It is a truth universally acknowledged that I always start writing books in the wrong place. I have yet to pen a manuscript and retain the first chapter through revision. I always add something or, more often, throw something out. Often, thousands of things. The delete keys speaks poniards, and every word stabs. (Quick, name that play!)
I’m currently writing the second entry in a series about DC staffers and, only about 20,000 words in, I’ve trashed the first half of the first chapter. I really liked what I cut. As an introduction to the heroine and her voice, it worked. There wasn’t a backstory dump, it wasn’t slow or boring: it introduced the dynamic for the book, but it did so in such a way as to undercut the relationship between the hero and the heroine. If there’s a sin in romance writing, that’s it. So into the round file (aka the trash) that opening scene went.
Since I can’t show that scene to you because I haven’t even shown it to my editor yet, I’m going to show you the unrevised, original first chapter of Brave in Heart instead. Needless to say, this isn’t how the finished product reads.
In this case, the cut occurred because nothing happens in this eight page-opening. In this earlier draft of the book, Margaret and Theo’s separation was much longer (brought on about a fight about the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, rather than John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry of 1859). The prologue didn’t exist yet. There was just…this.
Now I like the image of Margaret on the top of the hill. And while much of this writing made it into the book (albeit in other forms), some of her backstory didn’t. As a writer, I needed to know these things about her and writing this was the only way to learn them.
What I’m trying to say is writing something you don’t ultimately use in a book isn’t falling down the rabbit hole, it’s process. It’s inevitable and futile and a little bit beautiful. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Margaret Hampton struggled to catch her breath upon reaching the top of the hill. It was a hillock, in truth, but with her corset and petticoats, even mild exertion was difficult. She breathed deeply and turned, drinking in the beauty of the valley beneath her. The Connecticut River was a thick silver-blue ribbon weaving between verdant banks. Middletown Female Seminary sat at the bottom of the hill, a pale sandstone building graced with white pillars and surrounded by gardens. It was small from this height, too small for a place that had consumed her life. If she turned to the west, she knew she would be able to spy the city nestled between the river and the rolling green landscape. Before her stretched a quilt of farmland, various shades representing different crops. She recognized corn, cabbage and squash also, and fruit trees in the orchards.
“Rebecca! Matilda! Phoebe!” she called down the winding path she had ascended. She could hear shouts and laughter beyond the final curve. Assured that they had nearly reached the top, Margaret hurried on to the picnic site to arrange their feast.
Much had changed since she had first climbed this hill twenty years earlier. Then, she had been a laughing girl of sixteen and a student at the seminary. There were not yet any factories in Middletown. Even political disputes had a quaint, simple quality to them compared to those of the present day. In the intervening years, Margaret had left Connecticut little, becoming first an instructor at the Seminary and then its head mistress. The city had grown to nearly nine thousand souls and industry had developed. The country had grown too, into an angry, distrustful, and immoderate place. Following President Lincoln’s election, many of the southern states had departed the Union in a terrible drumbeat, one after another. Just two months prior, the Southern Rebels had fired on Fort Sumter and now Union forces were gathering in Washington City, for what she knew not.
Tides of uncertainty and fear soaked the land. The parents of the Seminary’s student were beginning to panic. Margaret did not know who would be returning after the summer recess, though she feared that it would be a far fewer inmates than her school now enjoyed. So this afternoon, she was attempting to steal one last sweet afternoon in the company of her favorite girls.
She unfurled the blanket she carried under one arm and began rummaging in the large rush basket for dishes. They had a marvelous spread, sandwiches and tarts and cakes and lemonade and tea. Margaret secretly wondered whether she had stayed at the Seminary for so long because of the talented cook, Mrs. Jenkins. But no, as amusing as that might be, there were other reasons…
“Lud, what a climb!” Phoebe interrupted Margaret’s reverie and threw herself down onto the blanket with a lady-like thump. Everything she did was lady-like, even when it had no right to be. Phoebe looked like an angel from a parlor engraving, all gold curls and upturned lashes and depthless blue eyes. If Margaret was being frank, Phoebe was more than surpassing vain. She was saved from being insufferable, however, because she was utterly candid about her shortcomings. Margaret wished she were equally committed to correcting them, but that was why she needed another year with the girl.
“It wasn’t so far, Phe, and besides, Miss Hampton carried the basket,” Matilda responded, sitting primly on the corner of the picnic blanket and arranging her skirts around herself carefully and demurely. Matilda’s auburn hair was gathered in a low knot at the nape of her neck, just beneath her practical straw bonnet. She was all unvarnished sweetness compared to her friend. But Margaret admired her ability to ignore Phoebe’s showy beauty and hold her own because of her sincere belief in simple values.
