Harold Titus, author of Crossing the River (16-20 January)
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Hi Harold! As the person conducting this interview/chat, I'd like to first ask you to summarize your book. I could do it, but since it's your book, I think it's more appropriate that you do it.
"Crossing the River" begins with a veteran British officer commenting in his journal Jan. 8, 1775, about Commanding General Thomas Gage's request for volunteers to become spies to locate munitions stored by Massachusetts's illegal Provincial Congress. It ends May 11 of the same year with the desertion of one of the three soldiers chosen by Gage to spy.
The first four chapters narrate the experiences of the spies. The reader is then introduced to important senior British officers who are major characters in the novel and to Dr. Joseph Warren, who is conducting rebel operations in Boston, and Paul Revere. The reader learns of the pressures placed upon General Gage by the King and his ministers and Gage's plans and how the rebel leadership intends to counteract them.
On the evening of April 18, approximately 700 soldiers are rowed across Boston's Bay Bay to a landfall near Cambridge. Paul Revere is rowed across the bay to Charlestown, evades caputre by two officers detailed to intercept express riders, and arrives at Lexington to alert Sam Adams and John Hancock of the British army's expedition. Lexington militia captain John Parker sends three militiamen out to locate a group of British officers that have ridden through the town seeking the whereabouts of Adams and Hancock. The British army moves slowly toward Lexington. Revere and the three militiamen are captured between Lexington and Concord by the group of officers.
Lexington militiamen meet to decide what to do when the army arrives, Revere and the captured militiamen are released, and the group of officers ride back through Lexington to join the advancing column of soldiers.
Six light infarnty companies, led by Major John Pitcarin, arrive at Lexington at dawn ahead of the column's six companies of grenadiers. Approximately 50 militiamen on the town common face them. Pitcairn orders the militiamen to relinquish their arms and disperse. A shot is fired from somewhere off the common. Two lines of the company nearest the militiamen fire volleys. The militiamen flee. Soldiers chase them. Belatedly, the soldiers' officers take control. Eight Lexington men have been killed.
The expedition's commander, Colonel Francis Smith, decides to march his forces to Concord, as ordered, to locate and destroy the town's stored munitions. The soldiers occupy the town without encountering opposition. Four companies are sent to the farm of Concord militia leader James Barrett to locate hidden munitions. They return to Concord after hearing distant musket fire. Smoke had risen from the town. Rebel militiamen, positioned near the top of nearby Punkatasset Hill, had advanced on the bridge crossing the Concord River, had fired upon the three redcoat companies guarding it, and had driven the soldiers back to Concord. The militiamen return to the hill, the soldiers return safely from the farm, and, having found little of what they had come to destroy, the army prepares to return to Boston.
Militia companies from towns near Lexington and Concord have arrived and taken positions off the road to Lexington. The British column is severely punished. It is rescued by approximately 1,000 soldiers, reinforcements sent by General Gage and led by Colonel Hugh Percy.
Savage fighting occurs in Menotomy and at Cambridge, where Percy evades massed militia companies expecting him to attempt to cross the Charles River to reach Boston by land. Instead, Percy directs his army to Charlestown, arriving safely at Bunker and Breeds Hills at dusk. His forces are then rowed across the bay to Boston.
Missing from this summary are the thoughts, emotions, and experiences of the novel's many characters, most of whom were real people. Their experiences personalize these events, dramatize human strengths and failings, and provide fodder for thought about war, religion, coincidence, and cause and consequence outcomes.
How did you come to write this story? After all, you live on the West Coast of the US and not in New England. Have you always been interested in the Revolutionary War?
My general secondary teaching credential major was history. I've always been interested in American history. I taught it to eighth grade students, along with English, the last seven or eight years of my teaching career. Early on during that career I subscribed to American Heritage Magazine. The publisher came out with a set of books for elementary school children that covered many historical subjects such as whaling and the building of railroads. I bought the set for my older son and read all of the books. One book was about the Battles of Lexington and Concord. There were unusual aspects about those battles that intrigued me. I shared that information with my history students. I wrote a brief, fictional account of the battles for future students at my school to read upon my early retirement. Later, because I had enjoyed the reasearch and the writing and because I love literature (I had taught English my entire career), I challenged myself to convert the Lexington and Concord manuscript into a novel for adults.
