When I resolved to write a historical fiction novel set in the American Revolution, my first task was coming up with a protagonist. That was quite a challenge!
I did quite a bit of reading about the Revolution, and one of the things that struck me was the youth of many of the participants. It was not at all uncommon for boys as young as fourteen to be in the ranks. I wanted my novel to appeal to the young adult crowd, so what better way to do so than to make the protagonist a young man? So, I settled upon a character that was on the cusp of turning 16 when the first shots were fired on Lexington Common.
That led me to more research. I was fortunate to find that the Lexington Historical Society had compiled a great deal of material on life in Lexington, Massachusetts in the 1770s; much of it is available online. Diving in headfirst, I developed a decent feel for life and love prior to the Revolution. This helped color in a lot of the details about school, romance, work, and daily life.
Then came the subject of war. I had been in combat, and had seen the aftermath of battle, so I certainly did not want to glorify war. It is a mean, dirty business that takes a physical, psychological, and spiritual toll on the participants, and I wanted to convey that. Interestingly, in the age of black powder warfare it was possible for a musket-armed soldier to empty his cartridge box in the direction of the enemy without ever having the feeling he had killed anyone. Muskets were so inaccurate, and musket volleys produced such dense smoke, that most of the time soldiers fighting in line of battle might be firing blindly in the general direction of the enemy! I wanted my character to be absolutely certain he had taken a life; that is why I happened upon the idea of the long rifle.
In the 18th Century rifles were fairly rare on the battlefield. They took a long time to load and typically did not take bayonets, making rifle-armed formations impractical for conventional operations. They were excellent hunting weapons, however: the spiral grooves (rifling) in their barrels imparted a spin to their projectiles, making them lethally accurate at 200-300 yards or more. Because of this they were used heavily on the American frontier, and once the Revolution started specialist rifle units were quickly formed to scout and harass the British. The point is that a rifleman could easily select a target, take aim, fire, and be certain that his shot had found its mark. I wanted my character to have that certainty, because it allows me to explore what that knowledge does to people.
There was a catch of course: rifles were very uncommon in Massachusetts in the 1770s. In fact, I could find no evidence of the use of rifles at Lexington/Concord or Bunker Hill. I decided to press on, highlighting the rifle as an exception to the norm (hooray for artistic license!). But to do so, I had to create a backstory that explained how a 15-year old boy in Lexington in 1775 could be a proficient rifleman and woodsman. That led me into more research: this time into the French and Indian (Seven Years) War and other Colonial “Indian” wars. I decided that my character’s father would be a deceased veteran of the French and Indian War; leaving home (Lexington) for adventure on the Pennsylvania frontier, he acquired a rifle and became a backwoodsman. That connection enabled me to link his character not only to Pennsylvania, but also to George Washington. Now I was off and running!
But…what to name him? Biblical names were common in the 1700s; I wanted a warrior’s first name, so I settled on Gideon. As for the last name, well, it had to sound kind of cool, be not too outlandish, and not be already used. I assembled several combinations, and did a lot of Googling (it’s amazing how many literary characters are named Gideon) until I settled on Gideon Hawke. I think it has a certain ring to it!
Gideon Hawke was born in Pennsylvania on April 20th, 1759, his mother dying in childbirth. His father, Aaron, was born in Massachusetts but ran away at a young age to find adventure on the frontier. He became a rifleman and fought in the French and Indian war; he fought valiantly alongside George Washington in the Braddock Expedition and was later badly wounded at Fort Carillon. After Gideon’s birth, Aaron realized he could not care for him alone for long, so he took his son back to Lexington, Massachusetts to be near family. Before he died, Aaron did his best to train young Gideon in the ways of the frontier: to hunt, to shoot, to be independent, and to lead. After Aaron’s death in 1774 Gideon felt increasingly alone. In April of 1775 Gideon was struggling with decisions about life and love until one fateful morning: his friend told him the militia was forming on the Common because the British were en route through Lexington to Concord. Gideon went out to watch the excitement, and then the shooting started. Gideon was assaulted by British troops, his friend was killed, and a war had started. Taking up his father’s rifle, he resolved to make the British pay dearly.
With a plausible backstory and connection to George Washington, I was able to set the stage to transfer Gideon into Thompson’s Rifle Battalion, aka the First Continental Regiment. This was the first unit formed by the Continental Congress, and Washington relied heavily on it, especially through early 1777, and it fought in most of the major battles of the war. Through the end of Times That Try Men’s Souls Gideon has served in the First Continental through some of the toughest fighting of the Revolution. He has been promoted, endured great hardship, and has seen many of his friends and colleagues fall in battle. And his story continues. He and the lads will be back in action in A Nest of Hornets, due out in January 2017.
I hope if nothing else Gideon Hawke does honor to those brave men and women, the “Winter Soldiers,” who stayed with the colors in the dark day of 1776-1777, and kept their Glorious Cause alive.