Rebecca was the final member of the party to arrive and she immediately began helping Margaret unpack the basket with a pale smile and a shrug at her friends’ conversation. She was, to Margaret’s eye, the jewel of the assembly. A green-eyed brunette with great intelligence and spirit, she had strong, regular features, a plum of a mouth, and delicately arched, expressive brows. Her natural mirth had been tamped down when her engagement had ended a few months earlier. Margaret knew heartbreak all too well, though the fewer thoughts she spared for Theodore Ward, the better.
Rebecca gamely arranged small tarts filled with strawberry jam and lemon curd in circles on a plate. In the background, Matilda and Phoebe were discussing the dance at McDonough House three nights hence. Even the earnest Matilda was excited.
“Are you going to the dance, Miss Hampton?” Rebecca asked quietly.
“I’m not sure that old maids like myself are what the Committee of Arrangers has in mind for ideal attendees.”
“Stuff and nonsense,” Phoebe interrupted. She was, quite naturally, on the Committee. “You’re a delightful unmarried lady and an accomplished dancer. Besides, with these two graduating and me unlikely to return to Middletown for fall term, it’s the last chance we have to be together.”
The other girls nodded. Margaret scoffed, “Not one more word about the war, I beg. It’s all we talk about anymore. I want to hear about your summer plans instead.”
Matilda was returning to Washington City to keep house for her father, Reverend Winters. Rebecca was going to her family farm outside of Hagerstown, Maryland. And Phoebe would return to her family in New York. The latter was full of anticipation to see the summer fashions and the grand ladies strolling in the Central Park. She was particularly concerned as to whether the rational silhouettes, as she termed them, would ever give way to more daring designs.
“I shall write you all with my notes,” Phoebe was saying, “for I know that you want to stay au courant no matter where we all are come fall.”
“Do you think we won’t be together, Phe?” Rebecca asked, gravely.
“If we can whip the Rebs by fall, I will be back with Miss Hampton, but you and Matilda are graduating and won’t be returning on any account. If the fighting continues, my father wants me at home until it’s over. It’s so silly. The war will never reach Middletown.”
Margaret looked out to the green fields stretched out before them, over the expanse of emerald stillness and beauty. She hoped rather than believed that Phoebe was correct.
“I pray you will be right,” Matilda said, her gray-blue eyes serious. Margaret knew they had all been thinking the same thing, even gay, laughing Phoebe.
“Well, girls, if you do not return to Middletown, we all will miss you terribly.”
“Even Miss Bates?” Rebecca asked, eyes twinkling and mischievous. Miss Bates, who taught deportment and German, had been at the Seminary longer even than Margaret. She had been the recipient of pranks and jibs for all that time, Margaret was sure.
“Perhaps not Miss Bates, but everyone else.”
“Since we will not hear from you at the graduation ceremony next week, will you give a commencement talk now?” Matilda asked.
“I will tell you what I wish for each of you. For Rebecca, I desire to see you put away the sadness that has entered your heart. I miss the jolly that tempered your seriousness. Set Emery aside for once and forever. Be our Rebecca again.” The girl looked at her, eyes gleaming, and nodded.
“For Phoebe, I hope that you will learn humility. It’s not that you don’t recognize it, my dear, but that you do not act on it. I wish that you would live the virtues you know to be true and right.” Phoebe grimaced, contemptuous and accepting at once. It was not her accustomed expression, but then she grinned playfully and balance was restored.
“For Matilda, I wish rebellion. Playfulness is a better word, maybe. You are perfectly biddable, submissive, and reverent. But I would see you know what you want and pursue it.” Matilda contemplated the blanket with her fingertips, finally inclining her head slightly to acknowledge Margaret’s words. She concluded, “To the class of 1861, and one member of the class of 1862, then, I wish happiness, modesty, self-knowledge, and discovery. May God bless you all the days of your lives.”
Their party finished in a more subdued fashion than it had begun. The girls helped Margaret pack the basket and carry it down the hill, discussing the dance whenever the silence between them grew too obvious.
* * *
Bugger them all, Theodore Ward thought to himself. Bugger them all. He sat in his office on Main Street preparing notes on his depositions for the Bentley land dispute. He had long found the quotidian details of his law practice to be a distraction from the real purpose in his life – books, newspapers, reform campaigns – but with the state of the country at present, his frustration had reached new and lofty heights. He had actually snapped at mother during luncheon. She was prattling on about some fool dance. It was as if Fort Sumter hadn’t happened at all. As if the two great armies weren’t now approaching one another and clashing weekly. Every day some neighbor boy half his age enlisted. Theo was ready to go. But as his father’s untimely passing had left him his mother’s only child, she was very much opposed to the idea.