I traveled to Massachusetts twice during my writing and visited the historical landmarks: the taverns, Lexington's common, Concord's North Bridge, Punkatasset Hill, the road the British army traveled between Lexington and Concord, the locations of certain houses along that road. Primary and secondary source material also helped give me a feel for time and location.
My branch of the Titus family and related families lived in New England at the time of the American Revolution. John Titus, my great, great, great grandfather, fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Deliverance Parmenter and his son Oliver, both of whom appear briefly in my novel, also fought in the Revolutionary War, Deliverance, as I have depicted, firing his musket at redcoat soldiers retreating from Concord April 19, 1775. Oliver was also a great, great, great grandfather of mine.
Oh, that's soo interesting! To have relatives that actually fought in the battle you write about.
So, other than visiting the site and having taught the material, what other kind of research did you do? And in general, did you enjoy the research part?
At the back of my book is a four-page bibliography. One of the requirements I had to meet to earn a general secondary teaching credential to teach history was to write lengthy term papers based on the use of original sources like personal letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles. Two of my term papers were about Revolutionary War subjects. I thoroughly enjoyed the research and, somewhat less, the struggles I had attempting to write coherent narratives.
I enjoy anecdotes about people. Reading about the histories of Acton, Reading, Lincoln, Woburn, Sudbury, Lexington, and Concord, I came upon information about specific people who had participated in the events of April 19, information that was absent or not fully presented in secondary sources. I also utilized genealogical information I was able to find about family members of characters I featured in my narration. Three of the British officers in my book maintained journals during their stay in Boston. Secondary sources like "Paul Revere's Ride" by David Hackett Fischer offered especially useful excerpts of original sources. For instance, Revere wrote about his experiences beginning with his crossing of the Back Bay April 18 and particularly about his capture between Lexington and Concord. Revere revealed much of the dialogue that took place between his captors and himself as well as much of what was said during the scene at Reverend Clarke's house in which John Hancock argues with Dolly Quincy, his future finacee.
Doing research is part of the fun of writing historical fiction. The other part, eventually, is devising effective ways to utilize it.
You read all these primary sources which are basically narratives. And that had to be very interesting and helpful in writing the story. But how did you write the dialogue? The choice of words and the cadence seem so very authentic that I was flabbergasted! I've read a fair amount of Napoleonic naval historical fiction and with some authors, the dialogue feels very contrived. With some authors, namely those who have been to sea, the dialogue seems much more natural. So, what is your secret to write authentic mid-18th century dialogue?
Thank you, Linda, for the compliment.
The biggest challenge I had regarding dialogue was demonstrating differences between social classes, especially between the British officers and the soldiers in the ranks. What helped me greatly was the fact that I had read Winston Graham's entire series of Poldark novels and all of Patrick O'Brian's seafaring novels. The tone, word selection, and sentence structure of upper class and lower class characters in Graham's novels sort of "sunk in," I believe. I also made notes of characteristics of how Graham's lower class characters spoke. For instance, these characters couple the word "do" with present tense verbs making them contractions, the "o" of "do" being left out. I have Corporal Howe speak this way: "You d'think he's set a trap?" (page 54). Patrick O'Brian offered a treasure chest of British vocabulary and phraseology. As I read each book I made notes and compiled a glossary of words and expressions, which I used extensively. Here is a brief sample of expressions in my glossary that begin with the word "I."
I beg pardon
I cannot in fairness
I dare say
I don't give a bugger for
I don't give a curse for
I'd dearly like to
I have been practiced upon
I must crave
I should like it of all things
Since you went to all the trouble of compiling a glossary, does this mean that you have another historical novel from this period in mind?
Another question I have concerns the structure of the book. Some parts, mainly the first sections, are told from the British point of view, while the rest are from various American points of view. Why did you decide to write it from both points of view and not just say from the American? Did you find writing for the British to be harder than the American?
I've written a rough draft novel about the settlements of Roanoke in the 1580's, but probably won't return to it. I have no other projects in mind.
