read it and offered a few suggestions (like maybe watering down the love scenes a little [I tend to get carried away]) but on the whole declared that she liked it.
That was a relief. In fact, it was huge. It got the adrenaline pumping again to the point where I could see, that with just a few changes, the road would become clearer. After that the process continued far more smoothly.
There comes a time in the process where you see what you have, but you can also see what it could become. As improved as it was, I still had to admit that the manuscript wasn't readable. Something was missing, like it was too two dimensional or something. It lacked depth, texture, and all those undefinable elements that make a story come to life. It felt like there was a disconnection. I mean, there I was, stuck out on the prairies, writing about something that happened way out on the east coast almost three hundred years ago. All I knew about the places I was writing was from books, and I felt that that's the way that they read. So, with that in mind, I could see that there was no way around it - if I insisted on considering myself as a serious writer, a road trip was definitely in order.
Cape Breton - the parts I saw of it - is beautiful in the summer. I would like to see more some day, but we (Heartless Editor and myself) were there on a working vacation, so it was straight to business. Driving into the modern town of Louisbourg was a thrill. When we pulled into the small, but very nice hotel overlooking the harbour, it felt like coming home. There, maybe a mile to the left, was Lighthouse Point (in the flesh, so to speak), and over there, an equal distance to the right, was the fortress itself - which meant that that island I could see right in front of me at the harbour's mouth must be where the Island Battery had been situated...which meant that we couldn't be very far from the Royal Battery's site. All the research I'd done to that point was paying dividends. During our time there we visited the fortress twice, walked over every square inch of it - from Rochefert Point to the King's Bastion, and studied the ruins of the unreconstructed Queen's and Princess' Bastions, where it's still possible to see the scars in the earthworks from untold barrels of gunpowder the British used when they destroyed it as a precaution, in case Louisbourg was ever returned to France after the end of hostilities, as had been done previously. We drove out to Freshwater Cove (as it was called at the time. Its modern name is Kennington Cove, after the frigate that provided covering fire during the landing) and again the research came into play, as there were no signs to show where the main British had landed, but we found it with very little trouble, and even found the clefts in the rock, large enough for one, maybe two boats, that General Amherst spoke of. We walked out to Black Point, drove out to Lighthouse Point, and walked out to Wolfe's Landing (not to be confused with the real landing at Freshwater Cove) where the siege guns were brought in from the fleet, then dragged with inestimable toil, over rocks and through bogs to the various batteries that eventually encircled the harbour. As far as research went, it was priceless, and when we returned to the hotel, I would while away the hours doing re-writes, or transferring a wealth of notes taken during the day into the story's outline, happily sure that, now, I was getting it right.
That was Cape Breton. In a way, St. John's was even better.
Louisbourg is a sleepy little town that virtually shuts down in the evening. St. John's is neither sleepy, nor little (to someone who thinks that Brandon's too big) and comes alive after dark. It's vibrant, yet friendly, with cars stopping for us if we even looked like we wanted to cross the street (we must have had TOURIST stamped on our foreheads). The taxi drivers' were helpful, and their accents charming, and I won't even start about the food. After all, we were there to work.
We were all over Signal Hill (Flagstaff, as it was known in period), even out on North Head, where a bittersweet scene was to play out in the book. Between Cape Breton and St. John's, I wouldn't want to calculate all the miles we walked, but let's just say that when we went out for dinner in the evening, we felt that it was well-deserved.
This was all really good stuff we were getting, but the reason - the main reason - we had come to St. John's was that I wanted to get a feel for what the town had been like in that period. Since that time there had been at least four major fires that had destroyed virtually everything, and each time the rebuilders hadn't felt obliged to follow the lines of that which had just been erased. So it was almost impossible to describe the town with any sort of accuracy. I didn't know any street names, or even if there were any streets, or if they were cobbled. Who was the gentry, or what passed for gentry? I knew the manner of government, but where did it reside? In fact, I knew very little, and hoped to find answers at Memorial University. What we got was a huge pile of books that the librarian thought might be helpful. They might have been for all I know, but we were due to fly out the next day, and I couldn't see us pouring over all those books in that time. Then we struck gold. The previous day, a lady from Archives gave us the name of an archeologist (who shall remain unnamed, but his initials are Gerald Penney) who ran a consulting firm for the city.
At first I was dubious. I wasn't sure if an archeologist was what I wanted. An archeologist could tell me where a road was, but not what it was called, and that seemed true for everything else I wanted to know, but I shouldn't have worried. I Googled his firm, got an email address, and sent a message stating what it was that I wanted. I received a reply a few hours later with an invitation to drop by his offices the next morning (the morning that found us in the library), and he would see what he could do. So we summarily abandoned the books, and took a cab out to see him. As it turned out, we didn't get to speak to him for very long, because he turned us over to the historian he had on staff (who also shall remain unnamed, but his initials are Bob Cuff). A historian was exactly what I wanted, and I don't think I could have done any better than Bob.
Once more we explained what we wanted, he didn't blink an eye, but excused himself, returning within the minute with a map, dated just a year or two before the time when the story took place. Then he started to talk. I was scribbling like mad: wonderfully antique names like YellowBelly, Maggoty Cove, King's Wharf, Parson's Garden, Ring Noone, and on and on and on, until when we reached the end an hour later, I was fighting the worst case of writer's cramp I'd had in years, and pages and pages of my notebook had been filled. I continued to correspond with Bob long after returning home, and continued to glean valuable information from his wealth of knowledge. How do you adequately thank someone for that? Not just for his knowledge, but his patience as well.
But that was our working vacation, and from thereon in the process was more the norm, until by December, I was at last able to declare it at least readable, and began to send it out for consideration, knowing that, historical fiction or not, no stone had been left unturned to make it the best that it could be.
And that is the story behind the making of Josiah Stubb.