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.

Tyoga’s Destiny: Push vs. Pull

Many readers have asked me about the notion in the book that has to do with nature’s grand “plan” and the part that we play in determining how that plan unfolds in our own lives.  There are several scenes in the book where Tyoga seems to accept the judgment of nature’s way, placing his fate in his closely held belief that all events unfold in accordance with the grand plan.  That plan decrees that all things happen for a purpose and to question outcomes is an exercise in futility.  

Tyoga is introduced to this notion by his father, Thomas, just after his “awakening” on Carter’s Rock.  His father says to him, “All things happen only as they must.”  The meaning of his father’s words becomes apparent after his encounter with the Runion wolves on the escarpment.  He defeats the alpha male, chooses to spare the wolf’s life, and finds himself alone in the woods with his severely injured Cherokee brother, Tes Qua Ta Wa.  The choices that he must make in the moments after the battle, hold the life of his friend in the balance.  And here is where the discussion really begins.  If Tyoga is indeed making “choices,” to what degree is that choice influenced by situation and circumstance, and, if “free will” is part of the equation at all, to what extent is the outcome determined by the exercise of that uniquely human trait?  

Volumes have been written throughout the ages and the topic has been examined by some of the greatest minds the world has ever known.  So here is my answer, “I don’t know.”  But here is what I think: When the layers upon layers of excuse, explanation, mitigation, fabrication, and apology are stripped away from any given event – we are left with absolutes.  Absolutes cannot be measured by a subjective metric such as value and worth.  Both are human constructs that have no relevance to the outcome.  The absolutes are, for example, life or death, left or right, up or down.  The test of whether a notion is an absolute is if it passes the either/or check.  One cannot proceed “sort of” left or “kind of” right.  In the final analysis, you have gone either left or right.  The only other option is straight ahead.  One cannot move “a little bit” up, or a “tiny scootch” down.  In the final analysis, you have either moved up, or down, or not at all.  You get the point.

Examples of how events unfold “exactly as they must for no other outcome could possibly be,” occur to all of us every single day of our lives.  A common example is when you arrive at an intersection at exactly the same instant as another car. Every single second of your life – up to that very moment – conspired to make that co-incidence arrival occur in exactly that way.  If every single aspect and moment of your life is taken into consideration and accounted for – no other outcome could have arisen other than meeting that car at exactly that time and in that exact space.  And there truly is no end to the chain of events that one could consider when examining the co-incident arrival.  Considering only the immediate chain of events, i.e. if you had gotten out of bed one second earlier that morning . . . if you had taken three seconds longer in the shower . . .  if you had scraped your windshield a little less or a little more…. you would not have arrived at the intersection at the same time as the other car.  But how about going even farther back in time?  If you hadn’t purchased your current home . . .  if you had taken five extra minutes picking out a pair of shoes in 1998 . . . if your visit to the dentist in the spring of 2001 had taken ten seconds longer . . .  and on and on and on – you would not have arrived at the intersection at the same moment as the other car.  

Analyzing the exercise of free will takes a parallel track.  We all acknowledge that we have indeed been endowed with the ability to exercise free will.  But the influence that it has on the majority of occasions in our life is – I think – negligible at best – especially if one subscribes to the positions espoused above.  If the purchase of shoes in 1998 influenced the arrival time at the intersection in 2013, then what portion of the co-incidental arrival was impacted by the choice of shoes?  Most would agree that the choice of shoes was an exercise of free will.  Many would agree that the time that it took you to make the choice was not.  Time is an absolute.  It took the amount of time it took to choose the pair of shoes– and no variable of that time interval can possibly be.  So if the impact of free will could be measured at all, I contend that the degree to which it influences events – especially when a free will choice is removed from occurrence by time – is infinitesimally small.

So while it is clear to me that Tyoga made the free will choice to return to the escarpment to save Tes Qua – the battle with the wolf pack’s Alpha male, Wahaya-Wacon, seems to me to be less of a choice than an intersection of time and place.  He chose to return to help his friend, but he did not choose to battle a pack of wolves.  That event was based upon an absolute – life or death.  

Other choices that he makes in the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby are less clear.  Why he chose to set Sunlei free to face the perils of the frontier alone, with little more than the admonition to “Run!” still makes me scratch my head.  There were infinite choices that he could have made.  Similarly, I understand why he butchered the Shawnee braves sent by Yellow Robe to capture him and Sunlei, but he surely could have chosen other ways to make the point.

But these are aspects of the book that I purposefully did not reconcile for the reader.  It is my hope that readers will question these things and ask how the exercise of free will impacts their own lives, and to what extent are we little more than feathers blowing in the wind.

There is a great deal to discuss about the Legend of Tyoga Weathersby.

But you knew that it was more than a story about a wolf . . . .didn’t you?