“Besides,” she had said, “the war will be over by fall. Don’t bother yourself.”
Theo silently prayed for the opposite.
In the months since Sumter, he thought often about The Iliad, which he had studied as a young man at Yale. The words of King Priam’s grief and his supplication before Achilles echoed even now in his head, emphasizing the waste of war, “Dead, all are dead! How oft, alas has wretched Priam bled!”
But Theo could not fail to see also how this war was different. This war did not find its casus belli in greed or selfishness. It was about the future of the nation, yes, but also its past. It sought to extend freedoms and liberties. It was a new and perfecting revolution and, blasted, he was missing it! At this, Theo slammed his notebook on his desk for emphasis. Marcus and Samuel, his clerks, jumped. He smiled at them, foolishly he feared, and waved off their attentions with his hand. Fortunately, they were no strangers to his moods and outbursts and they turned back to their copying.
He knew that he was behaving like a child, and not as a man of nearly forty should. His blood was up, however. It had been since 1850. Granted, he’d been younger then. But ever since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, the world was upside down. He’d become involved in “causes,” as mother called them dismissively. He was dissatisfied in Middletown, with his practice writing wills, mediating land disputes, and dabbling in local politics all the while stewing about the situation in the country. Mother needed him, though, so he stayed and grew angrier and angrier. For a while, there’d been the promise of something more, but that too had faded. Now, when there was something happening and when he could really make a difference, he felt paralyzed.
He tried to dismiss his foolish thoughts, to get back to the recommendations he needed to complete before the workday was finished. But Theo allowed himself one more moment to watch the bustle on the street. The women with baskets going home from the market, their wide skirts filling the sidewalk as they gossiped in groups of two or three. The men hurrying home from shifts at the factories, hands shoved in pockets, weaving through the crowds deliberately. The slow-moving tangle of carts and wagons in the street, brimming with produce and packages. It was characteristic of a Thursday afternoon in Middletown, yet all charged with anticipation and war fever. How could he spend the duration of the conflict here? How could mother ask it of him?
The general trend in the ambulatory traffic was from Main Street to Washington Street, but a solitary figure pushed through the crowd in the other direction. A gust of wind caught the edge of her bonnet and pushed it back to reveal the face of Margaret Hampton. Her countenance was lit for a moment by the sun, like the flame of a candle. Theo felt his breath catch in his throat. Margaret was of average height, but always seemed taller to him. Perhaps it was her habit of walking just ever so slightly on her toes. Or maybe it was that she was more alive than any other woman he’d ever known. Her lustrous brown hair was always threatening to spill from out of her coiffure. Her gold-brown eyes were always threatening to shoot sparks at anyone who annoyed her. Her voice was always threatening to exceed the volume deemed acceptable for ladies. She might have spent her life polishing merchant’s daughters into bland parlor ornaments, but Margaret was so vital, she made a mockery of the whole thing. Her ridiculous costume – hoop skirt, enormous puffed sleeves — could not hide her strong, purposeful stride nor her energy and grace. She was as beautiful now as she had been at twenty-six. Her skin was as pale and flawless as any marble statue. Her full mouth tempted him as it had ever done. Theo allowed himself to sigh. She shifted the brim of her bonnet down again and the moment passed.
It might have been more than a decade since she had broken off with him, but every time he spied her, his heart caught in his chest and then a shade of melancholy would sweep over him. Even now he was tempted to chase after her and entice her to their favorite spot, underneath the willow in the park. He wanted to rest his head in her lap and spill out the entire story. She would stroke his temples like she used to and laugh at him and tell him exactly what to do. And, as before, he would ignore her good advice and compromise and check himself and she would grow frustrated and leave him. Again.
They had interacted little since their parting, as if the town had expanded precisely to allow them to avoid one another. He was able to rationalize their separation whenever their paths did cross, however. It was easier than mourning her absence. If they had married, she would be hurrying home for dinner. He would have had ten years of Margaret’s liveliness and smiles. Ten years of Margaret on his arm, challenging him and urging him to be better. Ten years of Margaret in his bed — now that was a lovely thought. They would have children by now.
Theo shook his head and turned back to his work. There was no productivity in this fantasy. She was no more right for him now than she had been then. All he had ever done was disappoint her and all she had ever done was make him frenetic. There was quite enough madness in the world these days without Margaret Hampton turning his life chaotic. His pen scratched on the page once again, peevishly.
Even then, a plan germinated in the furthest reaches of his mind.
For more information about the book, the finished, revised book that is, please click here.