Remembering Rosetta

150 years ago today, on June 19, 1864, the real Rosetta Wakeman died of dysentery in the Marine USA General Hospital outside New Orleans after having marched 200 miles and fought in The Battle of Pleasant Hill. I’m thinking of her today with admiration for her sacrifice and with the hope that she would be proud of the novel she helped inspire. More than anything, I wanted the book to be a tribute to her and I hoped it would help keep the memory alive of what she and other female soldiers did in service to their country.

Speaking of Characters

My agent is brilliant. He knows how stories work because he reads a ton (as in, he recently tweeted that he was reading 67 books at once), and he is great at wading through the murk and honing in on what is most important in a story.

In our recent conversation about my novel in progress, he made the point that every character needs to have a want or a desire that is separate from the story. Meaning, each character needs something she would go after, whether the events of the story happen or not. That’s what gives each character her own life and makes her multi-dimensional.

For Rosetta, in I Shall Be Near To You, that want was her own farm. She would have pursued and dreamt of that farm whether she ever met Jeremiah or whether the Civil War happened or not.

It seems like an obvious point when I write it here, but it felt a bit like an epiphany to me– the missing piece of the puzzle, despite all the outlining and drive lines and strengths and weaknesses I had brainstormed for the characters in my new project.

Meet My Main Character Blog Tour

MaryLee MacDonald, author of the forthcoming Montpelier Tomorrow, asked me to participate in this blog tour. In her new novel, she writes about the challenges Colleen faces when her daughter’s husband takes ill. Wanting to help and support her daughter, Colleen must make the difficult decision to put her own life on hold (again) and become a caregiver for her daughter’s family. To read her post, click here.

And now, here’s more about my main character…

Question: What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?

Rosetta Wakefield is the main character in my historical novel, I Shall Be Near To You. She is a fictional character, but she’s inspired by the letters Civil War soldier Sarah Rosetta Wakeman wrote home to her family, and accounts of the 250 documented women who are known to have disguised as men and fought in the Civil War.

Question: When and where is the story set?

The story is set in 1862– from late January to just after the battle of Antietam. It begins in Rosetta’s home town of Flat Creek, New York, and then as Rosetta’s regiment receives orders, the setting moves to Washington D.C., Virginia, and Maryland.

Question: What should we know about him/her?

What you should know about Rosetta is that she is strong-willed, determined, and brave, but also tender and loving.

Question: What is the main conflict? What messes up his/her life?

Rosetta and her new husband Jeremiah dream of having their own farm, where, as Rosetta puts it, they can do as they please. But they don’t have the money to start off on their own. When Jeremiah gets the idea to enlist in the Union Army to take advantage of the signing bonus and good monthly wages, he leaves Rosetta behind on his parents’ farm, where he thinks she’ll be safe until he returns. But Rosetta increasingly feels alienated, attacked, and alone. She decides her place is at Jeremiah’s side, and so she dons Jeremiah’s old clothes and sets out in search of him.

Question: What is the personal goal of the character?

When the book begins, Rosetta’s goal is to get her dream farm and get Jeremiah to marry her.

Question: Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?

There were two working titles for I Shall Be Near To You. The very first title was Daughter of the Regiment. The title it had when I landed my agent was There Will I Be Buried. You can read reviews and blurbs for the novel and also find events, radio interviews, articles, Q&A’s and all kinds of fun stuff on my website.

Question: When can we expect the book to be published?

The book was published in January 2014, and is available in hardback, ebook, and audio formats. The paperback is currently slated for release in September 2014.

And now, I’ve tagged these fabulous authors who have agreed to join the blog tour. Their Meet My Main Character blog posts will be online June 2nd.

M. Garzon knows horses and in her Blaze of Glory series she writes movingly about a young woman, Tea, whose dream is to ride professionally. In a story that touches on grief, domestic violence, and loyalty, Tea struggles to pursue her passion while balancing her family responsibilities and her developing attraction to a young man she has been forbidden to date.

M. Allen Cunningham‘s debut historical novel, The Green Age of Asher Witherow, is a lyrical portrait of a young man coming of age in a Northern California mining town where tragedy strikes. Cunningham’s second novel Lost Son is an exploration of poet Rilke’s life and work. His short stories have appeared in The Alaskan Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The Kenyon Review, Poets & Writers, Tin House, and many other journals. Two of his stories (“Gentle Knives” and “Highway”) have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. You can also read more about his work on his blog.

