A Writer’s Notebook: revision (Civil War novel)

As some of you know (or as a lot of you know — for some reason I racked up more then 400 visitors yesterday!), I’ve had the 19th century American South on the brain lately, partly because I was so wrapped up in watching the Hatfields & McCoys miniseries on the History Channel and partly because I’ve been working on my Civil War novel set in Southwestern Louisiana.

So I thought today I’d share one of the new scenes I added to my book today, with a little explanation of where it’s coming from and why it’s in here, after the sample.

Inside the hut, she dropped the bucket so the water slipped over the rim to seep in the earthen floor. The woman glanced sideways but kept at her work sharpening a long kitchen knife. You took you a while, she said while the girl reached into the ragbin to wipe her brow.

Thought I saw a gator, the girl said. Just a hump of old tree, but I didn’t want to risk it, so I stood still a while.

Too bad it weren’t one. Gator’s good eating and would set us up for a week.

I reckon they ain’t no more trouble to kill than a man, but I don’t know as I’d like to find out.

Shoot, they just like a man. Get a hold on they mouths and they can’t do nothing to fight you off. The woman tested the edge of the knife and wrapped it in an oilcloth to set aside. My Alphonse used to wrestle gators out the yard ever morning just so’s little Remy could go outside for his chores. They was one morning I woke to Remy shaking in his sheets and Alphonse stalking the house with a lit candle in one hand and that they knife in the other. She pointed to the oilcloth. Took me a minute but then I heard it, this shuffle and knock on the floorboards but no one up save Alphonse and him barefoot and tiptoeing. Thought for sure it was a ghost ambling about the house. After a while Alphonse went out to the porch and peered his head under the floorboards, like to break his chinbone on the wood coming back upright he jumped back so fast. They was a gator right under the house. And Alphonse, he went right on under they after it. Bravest man I ever saw, but really, weren’t no trouble if you knew how to handle them gators like he did.

I’m surprised Remy was so scared. He seemed about as fearless a man as I know of, and I seen him chase after a gator or two myself before he got called up.

That boy was his papa to a tee, looked up to him with a mighty pride. Wanted so badly to be like his papa that he took to wrestling black snakes just for practice. Ever day came in smelling to high heaven.

I sure would like to have seen that.

I wish you could see him still, the woman said.

That night the girl lay awake again, this time envisioning Remy, full grown and shirtless in the heat of day, grappling with long coils of serpents thick as his muscled arms, black as his hair. Alligators hissing and snapping around him like an audience. The sweat down his back. The black snakes gone pale, her own arms and legs now, his hands on her back, his chest hard and hot against her breasts. The visage before her not quite Remy’s anymore, cast in shadow that she mistook for stubble until is spread over his whole face and the breath on her neck was someone else’s. She wasn’t thinking of Buford, but he was the nearest thing she had, and in the end she knew she needed him, or something like him. She rose carefully and sneaked across the brake again, and when she came to his shack she didn’t even knock at his doorframe. She just slipped in. He torso jumped from his tick like a spring trap and he sat panting with a knife flashing in his hand, but when he saw her he set it aside gently on the floor and he stood and smoothed his hair, straightened the creases in his nightshirt.

I’m right glad to see you. Maam.

Shut up, Buford. Then she kissed him.

The two things that have always been solid about this book are the plot and the theme. But going back through the story, I’m seeing how thin some of the characterizations are. Why are these people the way they are? What are their backgrounds, and how might those backgrounds hint at their futures? There are a lot of holes I want to fill and characters I want to flesh out, but my three primary concerns are the main characters: I want to add more to Buford’s trauma from the war and, more importantly, the trauma of seeing his best friend (and the husband of the woman he’s always pined for) get killed. I want to explore the woman’s emotions regarding the loss of her son (on the one hand, she lost him the day he left for the war and so she’s long been used to the idea that he might be dead; on the other hand, she is almost totally alone now, with just her widowed daughter-in-law to cling to). And I want to grapple with the girl’s conflicted emotions over wanting Buford (or, perhaps, any man, after so long alone) but having as her only option the man who took her husband into battle and saw him killed.

And, in working up some of those inner conflicts, I want to play with their backstories, too, to make each of these characters a bit fuller and more human.

This scene addresses some of those issues, providing a background scene for the girl’s husband’s childhood and giving her a memory she’d never heard from Remy himself — a ploy the old woman is using to try and guilt her daughter-in-law into sticking around — while inadvertently setting up a sexual fantasy that drives her into Buford’s arms.

The story of the gator under the house is loosely based on a story about my maternal grandfather as a boy, which my grandmother wrote down about thirty years ago as part of her informal memoirs. In my grandfather’s story, it was a goat under the house (the family thought the “ghost” was a woman wearing heels), and it was my grandfather, still a small boy, who got sent under the house to wrestle out the goat.

In fact, maybe next week I’ll share some of those stories by writing up (and editing a bit) my grandmother’s memoirs! 🙂

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4 thoughts on “A Writer’s Notebook: revision (Civil War novel)

  1. Hey Samuel, I really enjoyed reading this – I’d be really pleased if you would take up that work in process challenge on my blog and do a post on this WIP, if you’re interested … I’d like to know more about it. ~ Julie 🙂

    1. I almost did this novel for my WIP, but it’s currently under consideration out there in the big bad world, so I’m sort of keeping mum about it until I hear back. Cross your fingers, though! If it gets picked up by an agent, I’ll be posting a lot more about it! 🙂

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