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Excerpt from The Light

Editing and revising The Light, it’s interesting to see how the arguments of the day find themselves in the mouths of my characters.  One that was dear to the hearts of the Quakers who form the central figures in this story, and which, with our knowledge of what was to come later in history, is that of slavery.

“The sheer, unmitigated gall of that man, who styles himself as the ruler of all Englishmen.   He is not fit to rule a chamber pot, much less these colonies!  Submit or triumph, says he?  Well, I for one know which I believe it will be.  How will an independent Republic on these shores strike him, one which answers not to his dominion, but which may at some date in the future deign to have relations with him for the sake of trade alone?”

“I fear that he will find out, William, if he does not repeal these intolerable acts.  These Colonies have been stretched to the breaking point by his disregard for our position in his empire.  What will happen if he persists in these provocations fills me with unease for the future.”

Shaking his head, Robert continued, “Can these Colonies indeed form a nation independent of the protection of Britain?”  He paused for a moment, then plunged on with his thought, come what may of his neighbor’s untested position in the question he was moved to raise.  “Can we indeed form a nation at all, when half of the self-styled ‘states’ tolerate and support the abomination of one man claiming ownership over another?   How can any nation claim to have a foundation in liberty while tolerating such a practice within its borders?”

William nodded thoughtfully.  “‘Tis a problem, Robert, though one that we may be able to leave for some future generation to face, with the greater wisdom of their time.”

Robert replied, “I think not, William.  If thou witnessed a man robbing someone, wouldst thou turn aside, and leave it to someone else to stop the thief?  Or wouldst thou apprehend him and see justice done as swiftly as possible?  And how much worse is it to steal a man’s whole life than a loaf of bread?”

The older man was taken aback at the vehemence of Robert’s tone, but paused a long moment before responding.  “And if the law said that the thief were justified in taking that loaf of bread, how then would you propose to address that injustice?”

Robert raised his finger pedantically.  “Ah, but dear neighbor, if we are to form a new nation, might we not have the opportunity to enshrine true justice in the laws of that nation?”

William’s eyes narrowed in thought.  “Indeed such laws might well be possible, but would they be practical?  Will not the thief resort to violence against a citizen who attempts to restrain him?  I fear that the same would be the outcome should these colonies attempt to enforce justice in this matter.”

“So shall we just permit injustice to live among us, because we fear those who commit those injustices?  Is that any basis for a nation of virtue?”

“We shall be, as we are now, a nation of humans, Robert, in all our imperfections and glory, regardless of what high ideals we may subscribe to.  I agree with you that slavery is an abomination, and indeed, like you, I would see it abolished throughout these colonies tomorrow, were I granted that power.  But I know, too, that virtue and reality do not always get along in this world of sin.”

Robert sighed.  “I do understand what thou art saying, William, but this is not a matter of mere expediency.  Hast thou ever seen these miserable people working in bondage?  When I started as an apprentice to George at the smithy, he held a slave to work in the shop, primarily employed at the forge, keeping the bellows.  This man worked harder than any other three men I’ve met, and when I spoke with him, and asked him how he could possibly work so hard, he just smiled and said that George was the easiest master he’d ever known, and he was glad to be here.”

Robert looked William in the eye, staring hard at him for a moment before continuing, “William, this man owed nothing of his own, not even the clothes upon his back.  He could be sold like a steer or whipped like a dog, and nobody would raise a hand in his defense… and this was the best life he had ever known?  I shudder to think of what his brethren in the southern colonies endure.”

William regarded Robert, his lips pursed in thought.  Finally, he shook his head slowly, saying “I agree with you, Robert, but I do not see how we can solve this problem today, you and I.   We can but pray for wisdom among those who are charged with the responsibility of weighing such matters.”

Robert nodded in agreement.  “I do so, on a daily basis.”

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Up for Discussion

The Prize lends itself particularly well to book club and classroom discussions, with its rich and carefully realistic view of life at the edges of the English settlements, but at the center of the early days of the Revolution.

To facilitate these discussions, I’ve prepared a set of discussion questions. They’re broken out into five-chapter groups, which represent around 30 pages for each set of questions.  Meeting just once a week, your group can easily read and dissect The Prize in just over a month – or less than a case of Charles Shaw’s finest (unless your club is very thirsty).

Enjoy!

Discussion Questions

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Cause for revolution

When any government, or any church for that matter, undertakes to say to its subjects, ‘This you may not read, this you must not see, this you are forbidden to know,’ the end result is tyranny and oppression, no matter how holy the motives. Mighty little force is needed to control a man whose mind has been hoodwinked; contrariwise, no amount of force can control a free man, a man whose mind is free. No, not the rack, not fission bombs, not anything – you can’t conquer a free man; the most you can do is kill him.

– Robert A. Heinlein, If This Goes On, 1940

This week marks Banned Books Week, and while there’s a part of me that kinda wishes that someone, somewhere would ban one of my books for the publicity value, the more serious part of me is deeply grateful that I don’t have to worry about this as a practical matter.

It hasn’t always been so – indeed, in the broad sweep of human history, we are living in a moment that is aberrant in its broad tolerance for dissenting voices.  Personal expression is protected, honored and defended to a degree that 99% of all humans ever to have lived would find foreign – and a large proportion of that 99% would probably find it repugnant.  We grow accustomed to the chains we wear, to the point of preferring them to the dangers of freedom.

