Resources Big and Small: The Internet

“The Internet is like a magic eight ball of the 21st century. You can always get an answer there. It may not be true, but you can always get an answer.”

-Stephen King (

Stephen King is absolutely right! The internet is a wonderful resource for writers…you’ve just got to be careful out there!

Much of what you find on the internet these days is garbage. Anyone and everyone can say anything they want about anything they want. Imagine my surprise last week when I was researching a topic and Google pointed me towards a blog post by ME! (talk about an unreliable source!) A fun game you can play is to try to figure out where various website get there information; I find it fascinating how so many pages are simply copy/paste jobs. One user writes something, or copies something from a book or online resource, and then website after website copies the same information verbatim. There is no comment, no assessment, no analysis…just copy/paste. The same questionable material can be reproduced over and over like a virus. (hmmmm…this sounds like the premise for a sci-fi horror novel) When it comes to internet research, it is definitely USER BEWARE!

That said the internet can connect people in new and exciting ways. My favorite recent example: I was doing research on Hudson River navigation in the 1700s, and trying to learn more about the bateau, the “eighteen wheeler / Pullman car” of Eighteenth Century North America. After running into a few brick walls, I stumbled upon a website called The Big Row (, which catalogues the adventures of reenactors who put bateaux through their paces every year. Not only did I learn a great deal, but I also established contact with the websites creator/bateau captain, Dave Manthey! Dave’s insights were invaluable to me in understanding the people and craft of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers, thus adding authenticity to my work in progress, A Constant Thunder. Persistence and creativity in searching can pay off handsomely!

Then there is the little trick of knowing the resources available. A few days ago I was writing a scene in which Gideon Hawke is an officer of the guard; it is nighttime, and being a good officer he ventures out to check on his sentries. At his first stop he is challenged! The sentry tells him to halt, and challenges him with the “parole” word. “Wait,” I asked myself, “What would be a good parole word?” I considered making something up, but then I remembered that the National Archives, in cooperation with the University of Virginia Press, have digitized a tremendous number of primary source documents from the Founding Fathers. The Continental Army’s daily General Order contained the parole and countersign, so a simple Bing search (sorry, Google, you didn’t find the document I needed) for “General Orders April 18, 1777” brought me to General Washington’s General Orders for the 18th of April, 1777. Boom! When Private George Houseman directs Lieutenant Hawke to advance and be recognized, his challenge doesn’t just sound authentic, it REALLY IS AUTHENTIC! It is the actual challenge used in the American camp at Morristown in 1777. ( ; and in case you are wondering, the parole was “Georgia” and the Countersign was “Samptown.”) How’s that for research?

Thirty years ago it would have required a prodigious effort for an author living in the Midwest to gather the kind of information I just discussed. Now it is a few keystrokes and clicks away. I am deeply indebted to folks like Dave Manthey, and the folks behind the keyboards at the University of Virginia Press—by doing valuable work and sharing it online, they are making the internet a useful tool, not just a “Wretched hive of scum and villainy.” I am still very wary of information I find out on the net, but it is definitely worth sorted through the garbage to find the gems.

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Revolutionary Strategy: The Hudson River

The Saratoga Campaign was a disaster for the British. It was such a resounding success for their American adversaries that it overshadowed the British occupation of Philadelphia in persuading France to enter the war on the American side. With the benefit of hindsight, one might wonder what brought a British Army to a remote stretch of woods north of Albany, where it would be forced to march into captivity. Well, simply put, the Saratoga Campaign may have been the closest the British came to a winning military strategy.

albanyIn the 1700s there was no highway system in the United States, and all-season roads were a rarity. The fastest and most efficient way to move people and goods was often by water. Commerce flowed up and down rivers, and ferries traversed the larger rivers to connect what road networks existed on either side. The British rightly considered the New England states to be the birthplace of the Revolution, and the theory was that if they could isolate New England from the rest of the rebellious former colonies, they might be able to concentrate their forces and stamp out the rebellion piecemeal. At the very least, establishing a cordon around New England might have forced George Washington into attacking to break the cordon. Given superior British discipline, firepower, and potentially numbers, such a battle might well have led to the destruction of Washington’s main force; in that event American capitulation would likely have been merely a matter of time.

Given those considerations, when viewing a map from across the Atlantic, the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River Corridor looked like an inviting invasion route. It had in fact historically been the quickest route for travel between Canada and New York. It seemed reasonable that an army of several thousand people should be able to attack southward down the corridor and link up at Albany with a force coming northward from New York. This would put in British hands the key ferries across the Hudson and open up communications between New York and Canada. New England would be isolated from the rest of the states, and George Washington would be between the proverbial rock and hard place.

Fortunately for the Americans, what looked easy from London was much harder in practice. The British could move supplies and troops by water, but they could not simply sail all the way to Albany. They had to fight their way overland to clear American troops from the river’s banks. The American’s however, pursued a Fabian strategy of falling back in the face of superior numbers, destroying bridges, felling trees across roads, and even inundating roadways as they went. They also proved adept at slipping around the main British force and attacking British lines of communication. Plagued by poor roads, too few wagons and draft animals, and rebel interdiction, Burgoyne found that every time he advanced a few miles, he had to pause for weeks to amass supplies. All the while, more and more American forces were massing between him and his objective of Albany.

Hudson emplacement

The Great Redoubt at the Saratoga Battlefield, overlooking the Hudson River.

In spite of all that, the British Hudson Campaign might still have succeeded, but the nail in the coffin for the British strategy was poor strategic management. Lord Germain, the British Secretary of State for America, was a notorious micromanager, attempting to dictate military strategy from across the Atlantic via letters that took weeks if not months to reach their recipients. In the case of overall strategy for 1777 however, Germain committed the cardinal strategic sin of not setting a unified strategy for the North American theater. He directed Burgoyne to reach Albany and then operate under command of General Howe, the British land force commander for North America, but Germain failed to direct Howe to attack up the Hudson to link up with Burgoyne. Howe pursued his own strategy of capturing Philadelphia, leaving only a defensive force, with restrictive guidance, in New York. This force, under Clinton, did attack up the Hudson, but was not powerful enough to get through to Albany and then fight through the forces opposing Burgoyne. So, ultimately, Burgoyne’s hopes of breaking through were dashed at Bemis Heights.

The British would never again come so close to restoring Crown rule in their erstwhile colonies.

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The Plot Thickens: Rowing Upstream

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.

Hudson emplacementI 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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