As I waited to receive the proof copy of A Nest of Hornets I found myself inevitably drawn to working on Gideon Hawke #4, A Constant Thunder. I have already written several scenes, or at least the shells of those scenes, but I still have a lot of work to do on sketching out the flow of the novel. I had identified the chapters and was trying to flesh one of those chapters out when inspiration struck with a glance at a map.
It is no secret that Gideon Hawke will find himself in Daniel Morgan’s Provisional Rifle Corps, and thus will move north to confront Burgoyne’s “Canadian Army” in late summer of 1777. I had intended to focus one chapter on the movement north. I had a sketchy idea that there were boats involved at some point in that undertaking, but I had not yet tried to envision how that journey looked. So, last week I sat down to try to sort out how Morgan’s Rifle Corps got to the Albany area.
I knew the destination, so the next step was to identify the starting point. In poking around I discovered that Morgan’s headquarters was in the Hackensack, New Jersey area around the time Washington ordered Morgan to join the Northern Department. Having start and end points, I looked at the map and was hit with a blinding flash of the obvious: Hackensack and Albany both lay along the Hudson River. Given the primitive condition of the American road network in the 1770s, the fastest, cheapest, and easiest was to get five hundred men and assorted family members the roughly 130+ miles between these two points would have been to move straight up the Hudson.
The watercraft of choice in late Eighteenth Century America was the bateau: a flat-bottomed, shallow-draft vessel ranging in length from under twenty to over eighty feet in length. These craft carried both passengers and cargo, could maneuver in shallow water, and were relatively easy to transport overland. They could be propelled by sail, pole, or oar, and were critical to commerce and transportation in Colonial and Revolutionary America.
Before this I had never paid much attention to the lowly bateau, even though it features prominently in any discussion of the Saratoga Campaign. But now I find myself rearranging A Constant Thunder to include several chapters describing a bateau journey upstream. Not only will this be a great way to highlight a little understood aspect of life in Revolutionary America, but it will also serve as a metaphor on several levels. Without giving too much away, I am thinking about questions like: Who is in that boat with Gideon? What challenges does such a journey present? What other challenges might Gideon and his fellow characters face? What other life journeys might Gideon be on? What awaits at the end of the journey? What goes through a young man’s mind as he sails (or rows) day after day? Is this journey a trial, a quest, or both?
Writing historical fiction can be full of surprises. Occasionally a seemingly inconsequential bit of research can turn your story on its head. In this case, a glance at a map opened up an entirely new adventure.
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