Ariel MacArran writes historical and futuristic romances, with a flair for strong female characters, witty dialog, and blisteringly-fast pacing. She is currently at work on the fourth book in her Tellaran Realm series.

Liz Silver‘s debut novel, The Execution of Noa P. Singleton centers on a young woman who is six months away from being put to death for committing first degree murder. When the mother of Noa’s victim has a change of heart and begins working to have Noa’s sentence commuted, Noa is forced to confront the motives behind her crime. In addition to her novel, Liz’s stories and non-fiction have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Huffington Post, The Millions, and others.

And finally, I want to give a last shout out to MaryLee MacDonald for kindly inviting me to participate in this blog tour! Check out her post about Colleen from her forthcoming novel Montpelier Tomorrow.

Quotation Marks

Some readers have noticed that I Shall Be Near To You uses UK-style quotation marks (single quotation marks that look like apostrophes) and have wondered why. The quotation marks came about as a compromise– I originally wrote the book without any quotation marks at all. That was how Rosetta’s voice “arrived” and I honestly couldn’t even write if I tried to use quotation marks. The inspiration just wouldn’t come and the writing felt forced and un-Rosetta-like. Since it wasn’t a conscious decision to write the book without quotation marks (I was truly surprised when I started writing and that’s the way it came out), I had to reverse engineer a reason for it. My best guess is that the real Rosetta who inspired the book used almost no punctuation in her letters home. I also liked that there was little distinction between what Rosetta thought and what she said, because both the real Rosetta and the fictional one are not very introspective or reflective people. But really all I know was that not having quotation marks was crucial for me to get the voice right.

The book was sold with the understanding that quotation marks were “off the table” (to quote my fabulous agent). However, my wonderful editor at Crown convinced me that not using some sort of punctuation actually drew more attention to the difference between what was spoken and thought and was therefore defeating part of my whole point in not using them. Then too, she pointed out some places where it was maybe too ambiguous and confusing. Being confusing definitely wasn’t my goal! And since I was no longer writing and creating new parts of the story, the quotation marks didn’t seem so all-important as they once had. Then it was just a matter of finding something I liked. I knew I didn’t want US quotation marks (too obtrusive!). I tried dashes (hated them!) and finally settled on the more minimalist UK style, something I had first become aware of in Mary Volmer’s beautiful historical novel, Crown of Dust , which also features a female character disguised as a man *and* another incredibly brave and strong woman. It seemed perfect!

True Bits: Clara Barton & Mary Galloway

(Spoiler alert! You might not want to keep reading if you haven’t finished the book–each “true bit” gives the background on something real that inspired part of the novel: some big, some small). This one isn’t a huge one, but it does give away some fun plot points toward the end of the novel, so… I leave it up to you if you want to read more.

I was worried it would seem too coincidental that Rosetta meets Clara Barton at Antietam, but I just felt like I had to include that part of the story. For one thing, I wanted to honor the many different ways women served during the war. For another thing, Clara Barton is known to have nursed soldiers near The Cornfield and also at the nearby farmhouses-turned-hospitals. Indeed, when I visited Antietam, I discovered that the monument to Clara Barton is placed right near where the 97th New York Volunteers camped the night before the battle. But even more importantly, it is a historical fact that Clara Barton came to the aid of a female soldier after the battle.

The story told in the book They Fought Like Demons is that there was an extremely distraught soldier who was brought to a shed outside one of the farmhouse hospitals. Even two days after the battle, the soldier still refused the surgeon’s exam, although there was a bullet hole in the left side of his neck. The surgeon summoned Clara Barton who was able to calm the soldier enough that the doctor could exam the wound. It turned out that the bullet had entered at the neck and lodged in the right side of the soldier’s back, somehow missing all of the soldier’s vital organs. Without anesthesia (eek!) the doctor removed the bullet. As Clara Barton cared for the soldier, she learned that the soldier was 16 year old Mary Galloway and she had enlisted in order to find her sweetheart. Clara must have been struck by this girl’s story, because she helped find Mary’s sweetheart at a hospital in nearby Frederick, Maryland. The story has the ultimate happy ending as the couple ended up getting married.

In honor of Mary Galloway and Catherine Davidson (who had her arm amputated after being wounded at Antietam), I gave the wounded soldier that Jeremiah discovers at South Mountain the alias David Galloway. And there was a female soldier named Ida Remington who fought for the Union at South Mountain.

