Story Behind the Story #16:
The Fighting Ground


At the time I was living in Lambertville, New Jersey, so it was easy for me to catch a bus and get into NYC for a meeting with my editor. We were going to discuss the new novel manuscript I had sent her.

I did indeed meet with her and learn that she was rejecting my book. Long ago I had learned that you didn’t argue about such a thing, you just accepted it, and moved on. Indeed, while taking the bus back home my primary thought was, “What am I going to write now?”

I stared out the window.

I was just about a mile from home when I noticed a road marker, one of those signs that tell the passer-by about something that happened at that spot years ago. I had never really paid attention to it before.

The Fighting GroundThe bus was going full speed, but I caught enough of the sign to want to come back and read it more closely. I did so the next day.

The tale the sign told was about a small Revolutionary War skirmish fought between a few New Jersey militia and a small troop of Hessian soldiers. The numbers involved were small. “Only a few deaths,” read the sign. The last line of the sign read: “The import of this skirmish was small.”

But I thought, “It wasn’t small for those who died, or the families from which they came.”

That was the beginning of my thinking for The Fighting Ground about a boy who is caught up in just such a small skirmish The most interesting part of the book—in my view—is that the boy, when captured, hears only the German (and doesn’t understand) his captives speak. A friend translated my English into German.

Hessian soldiersMy protagonist guesses what these Germans are saying and acts accordingly, with fatal consequences.

At the back of the book I translated the German passages into English. For the reader, it completely changes the story.

It’s a curious case of what is not actually part of the story being an essential part of the story.

The Fighting Ground won the Scott O’Dell award for best historical fiction that year.

Staring out of windows can be productive.

The Revolutionary War Comes Alive

Recently, the recorded version of Sophia’s War was a School Library Journal Pick of the Day. I extend my thanks to the folks at SLJ.

Here’s what they had to say:

Sophia's WarSet in 1776 during the American Revolution when New York was under siege by the British, Avi’s tale (S & S/Beach Lane Books, 2012) of resistance features an amazing female protagonist, trials aplenty as she tries to avenge her brother’s death, and a little romance thrown in for good measure. Sophia’s family believes in freedom and desperately wants America to govern itself. Her brother goes off to fight, is captured, and ends up dying in a filthy hold of a British prison boat. John Andre, a charming English officer who is billeted with Sophia’s family, fails to intervene to save her brother. Despite having a schoolgirl crush on Andre, Sophia is conflicted by his failure to save her brother. After witnessing the execution of Nathan Hale, Sophia is determined to help the American cause. Recruited as a spy, she becomes a maid in the home of the commander of the British forces in America. Sophia uncovers some crucial information and sets out to reach West Point before Benedict Arnold can turn it over to the British. Avi’s outstanding text and Angela Goethals’s spot-on narration make the Revolutionary War come alive for listeners, providing a real sense of the time period. A perfect choice for school and public libraries.

Grades 5 to 9. 6 cassettes or 6 CDs. 7:15 hrs. Recorded Books. 2012. cassette: ISBN 978-1-4703-2043-0, CD: ISBN 978-1-4703-2042-3. $66.75.

A “rich, nail-biting thriller”

Sophia's WarHave you had a chance to read Sophia’s War yet? Maybe during the holidays? Publishers Weekly had this to say about the book:

Newbery Medalist Avi channels the mood, language, and danger of the Revolutionary War in this seamless blend of history and fiction, set in British-occupied New York City. Twelve-year-old Sophia Calderwood idolizes her older brother, William, a fervent Patriot soldier who has gone missing after the Battle of Brooklyn. In the first half of the book, Sophia’s desperate search for William leads her to several deplorable prisons where rebels are being held. The second half takes place when Sophia, now 15, becomes a spy who uncovers the truth about Benedict Arnold. The book is chockful of fascinating historical details, including the conditions for those stranded in New York and the failed meetings between Arnold and John André, his (real-life) British contact. Avi doesn’t sugarcoat the brutal realities of war as Sophia races to find help intercepting John André, who was also a boarder in her home years earlier and her first crush, in this rich, nail-biting thriller.

The Sugarhouse

Sophia’s War, just published, is a tale about the American Revolution. It takes places in New York City.

As readers of the book will learn, the British occupied New York for most of the war. I tried to describe the city as best as I could, based on rather extensive research. One of the key sites in the book is a building known as The Sugarhouse. This building was originally a place where Jamaican sugar was boiled down to become molasses. Since fire was involved, the building was made of stone. During the war the British converted it into a prison, and it became notorious for its squalor, deprivations, and cruelty—a place where many, many Americans died.

