I’ve just finished making revisions to my draft manuscript, Famine Bay. It’s historical fiction set in the 1600s in New France, New York, the Great Lakes and Iroquoia (which was the Five Nations territory, south of Lake Ontario). It was a real challenge to write this one: I got hung up on some structural issues that I couldn’t figure out how to correct. After much frustration, I finally hired a freelance editor to help me out.
Alex Schultz and I have worked on three previous books, and we “get” each other’s shorthand. In the past, he’s been retained by Penguin Canada and Simon and Schuster to do the heavy lifting of getting my prose into shape; this time I paid him to do so directly.
Alex was great, as always: he encouraged me to cut a number of opening chapters (which I did; I moved some stuff around and put other things on the chopping block altogether). Other parts of the manuscript felt rushed to him; I’d gotten so hung up on the structural problems that I hadn’t layered my writing and the prose was pretty sparse in places.
I spent around 70 to 80 hours after I got his comments, doing more research so that I could add more depth where I needed it. It’s easy to say, “we need more description of the setting” (as Alex did in several places) but it’s not that easy to figure out what things might have looked to those at the French forts and camps and it was that perspective he wanted. I want this book to be as accurate as possible and so I had to go back to work.
To give one example, I ended up researching uniforms for days. I found out that the French regulars wore grey-white jackets with blue facings and in the winter, hooded jackets called capots; their officers had silver lace on their deep cuffs and tri-corner hats. Marines wore the same uniforms. They weren’t actually Navy, they were ground troops but they were under the authority of the Minister of the Marine, and because of that, their gunpowder pouches were decorated with little white anchors.
But when it came to marching, unlike a lot of scenes in the movies, where you see troops in blue or scarlet uniforms march en mass and then line up and fire, they actually marched together without any particular order and without regard to rank.
Like that, a lot of what I found surprised me. Did you know, for example, that the French flag in the 1600s and most of the 1700s was plain white? It didn’t change until well into the next century in 1794: the white was supposed to represent purity. (And here, I’d used it a few times to signify surrender; I had to change that pretty quickly.)
Anyway, after long days of foraging, I found what I needed and I invented the rest. I’ve been sequestered for the last three days, working nonstop from 9 AM to 9 PM or later, making all the changes and phew, I’m finally done!
Famine Bay is off to my new agent for her thoughts: I hope she likes it!