I was digging through old files looking for notes I might use in my new novel, and I stumbled upon my old three-ring binder of Hagridden notes, all those articles and ideas I’d been compiling in the few years between my first idea for the book and my first draft of it. The binder mostly contains printed material I was keeping on hand for later, scholarly essays on Cajun and Native folklore (like the rougarou and an old Chitimacha legend about a flood), pop-culture articles on mythology in comics (I was looking at Swamp Thing), critical analyses of some of the Japanese films that informed my novel, publication information on history books I wanted to read, a list of Civil War battles and skirmishes in Louisiana.
And, right up front, my very first attempt at getting the ideas down in writing: two and a half pages of narrative, and another page and a half of notes.
You’ll note it’s covered in black marks. I did that digitally — this earliest jotted narrative includes the names of the woman and the girl, which I’ve always said I know but would never reveal. So I’ve blotted them out.
But, names redacted, here are the opening paragraphs:
Open in tall rushes (either bayou or wheat?). If possible, spend more time with the landscape, but don’t lose the immediacy of the action. Perhaps add the sounds of distant battle? Also spend more time with the dead bodies — describe the smells, and the clothes. Question: Does [the girl] carry a pistol? Does [the woman]? Basically, open with this:
A warm summer wind swept out of the porcelain blue sky and descended into the rushes. Even bent over as they were, the grasses swelled taller than the two soldiers running through them. Only the dulled bayonets affixed to the ends of the men’s dirty carbines showed above the swaying rushes. The men could barely see each other in their chase, and neither one spoke as they ran. The one behind, a rebel in stolen Union blues, stopped a moment and popped off a round, but it went lost in the grasses, and the man ran on, watching when he could for the Union soldier’s bayonet.
[The woman] watched as well, squatted in the dirt with the grass thick about her. She saw the rear bayonet stop again and descend into the grasses, heard another round fired, then a noise she’d come to recognize as a carbine jam. The Union man heard this, too, and he turned back through the grasses, searching for the disadvantaged reb. [The woman] waited. When she heard the clash, she made a sound like a finch and waited to hear its echo. The echo came, and [the woman] crawled through the grass roots until she found her daughter-in-law [. . .] crawling toward her. [The girl] nodded in a question, and [the woman] nodded in answer. [The girl] pointed to her mother-in-law’s dress, and [the woman] reached into its pocket and pulled a military service pistol from inside, but as she eyed it and then the grasses where the two soldier’s fought, she shook her head and put the pistol back inside her dress. She laid a finger to her lips, and [the girl] nodded.
Together they worked their way silently toward the fight. Every several feet [the woman] or [the girl] would stand to watch the heads of the rushes, looking for movement out of synch with the wind, the signs of the skirmish ahead. They heard grunts as the two men fought. They came to a carbine, then another, both without their bayonets. One of the men gasped. The women were close now, and they crouched in the grass to wait. The grunts were growing fainter but not farther away. After several minutes, there was only the sound of heavy breathing blending with the hot wind. Alma nodded, and the two women crawled forward. They could see now through the moving gaps in the rushes the bodies of the two soldiers. Both lay on the ground in a clearing of crushed grass they’d made when they fell. The perimeter was splattered with thin sprays of blood. [The woman] stood, and [the girl] stood beside her, and they walked into the clearing to stand over the men.
They’d stabbed each other. The yankee lay with one arm bent back beneath him, the shoulder joint popped loose and protruding horribly. He wept as he breathed. His eyes were rolling in their sockets. When he saw the women standing there, he opened his eyes wide and tried to speak, but they saw he had a hole torn in one lung, and all he could do was gasp. The reb clutched a bayonet stuck in his thigh, and he was bleeding from the shoulder. He too looked at the women then [the girl] in particular, and when he spoke to [the girl] his voice came in a Tennessee accent.
“Ma’am, of jesus ma’am, I need some help.”
[The girl] watched him. He looked now at [the woman].
“Either of you know any nursing? Either of you can sew a suture?”
[The woman] nodded again, and [the girl] bent over the reb. She took a hard grip on the bayonet and wrenched it free; the reb grabbed his thigh and screamed, then grit his jaw tight and breathed through his teeth. He looked at the bloody blade and then at [the girl].
“That’s gone bleed out fast,” he said. “Help me, ma’am, help me.”