I recently went to New York City and wandered about the area where the story takes place.    Needless to say, though many of the narrow streets have their old names, almost nothing that existed then, exists today. Except one thing. When the old Sugarhouse was torn down, someone saved one of the barred windows. It was eventually installed in a wall near what is called Police Plaza. It took some searching and lots of asking, but I found it, a truly poignant memorial. And here it is. 

Sugar House

Making a movie

The Fighting GroundFaria, of Valley Stream, NY, writes, “I really like your book called The Fighting Ground. I think you should make a movie of it.”

I get lots of letters from my readers telling me that they think I should make one of my books (one that they have read and enjoyed) into a movie.  I take this as a compliment, and like to think that have I provided enough vivid descriptions so that the book sometimes feels like a movie. But of course I can’t make a movie of one my books, let alone any other book. I don’t know how to do it. Film-making, and book-making, I think, require very different skills and talents. Then too, look at the credits at the end of a movie and count the number of people involved. You can see that the making of a movie is a vastly more complex project than the making of a book. It also requires a great deal of money, a lot more than I could imagine having. Yes, from time to time I am approached by film-makers. Projects start, and then stop. There are a few in process even now. I stay as far away as possible. To be sure, I enjoy going to the movies. But from what I have seen, it’s the rare film that is as good as, much less better than, the book. So truly, I enjoy reading much more. Besides, the pictures in my head stay longer. 

Commingling fact and fiction

Sophia's WarThe most difficult aspect of Sophia’s War is the commingling of fact and fiction. The story of Benedict Arnold’s treason, and John André’s fate, is not just well known, it has been researched and detailed to an extraordinary degree. One of the books I used to research the event provided photographs and descriptions of everywhere André went during that extraordinary moment—virtually step by step. Moreover, my attempt to describe New York City during the British occupation (1776-7183) is based on detailed research that has been done by others. It is all as “correct” as I could write it. 

But Sophia herself, and her story, is very much fiction. How can the two connect? It is because as the historians of the events record, there are two key moments in the Arnold/André saga that have never been satisfactorily illuminated. Historians speak of “luck,” “fate,” and “coincidence.” Perhaps. But it is just at those points that I have been able to create a character, motive, and means, for these mysterious events to be explained. Not the least of what makes it all work is that Sophia does not want to be noticed, is not noticed, and indeed, cannot be noticed in the context of who and what she is—an independent young woman. It’s very much like that wonderful book title, Anonymous Was a Woman

Ralph Waldo Emerson said (if I have it right) “History is biography.” Sophia’s War is Sophia’s autobiography. Just don’t look for her in history books. You can only find her here. “The writer’s task,” as I once heard Paula Fox say, “is to imagine the truth.”

Waiting for the reviews

Sophia's WarThis has become an important part of the business in recent years as starred reviews drive book-buying decisions. Sophia’s War has received two starred reviews:

“Few historical novels are as closely shaped by actual events as this one during the last 100 pages. Working within the bounds of credibility, Avi manages to keep the fictional narrator on the scene for a good deal of the action and uses real moments to bring the imagined story to its dramatic heights.” —Booklist, starred review. Read more of this review

“Newbery Medalist Avi (Crispin: The Cross of Lead) channels the mood, language, and danger of the Revolutionary War in this seamless blend of history and fiction, set in British-occupied New York City.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review  Read more of this review …

Is it real? Is it fiction?

Megan of Pompano Beach wrote me and asked, “Do you incorporate real events into your writing?”

Sophia's WarThe answer is, yes and no. The about to be published Sophia’s War is full of things that really happened during the American Revolution, but the main character, Sophia Calderwood, is fictional. Yet, I tell the story as if she had a great deal to do with what happened. Hard Gold and Iron Thunder were written much the same way. True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle is a complete fiction, but I sure tried to get my facts about ships and sailing right. The Poppy books are tales about animals, but they are full of things that happened in my own family life—not that you would know it. Seer of Shadows, a ghost story, uses what I knew from my days as an amateur photographer. But the emotions and relationships I depict in my books are most often based on things out of my own experience, lived or observed. The facts—particularly for the historical fiction—comes from research. I suspect all fiction is created this way. No matter how fantastic the tale, there is some real connection to the writer.