The book I'm currently shopping to editors and agents is nothing like the book I had in mind when I sat down to write it. In fact, about the only parts that have survived are the setting (my hometown of Wilmington, N.C.); the Civil War time period; and the names of three characters.
The book I set out to write was intended for pre-teens in the 10-12 age range. My premise was that young people were forced to grow up much faster in the mid-1800s, and so took on extremely adult roles and responsibilities. I thought young people of today would be surprised to learn about some of the jobs they might have held if they had lived 150 years ago. I wanted to show teens from a variety of backgrounds and classes, and I wanted to have their stories revolve around the fall of Ft. Fisher, the amazing-but-relatively-unknown Civil War battle that had been steeping in my brain for nearly thirty years.
Almost immediately, four characters between the ages of 13 and 15 began clamoring for my attention. Priscilla was a Wilmington girl, daughter of a prominent merchant, wealthy and a bit spoiled. Jaime was the son of a Cape Fear river pilot; when I met him, he was on his first blockade-running mission. Ben, son of a prominent Union admiral, had just arrived on the flagship of the Union blockading squadron to serve as a cabin boy, and participates in an attack on Jaime's ship. Caleb, a slave boy, fishes for the food that graces the table of his mistress, who owns the boarding house in Smithville (today's Southport), the town where all the Cape Fear river pilots live. The book also had several minor characters, including a bona fide dandy war profiteer conceived as a pure plot device. My dandy didn't even have a name. All I knew about him was that he was a scoundrel.
I had written several chapters about each of my four young people and thought it was all going quite swimmingly when my online critique partner, intrigued by all the plot points she was helping me to brainstorm, asked if she could read a few chapters. I sent her what I had and then waited for her critique. It was nothing like what I expected. "You do know," she said, "that you're writing a romance?"
When that comment popped up on my instant messenger screen, I was so shocked I nearly sprayed the coffee I was drinking across the room.
My critique partner is a romance writer, and since what she said wasn't what I wanted to hear, I concluded she was merely projecting her own sensibilities onto my work. Undaunted, I kept writing. A month or two later, I had the chance to attend an SCBWI (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators) workshop led by Pam Zollman, a gifted writer and former Highlights for Children editor. As part of the workshop, Pam offered one-on-one critiques. Hopeful that Pam would see in my manuscript what I saw in my manuscript, I paid my fee and sent in a few chapters.
On the day of the workshop, I could barely wait for my private time with Pam. When my turn finally came, we had a great chat. She was extremely complimentary, though she thought four main characters were at least two too many for readers to get fully invested in. She suggested I pick two to concentrate on and let the other two become minor characters. And then she threw me the zinger. "I think there's a very good chance that what you're really writing is a romance."
One wacky comment I could ignore. But the same wacky comment from two people I respect? That "coincidence" could not be swept under the rug so easily. So I asked Pam what gave her the idea my middle-grade novel was really a romance. "The dandy," she said. "He's very dashing, and I think there might be something between him and Priscilla." And then she said something my critique partner had been saying to me for months. "You really should consider joining RWA (Romance Writers of America) and see if that helps you discover what's going on with this story."
Now, when the universe sends me signals, I try to be receptive. Maybe not at first, but hit me over the head a few times and I'll probably notice. And I'm not one of those people who automatically ridicules romances as trash; there are good and bad books and writers in every genre. When I was in high school, I read lots of what were then called "gothic" novels, and loved them. No one spun romantic tales better than Victoria Holt (Menfreya in the Morning) and Catherine Gaskin (A Falcon for a Queen), my two favorites. Their stories were full of beautiful women who lived in castles and wore velvet gowns and roamed the moors and won the hearts of dashing gentlemen against impossible odds. Reading their books was as satisfying to my romantic teenage heart as a box of Godiva chocolates is to my middle-aged soul today. But I was a children's author. I'd never thought of myself as anything else. I didn't want to write a romance. Did I?
Puzzled, I set the project aside and went back to editing an earlier manuscript. And then, one night, while I was soaking in a bubble bath and enjoying a glass of wine, the dandy stopped by for a chat.
I was, to say the least, surprised. My crit partner's characters routinely interrupt her ablutions to discuss how she's telling their stories, but it had never happened to me.
"You know you're getting it all wrong," the dandy said, his black eyes twinkling in the candlelight. "This is my story."
"No, it's not," I said. "You're nothing but a plot device. You don't even have a name."
"I'm the hero," he countered, completely undaunted. "And I don't appreciate you depicting me as a drunk and a scoundrel."
"Only a scoundrel would show up uninvited and plop down on the side of a lady's bathtub," I retorted. "I'd like for you to leave now, because I'm ready to get out."
"I'm not going anywhere until you hear what I have to say." To emphasize his point, he leaned back against the wall, stretched out his long legs, and crinkled his eyes at me from beneath the shock of glossy black hair sweeping across his forehead.
It was obvious at this point that I wasn't going anywhere either, even though the tips of my fingers were already beginning to wrinkle. Sighing, I added more bubble bath, turned on the whirlpool to stir up a nice, thick blanket of foam, and settled in for the duration. "So," I said. "What is it that you think I simply must know?"
"My name," he said, "is Alston Buchanan. And I am not at all what I seem."
To be continued.....
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