Rosetta-isms: For my part

One of Rosetta’s little linguistic tics is the phrase “for my part”. Here’s a sampling:

From a letter dated August 19, 1863
“…I don’t believe this war will be over as long as there is a man left, and for my part I don’t Care how long it does last. I hope that our regiment will have to go into the field before it is over. Then I shall be satisfied and not until we have to go.”

(Of course I love this for how brave and brazen Rosetta is here.)

From a letter dated September 20, 1863
“…I don’t think that it would be my luck to get a furlough to come home this fall. For my part I shan’t try for it. If I did the officers Would say, ‘No, you must let the married men go home first.'”

(It makes me smile how she doesn’t even acknowledge that she could come home any time she wanted, if she revealed her true identity!)

From a letter dated October 13, 1863
For my part, I hope we Shall go to South Carolina, for there is nothing so lovely as the Southern Sun. WHen it rises over the virginia hills and Shines into the vales of South Carolina, I then like to be a Soldier. The hotter the Sun Shines, the better I like it in the army.”

(I just love her description of the Southern sun!)

From a letter dated January 20, 1864
For my part, I see the principle of the men in this regiment and I have chosen the better part.” And “…for my part, I haven’t been punished Since I have been in the service.”

When I was writing the novel, I had no idea just how many times it appeared in Rosetta’s letters, but it must’ve lodged itself in my subconscious because when Rosetta’s voice came to me, this little phrase came too. I love the personality and flavor it adds.

Rosetta-isms: I’ll dress as I have a mind to

One of my all time favorite Rosetta-isms is from a letter dated June 5, 1863:

“I will Dress as I am a mind to for all anyone else [cares], and if they don’t let me Alone they will be sorry for it.”

I just love her! If Rosetta (the real one or the character) were to have a manifesto, I like to think this would be the first line.

I think this, more than anything, captures Rosetta’s feisty spirit, and the way she consistently asserts her independence while at the same time acknowledging the pressure she feels to conform to society’s expectations. She’s a pistol, that’s for sure.

I wanted to use the same sentiment, but while the real Rosetta wrote that line home to her family early in her service, perhaps as a bit of a justification for what she was doing, or in response to some comment in one of her family’s letters, I chose to use the line at the end of the book, when Rosetta makes her decision about what is next for her. It seemed to me an assertion of her independence at the same time that it acknowledged the difficult decision she was making and the pressures she would feel.

And as a side note, I have to say I got a kick out of thinking about what Rosetta’s response would have been if she knew that her story had been featured in both Glamour and ELLE magazines!

A semi-True Bit: Walt Whitman’s “The Wound Dresser”

This isn’t exactly a True Bit, because I didn’t read Walt Whitman’s poem “The Wound Dresser” about his work as a nurse in the Civil War hospitals in Washington DC until after I’d already written the scene where Jennie takes Rosetta to the Armory Square Hospital. (And I guess, technically, a poem isn’t “true”?) When I did finally read it, I was shocked at the ways in which the novel and the poem overlapped, especially starting in the middle of the second stanza.

The Wound-Dresser
BY WALT WHITMAN
1

An old man bending I come among new faces,
Years looking backward resuming in answer to children,
Come tell us old man, as from young men and maidens that love me,
(Arous’d and angry, I’d thought to beat the alarum, and urge relentless war,
But soon my fingers fail’d me, my face droop’d and I resign’d myself,
To sit by the wounded and soothe them, or silently watch the dead;)
Years hence of these scenes, of these furious passions, these chances,
Of unsurpass’d heroes, (was one side so brave? the other was equally brave;)
Now be witness again, paint the mightiest armies of earth,
Of those armies so rapid so wondrous what saw you to tell us?
What stays with you latest and deepest? of curious panics,
Of hard-fought engagements or sieges tremendous what deepest remains?

2

O maidens and young men I love and that love me,
What you ask of my days those the strangest and sudden your talking recalls,
Soldier alert I arrive after a long march cover’d with sweat and dust,
In the nick of time I come, plunge in the fight, loudly shout in the rush of successful charge,
Enter the captur’d works—yet lo, like a swift running river they fade,
Pass and are gone they fade—I dwell not on soldiers’ perils or soldiers’ joys,
(Both I remember well—many of the hardships, few the joys, yet I was content.)