[The girl] raised the bayonet and brought it down hard into the man’s chest, just left of the sternum. The man made no sound save the scrape of the blade against one rib. He threw his chest off the ground and splayed his arms, then he collapsed to twitch on the blood-soaked earth.
[The woman] was leaning over the yankee. He was watching her and still wept openly. His mouth kept moving like a drowning fish, and then he made some sound, air out past his quivering lips.
“Ma’am,” he said, but it was all he could manage, so he said it again. “Ma’am.”
[The woman] put one hand over his blood-frothed mouth and with her other she pinched shut his snotted nostrils. He reached up his one good arm and pulled the hand over his mouth, gasping harder but shoving out words in desperation. “Please,” he gasped, “ma’am please, please ma’am.”
[The woman] jerked her head at [the girl], and [the girl] stepped over and pulled back the man’s arm and held it to the ground with a knee. [The woman] pout her hand back over the soldier’s mouth and waited until he jerked on the ground. His dislocated arm flung from under his back but it was useless and only flopped against [the woman’s] back and arms. The women sat and waited, and the yankee stopped fighting and sank into the earth to die.
For folks who’ve read the novel, this scene will seem both familiar and quite different. For starters, while I knew right away that I was setting this novel in southwest Louisiana, I didn’t seem sure yet whether I would put it in the bayou or up higher on the prairies. That strikes me as interesting now, considering how important the bayou became to the novel.
Another major difference some readers will pick up on immediately: quotation marks! Ah, the early days, when I was still slogging my way through ideas and had all the time in the world to stop and add quotation marks to dialogue. 😉
But then there are the characters themselves: the women here are less instinctually attuned to when soldiers enter their territory, and they have to actively stalk the men. They also carry — and consider using — a firearm; in the novel, they’re long past such noisome foolishness and kill quietly and efficiently with just knives and sharpened sticks. In other words, this scene seems set earlier in the war, when the women were comfortable with having to kill but not yet practiced in it.
Hence that early line in the published novel: “Such events were rare and getting rarer, but when it happened it would happen the same.”
And sure enough, the events here and afterward play out much as they do in the novel, though it’s the woman, not the girl, who makes the final kill into a more hands-on experience; and (in text I’ve left out because it drags on awhile) the women seem less experienced at disposing of the bodies.
The rest of these pages are just notes on what will follow this opening murder, all present-tense sketchwork without character names or much detail. (Interesting, in hindsight, that I initially named the two women and no one else, but very quickly reversed that so the two women are the only characters in the book who don’t get names.) But this opening unfolds roughly as it does in the novel.
Some surprising differences I’d forgotten about: In the notes, the man who would become Clovis operates not in the swamp but in town (not yet identified as Leesburg) — he’s practically respectable, and the women have to come to him by the back door to avoid being seen by his usual customers — and his slave Teague is just a small boy. Later in the notes, the neighbor (who became Buford) arrives as he does in the novel, but in these notes he carries most of his old gear from the war and he stops at his own shack to hide it before he continues to find the women. The would-be Buford also seems more at ease and more polite — less haggard, less broken, less desperate — than he does in the novel.
My notes end with this line, apparently a brand-new idea at the time: “Mention historical hurricanes that hit LA at beginning and end of Civil War? How? To what purpose?”
I couldn’t pin these pages to a specific date, but I know I was still in grad school in Texas when I wrote them, and given the reference to the hurricanes (an idea I only had after Katrina hit New Orleans), they probably date from the end of 2005, or possibly very early in 2006.
What is most interesting for me is seeing how plain the language is in these first notes. Sure, I was just getting the words on paper and didn’t even plan to do much with them for a while, but looking at these paragraphs now, I’m awfully glad I gave myself the extra three or four years before really trying to write a serious first draft. I definitely needed those years of writing other things for my craft to deepen and mature. I probably could have kept going on this early draft and revised and revised and revised until it became the novel you all know and love (you have bought a copy, right?) — because, as I wrote the other day, I finally got the revisions right on a short story I started twenty years ago, so I know that such transformation is possible. But doing that on a full-blown novel might have driven me mad, and I’m so much happier to have written it the way I did, with greater confidence not only in the story but also in my craft.
And so I carry on writing my next novel. And, as I reread the not-so-great text I’m producing each day, I’m relieved to have this reminder that when it all comes together, the writing can get better! I just need to have the core ideas there, and as I wrote yesterday, folks, I’ve got ’em. 🙂