I hadn’t been sure what was wrong.
This story-in-progress, my third full novel manuscript, has definitely been my most troublesome “child” so far. First, my heroine didn’t want to behave, taking months before she would even “talk” to me. (Yes, novelists hear people who aren’t real. But I don’t think you need to sign me up for an insane asylum…yet. 🙂 ) Then, I hadn’t been sure when to start the story, doing a lot of research on the Abolition movement in Washington DC, only to realize most of it was more relevant for a yet-to-be-written prequel than the novel I’m working on right now.
And finally, I’ve been unable to find as many resources on the Native American thread for this story than for my others—on the Owens Valley Paiute who were captured and marched south to be held without rations at Fort Tejon, where the story is mostly set, from 1863-64. I still haven’t found any Northern Paiute contacts to talk to, despite asking a number of Native friends.
That last one, though, I hoped wasn’t too much of a problem. For the first time, I was writing a novel without a Native POV (point-of-view) character, and so the Paiute thread, while vital to the story’s conflict and plot, wasn’t quite as central. I confess part of me hoped that might be a helpful thing as I continue to work toward and hope for publication, since the Native American element of my stories hasn’t always been particularly popular in the current market.
So I kept plunging forward. Though the story continued to fight me at times, over the summer I finally made significant progress.
And yet—at 60,000 words (roughly 2/3 of the way through), I found myself yet again frustrated and burned out with this story. What was wrong?
I was taking a shower (Why are showers such wonderful places for ideas? Maybe it’s because we finally relax enough for a few minutes that the Lord can get through our stubbornly busy heads), and I started praying about my story and its stuckness. Not that I hadn’t prayed before, but it was more “Please help me write this” than really asking the Lord about the story, what was wrong, what He wanted me to do.
And suddenly my Paiute characters pressed hard on my heart. And I was convicted.
Maybe this story was supposed to have Native POV characters. Maybe my own agenda, my own wanting to somehow “fit the market,” was hindering the story the Lord actually wanted me to write.
Hadn’t the whole reason I started novel-writing in the first place been largely driven by wanting to tell these stories from our history that haven’t been told? To help readers from America’s dominant culture, like me, to see through someone else’s eyes for a bit, walk in his or her shoes, and begin to learn what it feels like to be part of a Native community marginalized and devalued in their own land.
And yet, though I hadn’t meant to, I had marginalized and devalued my Native characters in this story by not giving them a voice. Not only did they not have chapters from their point of view, my main characters don’t speak or understand their language, making it impossible to give my Native characters even written “lines.” They were literally voiceless.
And except for one, I hadn’t even given them names.
Now, I hadn’t intended to leave it that way. I hoped, and still do, to at some point go up north to the Owens Valley, where there is a Paiute tribal and cultural center, and see what I could learn firsthand. But since it hadn’t been feasible to do that yet, I had let this part of the story—their story—slide. And didn’t realize how very much it mattered.
I started to pray and brainstorm what to do. I still didn’t know how to work a major POV Paiute character into the storyline. But then, once my heart had opened to His suggestion, the Lord planted an idea.
I added a scene at the beginning of an early chapter. Less than a page, and in the first person, more of a stream-of-consciousness monologue. But through it, the teenage Paiute boy, whose attempt to get food for his family at the fort forms a key plot point in the book, was able to speak in his own voice, tell his own story.
And the stuck-ness was loosed, and I was able to write again.
I’ve added two other internal monologues in Native voices so far—one from the elderly grandmother who strives to hold her family together and keep hope in the face of displacement and starvation, one from the young woman carrying her first child and longing for her husband, who escaped early in their capture, to come back for them. And I have names to put with these voices…Sew-hu, and Wanekia. I still need a name for the grandmother.
It’s not much. But it is something. And it was what was missing.
And I so move forward, humbled, reminded of why I write in the first place. It’s so easy to think that, since I’ve written two full novels, I can “do this” now—that I know how to plot out a story and form characters. So easy to forget that anything I write is by the sheer grace of God. And that if I stray from the stories He has called me to write, I’m really being disobedient to Him.
How about you? What callings has the Lord especially put on your heart, whether you are a writer or not? Has He had to get you “back on track” before? Please comment and share!