Part of why I choose to write about the American Revolution is that it represents the first great eruption of the idea of freedom for all – not just a privileged few, who happened to be born with the “right” ancestors, or who cultivated influential connections, but for every farmer, every blacksmith, every prayer, every sinner… and every writer.

To be sure, the history of human freedom starts far, far before our Revolution, and has continued to make progress since it – and there are vast opportunities still to see its ongoing growth.  But the men and women whose struggles I try to relate were true pioneers in this long journey, even if they didn’t have a conscious sense of it as they tried to simply live their lives.

It is because of their victories that I can write about their lives, that I have the freedom to imagine and share what their daily experiences were like, what they thought, what blasphemies they uttered.  I cherish that freedom, and I’m proud to have the chance to exercise it.

Instead of urging you to read my book, today I’m going to urge you to find a banned book – one that some self-appointed arbiter of right and wrong thought you needed to be “protected” from – and do your bit to continue the journey toward universal freedom.  Thank you.  (There’ll be plenty of time to read my books, don’t worry… nobody’s thought of banning them… darn it all.)

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Proof of Concept

Sometimes, my characters do things that make me wonder, “is that really possible?”  For instance, in The Prize, Caleb routinely paddles his canoe over what I came to realize were some pretty extended distances.  I’ve done a little bit of canoeing myself, but I wondered whether I was asking too much of the boy.

So the summer after I completed the manuscript, I got out onto Lake Champlain myself, first just paddling around the bay, but working up to longer trips.  Within a couple of months of irregular practice, I was pretty readily able to drive my canoe a couple of miles without resting – and I’m no paragon of physical fitness.

Based on this experience, I figured that a younger man, for whom the canoe was a primary means of transportation, and who was accustomed to the daily exertions of working on a family farm, would be more than able to perform the feats of canoeing that I depicted.

In addition, reading some accounts of canoe trips by modern-day recreational paddlers convinced me that the trips I wrote into the story would have represented a solid part of a hard day’s work, but I consider my conception of Caleb’s habitual travels around the lake to be completely plausible.

I’m tempted now to find out for myself just how difficult it is to shear a sheep with just 18th-century shears… but that’s another book (The Declaration) that’s not out yet.  Perhaps another time.

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The Magic Moment

My novel-writing process is generally pretty organic. I don’t typically spend a lot of time beforehand plotting out what the arc of the story will look like, what events will take place where or when, any of that.

Instead, I start with a character, and begin exploring what that character’s up to, what their life is like, what they’re thinking about the events unfolding around them. I get to know them, and introduce them to my reader.

Of course, at first, this material is all coming from my own conscious thoughts and decisions and research and intentions for the character.

Eventually, though, my character starts to speak for himself (or herself). I can almost feel them draw that first shuddering breath of life, as they cast my hand off their shoulder and say to me, “I’ll take it from here.”

That’s a magical moment for me, and it’s when I know I’ve got a story – and after that point, it’s just a matter of keeping up with my characters as their story unfolds, writing it down as they tell it to me.

Yeah, I still sometimes take control and make something happen, whether for dramatic purposes, or because events on the calendar by which my character is living are pressing on me.

For the most part, though, I let my characters lead the way, solving their problems, feeling their hurts, living their lives. It’s not a very structured way of writing a novel, but it works pretty well for me.

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Questions of Faith

At the time and places where my novels are set, religion was a very important part of people’s private lives – perhaps even more so than it is today.

Some of the Founders were, famously, unconventional in their approach to faith, but for the most part, my characters’ relationship with God or the divine powerfully influenced how they saw the world and dealt with the events that unfolded around them.

This makes writing these aspects of their personae a substantial challenge for me, as a modern-day agnostic.

On the one hand, I can approach each of my characters’ inner beliefs with a more-or-less unjaundiced eye, as I do not find any of the common faiths of the that time to be more or less “right” than the others.

On the other hand, I have to really work at adequately illustrating how the nuances of the Quaker belief are drawn from the Bible, or how Calvinist thought would have animated the thoughts of a man struggling to recover from a crushing personal loss.

For a person of no particular religious belief, I spend an inordinate amount of time when I’m writing studying Biblical passages and consulting with friends whose innate sense of faith can lend me insights. It’s an interesting problem for me as a writer, and one that I enjoy tackling.

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Write What You Want to Know

I know, I know – we’re supposed to write what we know, first and foremost, and I’ve done my fair share of that, including a whole book on how small businesses can use the Internet, an article on meadmaking, and dozens of shorter pieces about topics that I knew a little something about.

But I enjoy taking things in a different direction with my writing, too.

As a person with very widely divergent interests, it’s easy for me to get sucked into studying up on a topic that grabs my attention. Now, I have an excuse to do so – it’s for my novel.

I’ve never seen a tobacco plant in person in my life – but after writing The Declaration, I’m willing to bet that I could raise one to maturity successfully. I’m also willing to bet that I could not make a wrought-iron fireplace poker or shear a sheep or build a birchbark canoe — but I have a deeper appreciation for those who can and do practice such arts.

I’ve picked up all sorts of interesting tidbits in the course of my writing, and they’ve enriched my own experience of the world. I hope that they do likewise for my readers, so that I have ample opportunity to go on learning more about the topics that grab my fancy.

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