But in silence, in dreams’ projections,
While the world of gain and appearance and mirth goes on,
So soon what is over forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand,
With hinged knees returning I enter the doors, (while for you up there,
Whoever you are, follow without noise and be of strong heart.)

Bearing the bandages, water and sponge,
Straight and swift to my wounded I go,
Where they lie on the ground after the battle brought in,
Where their priceless blood reddens the grass, the ground,
Or to the rows of the hospital tent, or under the roof’d hospital,
To the long rows of cots up and down each side I return,
To each and all one after another I draw near, not one do I miss,
An attendant follows holding a tray, he carries a refuse pail,
Soon to be fill’d with clotted rags and blood, emptied, and fill’d again.

I onward go, I stop,
With hinged knees and steady hand to dress wounds,
I am firm with each, the pangs are sharp yet unavoidable,
One turns to me his appealing eyes—poor boy! I never knew you,
Yet I think I could not refuse this moment to die for you, if that would save you.

3

On, on I go, (open doors of time! open hospital doors!)
The crush’d head I dress, (poor crazed hand tear not the bandage away,)
The neck of the cavalry-man with the bullet through and through I examine,
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard,
(Come sweet death! be persuaded O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)

From the stump of the arm, the amputated hand,
I undo the clotted lint, remove the slough, wash off the matter and blood,
Back on his pillow the soldier bends with curv’d neck and side falling head,
His eyes are closed, his face is pale, he dares not look on the bloody stump,
And has not yet look’d on it.

I dress a wound in the side, deep, deep,
But a day or two more, for see the frame all wasted and sinking,
And the yellow-blue countenance see.

I dress the perforated shoulder, the foot with the bullet-wound,
Cleanse the one with a gnawing and putrid gangrene, so sickening, so offensive,
While the attendant stands behind aside me holding the tray and pail.

I am faithful, I do not give out,
The fractur’d thigh, the knee, the wound in the abdomen,
These and more I dress with impassive hand, (yet deep in my breast a fire, a burning flame.)

4

Thus in silence in dreams’ projections,
Returning, resuming, I thread my way through the hospitals,
The hurt and wounded I pacify with soothing hand,
I sit by the restless all the dark night, some are so young,
Some suffer so much, I recall the experience sweet and sad,
(Many a soldier’s loving arms about this neck have cross’d and rested,
Many a soldier’s kiss dwells on these bearded lips.)

True Bits: Rebel spies

Several events from the real Rosetta’s letters really intrigued me when I first read about them. One of the most fascinating was her brief account of the female soldier and rebel spies she guarded while on prison duty:

“Over to Carroll Prison they have got three women that is confined to their Rooms. One of them was a Major in the union army and she went into battle with her men. When the Rebels bullets was acoming like a hail storm, she rode her horse and gave orders to the men. Now She is in Prison for not doing aCcordingly to the regulation of war. The other two is rebel Spies and they have Catch them and Put them in Prison. They are Smart looking women and [have] good education.”

Who were those women? Did they realize they were being guarded by a woman? How did Rosetta feel guarding a soldier who was imprisoned for doing exactly what she was doing? How did Rosetta get these details about the female Major? This little paragraph is all we know! I wish Rosetta had said more, but because she didn’t, I was free to imagine the scene where the character Rosetta guards and meets Mrs. Greenhow, also known as Rebel Rose.

Rosetta-isms/True Bits: that spotted calf

When I wrote the first draft of I Shall Be Near To You, it had been ten years since I’d read the real Rosetta’s letters. I didn’t return to the actual letters until I had completed the draft because I was afraid that if I re-read the letters I would lose the voice I heard in my head, even though my intention was to make the character Rosetta’s voice as true to the feisty and tender voice that shone through in the real Rosetta’s letters. I was actually a bit surprised when I reread the letters to find how many phrases (what I like to call Rosetta-isms) or ideas made their way from the original letters into the novel, though not always in exactly the same context. Here’s an example:

Originals, from Rosetta Wakeman’s letters:
“Alexandria
Nov. 24, 1862
…If you want to save anything to remember me by, keep that spotted calf and if i ever return I want you to let me have her again.”

and
“June the 19, A.D. 1863
Father I want you to Write, too, and let me know all about your Farming and how long do you intend to keep Fony?”

From the novel (one of Rosetta’s letters home): I want to know how that Spotted Calf does and if the Fields are planted and what in (Wheat or Potatoes or maybe Corn) and have you had Help to do it?