Writing The Search for Sunlei

Book II:  The Search for Sunlei

I have been working through the winter months on Book II:  The Search for Sunlei.  Those of you who have had the grit to put pen to paper to write a novel know firsthand that a storyline cannot be forced and recognize that to try to do so is a rookie mistake that never ends well.  Writing, for me anyway, is a process that is self-driven and internally regulated.  How that regulation works is an absolute mystery to me, but I have come to the conclusion that most of the real writing actually takes place away from the keyboard.  I don’t know how it happens, but the story seems to write itself according to a schedule of its own design.  Dialogue is magically written at night while you are sleeping, or while driving to work, or mowing the lawn.  Characters develop and come to life while washing the car or folding the laundry.  Storylines resolve unexpectedly while showering at 5:00 am or cleaning the workshop on a Saturday afternoon.  The point is, you can’t force it to happen.  It happens when it is ready to happen and not a moment sooner.  It’s a miraculous thing.

I don’t know how common this is, but I write the last chapter of the novel first and the writing journey is all about getting the main characters to that endpoint.   I wrote the final chapter of the Search for Sunlei shortly after completing the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby.  About seventy-five percent of Book II is complete, and once again Tyoga, Tes Qua and the cast of new characters I introduce have taken me on a wild ride of their own accord.  The end of the Tyoga Weathersby story will, I think, surprise readers, and leave many exclaiming out loud, “No!  Not that!”  But legends are meant to leave the audience scratching their heads searching for the meaning of the story.  And a good legend has a meaning that touches all in a way that is unique to their own experience.

I will be meeting with my editor soon, and I hope that she will agree with how I have ended this story.  But, even if she doesn’t agree with me, she is careful to point out that, “It’s your story – and no one can to tell you what is right or wrong.”  She is also quick to add that all she can do is tell me what she thinks will be commercially more successful.  But she understands and respects the fact that I don’t write for commercial success.  I write for the sheer joy of the process.  It is really HARD work, but I love every moment of it.

The ‘hard work’ part of the process brings me to the following point:  I would be doing a great disservice to my readers should I move forward without being comfortable with the amount of firsthand experience I have with the places I describe in The Search for Sunlei.  Part of the success of The Legend of Tyoga Weathersby is that I was able to bring the reader to all of the locations described in the book through my firsthand experience with the geography.  The feel of the morning fog descending into the gorge at the confluence of the Rapidan and Rappahanock Rivers; sunrise on a rainy morning on top of Mt. Ragg; the view of the Shenandoah Valley from Carter’s Rock where all experiences that I brought to the reader because I lived them.  One of the main characters of in Book II makes a harrowing trek along the Mohawk Trail that ran from Albany to Rome, New York, roughly following today’s Route 90.  While I have spent some time in the Finger Lakes region and in the Adirondack Mountains, I want to spend more time traveling from Albany to Rome.  So my wife, Mary Ann and I are going to travel that route this summer and take the time to explore Schenectady, Schoharie Crossing near Amsterdam, Palatine Bridge, Fort Plain, Utica, Oriskany, and Fort Stanwix near Rome.  And this last stop will be the most exciting.

Oriskany and Fort Stanwix stand today near a sight that – in the 1730s – was one of the most important points along the Mohawk Trail called The Oneida Carrying Place.  The Oneida Carry, as it came to be known, played a pivotal role in migration, commerce and trade, settlement of the West, and in every war ever fought on American soil.  Here is a paragraph from Chapter 37, entitled The Oneida Carry:

The Carrying Place was an important intersection in colonial times because, except for the short portage over flat ground located there, a traveler could journey by water all the way from New York to Canada. The Oneida Carry would one day become one of the most strategically important intersections on the frontier as the world’s most powerful nations vied for control of the New World.   But in the early 1700s, it was nothing more than an unmarked footpath between two bodies of water.  

What a place it must have been.  A wild mixture of Native Americans, mountain men, entrepreneurs, carpet baggers, miners, speculators, settlers, school teachers and lawyers all mingling along the muddy, manure-filled lanes that ultimately became Oriskany.  So Mary Ann and I are going to travel the Mohawk Trail so that at each location I can sit quietly alone with a clutch of dirt in my hands and listen to the echoes of days long past.  Their voices live still in the whispers of the wind.   Their dreams linger on the banks of the Mohawk River and Bear Creek and their legacy flows through the veins of the Oneida and Cayuga and Chippewa.

So I will watch the sunset at Fort Frederick in Albany and experience the sunrise at The Carrying Place and endeavor to share what that feels like, smells like and sounds like with you.  Until then, if any of you out there have any information about the Oneida Carry, I sure would appreciate hearing from you.  In all of my research thus far I have been unable to come across a written description of what the area looked like in the early 1700s.  I am hoping that my stops at the libraries and historical societies in towns along Route 90 will reveal a source that contains a written description.  Until then, I welcome anything anyone can send to me to help me with this research.

Thanks for the help.  Talk to you again soon.