Perhaps those contemplating reading Allegheny Road, or others who have already read it, might find it of some interest to obtain an insight into the process of writing such a book. Of course if they are also writers, they have their own insight, but are invited to read on, anyway.
Long before I attempted to write a book of over a hundred thousand words, with more than two secondary plot lines, with several characters whose lives intersected, I had wondered how anyone could do such a thing.
How, I asked myself, did one begin with a blank sheet of paper (or computer screen) and end up with a book like that. Where did one start, to create a plot at all, let alone a complex, multi-layered one? And how was it possible to tie everything together to create a coherent story from beginning to end?
Certainly, there is no set answer to those questions. Every writer will have his/her own method and I had to develop my own, so I can only speak from my own experience but while generally, the same process works for me with all the fiction I write, I’ll connect what I found to the writing of Allegheny Road.
Actually, to be honest, the idea of a writer facing a blank screen or page is more cliché than reality. It makes a good anecdote, but I strongly suspect that a person who has decided to write a book almost certainly approaches the work with some ideas, enough ideas around which to begin building a plot from the outset. The real question of interest is how to expand a bare plot into something more complex, more interesting, more intriguing than a simple straight-ahead story.
Allegheny Road began as an idea while I was finishing a comprehensive non-fiction book about the Civil War; during that writing, I made notes of several elements of a story long before I was ready to write the fiction work. Although those initial story ideas, however, were simple and unadorned, and did not go far toward a viable plot, they gave me something to work with.
The next step was to start asking myself questions about what to do with the plot. For instance, the first thing I had decided was that a Union officer would end up at a plantation in Virginia, where he would meet and become romantically involved with a Southern woman. That was a very simple and not particularly unique idea, but it was a foundation to build the rest of the book upon.
To begin creating a first level of plot, the first question I asked was what would allow a Union officer to become separated from his unit in order to reach a plantation far outside the battle zone. The answers to this question triggered a cascade of ideas, and set up the lowest strata of plotting for the overall book. What it did not do was tell me what happened when the officer, who I had by then named Scott Patton, in fact met the woman, far from the war. Just having a man from Cincinnati find and meet a woman in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia did not even really qualify as a plot. It was more like a clause than a whole sentence.
Other questions included such as why was Scott Patton not already involved with a woman at home, and why was the woman in Virginia not involved with a man, so that when they met they were free to have a romantic relationship?
Again, answering those questions had a ripple effect, causing much more of the book to fill out. Part of that process involved introducing other characters, one of whom was the estranged husband of the Virginia woman, named Ashley Lynn. Creating a story for the two of them, including why their relationship had gone sour, added an entire plot line of its own.
Out of that process, however, a fourth character suddenly emerged, who became the character who tied everything together and created yet another powerful plot line, and caused the entire overall story to change drastically, leading to what I had been missing, a grander plot than what had developed up to that time.
That character was a woman named Millie Turner, a slave, who became George’s personal servant when she was three and he was only a little older, but with whom he fell in love, which feeling she reciprocated. The fact that his family could not be allowed to know of their secret affair or she would have been sent away, and the fact that a white man and black woman could not marry in Virginia, added major levels of tension to the story that surpassed even Scott Patton’s contribution to the plot. In other words, with the introduction of Millie Turner, the book transformed into something I could never have begun to imagine when I started.
The fact that the two families, George’s and Ashley’s decided the two would marry brought even deeper tension and led to the estrangement between George, Millie, and Ashley, by the time Scott arrived. And the fact that long before that time, Ashley and Millie had become best friends, and secretly ran a “station” in the underground railroad, right out from under George’s nose not only added further stress, but served as the cause that brought Scott to the plantation.
The final, missing part of the story was the dangerous, threatening relationship between Scott and George that began when the latter returned on furlough from the war, hoping to find a warmer greeting from either Ashley or Millie, only to discover a Yankee on his land who was apparently wooing both “his” women. What ultimately came of this confrontation powered the rest of the story and caused me to go back and rewrite everything, in order to set up that plotline as the true core of the book.
To tell any more would be to spoil the tale for those who may read Allegheny Road in the future, but from this little narrative, it should be clear how the book came to be, with all its twists and turns.