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.

Movie option

True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleA recent post—prompted by one of my readers—asked blog readers to suggest which of my books would they most like to see made into a movie. While a fair number suggested Crispin, and The Fighting Ground, most folks suggested The True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleOver the years any number of people have taken out options [contractual agreements which permit working on a production] of my books. No films have been made. The one that came closest was Charlotte.

Anyone who took an interest in the book was told that the only contract I would agree to sign was one which agreed not to change the ending.

If I remember correctly, it was Danny DeVito’s young daughter who brought the book to her father’s attention. He took an option on the book and held it, I believe, for about seven years.

He wrote a script, of which I approved. I had an opportunity to meet with Mr. DeVito in his home, where he discussed all the things he planned to do with the film. He even showed me a large model of The Seahawk, which he had built.

As it developed (over the years) DeVito was going to direct the film. Morgan Freeman was going to play Zachariah, and Pierce Brosnan was to play Jaggery. Dakota Fanning was the first choice to play Charlotte. When the project was continually delayed, Saoirse Ronan was considered for the part.

The project advanced—(I don’t remember who was finally going to act Charlotte)—the filming scheduled, an old sailing ship (on Lake Erie) was chartered to serve as The Seahawk, costumes and props were made.

City of OrphansTwo weeks prior to the commencement of filming, Morgan Freeman had a car accident and was seriously hurt. The short of it is that the whole production was halted and was never resumed. The option expired and was not renewed.

[Keep in mind my knowledge of all this is at best sketchy because—having nothing to do with the production—I learned of things only second-hand.]

Would I like a film made of the book? Sure. Will it happen? I doubt it. However, to answer the question in the original post as to which of my books I would most like to see made into a film, I’d have to say, City of Orphans.

What I want for my readers

Savannah, from Stanfield, OR asked:

What do you want readers to learn from your stories?

More than anything, I would like my readers to enjoy a good story. I want readers—depending on the book—to laugh, to cry, to feel the tension, to feel a lot of emotion—to want turn pages because they care about the characters. True, in my historical fiction, I would like readers to learn something about the time and place about which I write. I would like readers to know how extraordinary the Civil War ship The Monitor was (in Iron Thunder), what it was like to be caught up in an eighteenth century military action (The Fighting Ground) or what it was like to be an immigrant in New York City at the end of the 19th century (City of Orphans). But if you don’t care about the people who inhabit those stories, none of that matters. From my point of view—and the way I try to write—is that facts allow me to tell something about the people. The people are not there to share facts. One of the nicest things that anyone ever said about The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle was, “An improbable but deeply satisfying story.”

historical fictionLearn more about:
Iron Thunder
The Fighting Ground
City of Orphans
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle


The most-often-asked question

lightbulbThe most commonly asked question of writers is, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Here are some of my  answers: 

Sophia’s War:  Reading Dickens’ Great Expectations and learning about prison ships.

City of Orphans:  Browsing through a 19th century newspaper and coming across a sensational headline.

Crispin: Listening to a lecture about the middle ages.

Seer of Shadows:  Having once been an amateur photographer with my own darkroom.

The Book with No Words:  When reading a book about alchemy, I learned about a “Book with No Words.”

Never Mind:  Having a chat with my fellow writer, Rachel Vail.

Sometimes I Think I Hear My Name:  Listening to one of my son’s friends talk about his spring break.

Nothing but the Truth:  Hearing a news report on radio.

The Fighting Ground:  Noticing a historical road marker.

Wolf Rider: Getting an odd phone call.

Poppy: Reading a book about owls. 

Where do you get your ideas?  The answer: Everywhere.

Real? Fictitious?

historical fictionHistorical fiction, invented by Sir Walter Scott with his novel Waverly (1814) is a remarkably flexible form, offering everything from what might be called costume drama to meticulously accurate depictions of real events and people. My own work shares that range. Books like Midnight Magic, or The Book without Words, reference the historical moment, but not much more. Crispin, is (I hope) very accurate as to place and time, but has only one real character, John Ball. The Man who Was Poe tries to depict Edgar Allan Poe’s real character in a real place, at a real time, but all else is fiction. The Fighting Ground is real as to place, event, and time, but all characters are fictional.

Sophia’s War, just published, goes another way. Here all events, place, and most characters, are historically accurate. Even minor characters are real. BUT—the main character, Sophia (and her family), is a work of my imagination. That said, it is Sophia, who, if you will, causes the real events to happen. How can that be? In the celebrated case of Benedict Arnold and John André, though studied countless times by historians, there are some key events which happened but which have never fully been explained. Coincidence? Luck? The hand of Providence? Enter Sophia, and those events are explained in as exciting a way as I could write it. It is my attempt to give life to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion, “All history is biography.” Sophia’s War is real history, as lived by a real, fictitious person.

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. 

Where do you get your ideas?

Sophia's WarThe most common question asked of authors is, “Where do you get your ideas?” Consider my newest book, Sophia’s War, a tale set in New York City (NYC) during the American Revolution.

I was born and raised in Brooklyn (NYC), close to the site of the biggest battle fought during the American Revolution, the Battle of Brooklyn.

In 1947, when I was nine, The American Past, an illustrated history of the United States, came into my home. The first of its kind, its pictures fascinated me. I went through it countless times, gained a basic outline of US history, and a life-long love of history. I still have that book. I still read history.

Goodman Ace

Goodman Ace, creator of the radio program, You Are There

From 1947 to 1950 I was an avid listener of the CBS radio series, You Are There, which reported great moments in history as if they were just happening.

Not far from my home was the place where the notorious British prison ships lay at anchor. At some point—I don’t know when—I learned of what happened.

Rabble in ArmsAs a teenager I read Kenneth RobertsRabble in Arms. Roberts was the foremost historical fiction writer of his time, and my introduction to historical fiction. This book focused on General Benedict Arnold. The book gave me my first real introduction to Arnold, his fascinating history, his tragic downfall.

In high school I began to buy (and read) books offered by the History Book Club. Some still sit on my shelves.

In college I majored in history, mostly American and British history.

Captain GreyMy first historical work was Captain Grey, (1977) a novel about the bitter aftermath of the American revolution. I would write some 35 other works of historical fiction.

In 1976 I watched battlefield enactments of the Revolution. Those experiences led me (1984) to write The Fighting Ground, about a boy fighting in the American Revolution. It’s one of my most successful books, and the first historical fiction for which I did serious research.

Iron ThunderIn 2007, I published Iron Thunder, a Civil War novel about  the Monitor and Merrimack. I wanted to write an historically accurate account of that battle, while inserting a fictional character, and thereby  creating an exciting adventure (and historical knowledge) for my readers. That was followed by Hard Goldsame formatabout the Colorado gold rush. Before I had finished it, I conceived a similarly constructed story about the American Revolution. I decided it would begin with an account of Nathan Hale’s death. Three years before I started to write the book I knew the first line: “It is a terrible thing to see a man hang.”

Where did I get the ideas for Sophia’s War? Throughout my life.