I began with the British point of view because the reasons for General Gage's decision to seize and destroy munitions at Concord and his plans to do so had to be established. I also needed to establish early the characters of Gage's important subordinate officers -- Smith, Pitcairn, Percy, Mitchell. The rebel response logically followed. There being at least two sides to any conflict, and human beings being the imperfect entities that they are, I didn't want to present a slanted version of the events. I tried to present the characters as I judged them based on what I had researched, keeping in mind that most people in normal circumstances are neither completely villainous nor totally virtuous. From what I have read, not experienced, war can do terrible things to people, the Action schoolmaster James Hayworth being a case in point. I am cuurently reading Kenneth Robert's "Oliver Wiswell." The book presents the loyalist side of the American Revolution. These people were driven from their homes, forced to live in abject poverty, and, ultimately, compelled to leave the country soley because they refused to agree with a point of view they believed to be unjust. Kenneth Roberts asserts that the American Revolution was America's first civil war. He makes an excellent case. I was feeling that when I was writing my book. There were villains on both sides. I did not have any difficultly presenting either point of view.
One question I always like asking authors is what did you learn about writing and yourself from writing this book?
Writing is difficult. I can't just "turn it on." There are moments when my brain is working and words and phrases come to me cooperatively but more often they do not. About two hours a day at my computer was about the time I allotted myself because I knew staying at the task longer would be counterproductive. Also, I learned not to go over what I had written the next day but to come back to it weeks, if not months, later. Reading what you've written with fresh eyes is a humbling, necessary experience. I learned that some aspects of writing fiction are easier to do than others. Narrating action and writing dialogue are easier than communicating feelings and expressing abstract thoughts. Expressing emotional responses in scenes involving dialogue is always a challenge. (You can have your characters frown, scowl, and glare only so much) One remedy is to examine how authors you admire deal with the problem.
You learn your limitations. I would write passages that clearly needed revision and after five or six attempts to improve them, I would find them only slightly better. Sometimes the remedy was subtraction. Cut them out. Or, sometimes, on the seventh try, my mind would open up and the problem would be solved.
Like most anything people do, the longer you do something, the more you improve. I believe I am a better writer now than I was five years ago, certainly better than I was ten years ago, defiinitely better than when I started.
I firmly believe that there are thousands and thousands of people in this country that have the ability to write qualtiy, enjoyable fiction. I suspect that lack of time and perseverence keep many from doing so. Then there is the problem of finding a publisher. Websites like LibraryThing do fledgling writers and avid readers a great service.
Expressing emotional responses in scenes involving dialogue is always a challenge. (You can have your characters frown, scowl, and glare only so much) One remedy is to examine how authors you admire deal with the problem.
This brings up a couple of other questions, which aren't related except in my mind.
First, what authors do you admire? You have mentioned Graham and O'Brian, but are there others?
Second, did you feel constrained by the actual historical events and/or characters?
Steinbeck, William Styron, A. B. Guthrie, Jr. Young adult novels: Cynthia Voight, Robert Cormier.
I did feel somewhat constrained by the historical events. My primary task was to portray the events accurately by narrating the experiences of actual participants. I tried to keep their thoughts, emotions, and words in line with what I had learned about them; but to make some of them more multi-dimensional, making inferences, I employed creative license. Lieutenants Sutherland and Adair were both aggressive types given to acting independently, so I created a scene in which they verbally abuse an artillery lieutenant they happen to come across while scouting the Lexington road.
One challenge I had was to provide variation in my narration of the British retreat. I did this by ascribing fictional experiences to certain militiamen. The most extreme example is Simon Winsett. I knew he had been sent out by Lexington's Captain Parker to locate and report back the location of the approaching British column. I knew who his family members were. I knew about his no-account cousin, Jason. who indeed was killed in Benjamin Cooper's tavern. Everything else about him (and his famly members) in my story was fictitious. Most everything I wrote about James Hayworth was true. What was fictitious was the emotional trauma he experienced while resting near the red-roof house and the ice-fishing scene he shared with his two brothers and Isaac Davis. He did have a sweetheart; I gave her a name and how he happened to meet her. Did I feel guilty fictionalizing these real people? Yes, enough to change their actual surnames. The fictionalizing did not alter, however, the accuracy of the day's major events.
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