Meet My Villains

Part 6 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

I once dated both a Roger and an Osborne, and neither proved to be very good dating material, but they did not reach the villainous status of this guy: Roger Osborne. Straight out of history, I did not need to invent him as the bad guy in Sharavogue. He showed up on his own.

But more about him in a moment. This is a post about the characters in the story, and particularly the villains who actually drive the action. In Sharavogue there are three villains. The first one we meet is Oliver Cromwell himself. Cromwell and his New Model Army have just defeated the Royalists in a bloody civil war. Cromwell has emerged as England’s new leader and has beheaded King Charles I in London. Now he comes to Ireland to cut down the Irish rebelling against English plantation on their soil.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Bust of Cromwell from the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon.

Our heroine Elvy Burke confronts this powerful figure when he marches on her village. Cromwell had facial warts which helps add to his villainous image. It is Elvy’s hatred and vow to kill Cromwell that drives her forward and commands her decision making.

Through a series of events Elvy soon confronts the second villain of sorts, Sharavogue itself. The word Sharavogue comes from the Irish meaning “bitter place,” and it is the name given to a sugar plantation on the Island of Montserrat in the West Indies. The plantation system of the time depends on slave labor, and Elvy becomes an indentured servant struggling to survive against the customs, hard labor and the disease-ridden environment.

Because of her vow, Elvy cannot rest until she finds a way back to Cromwell to assassinate him. Thus, she seeks out the governor of Montserrat for assistance, and he is none other than Roger Osborne. In the 1650s, Osborne became governor of Montserrat when the original governor, Anthony Briskett, died. Briskett was revered for his vision and ability to engage and encourage fellow settlers and plantaton owners, and build a prosperous economy for the tiny island based primarily on tobacco crops. Briskett owned the best plantation on the island, married Osborne’s sister Elizabeth, and they had one son. Roger owned the adjacent plantation, but thought the grass was greener on Briskett’s side of the fence.

When Briskett died, Osborne’s palms must have itched to get his hands on Briskett’s plantation, but Elizabeth still wanted a husband and father for her young son. She married a Dutch planter and gentleman by the name of Samuel Waad.

What happens next is infamous for this period of history, and author Richard S. Dunn (Sugar and Slaves) lays it out like a play, listing all the characters by role. Picture Osborne, a massive spider, waiting for the perfect opportunity to weave his web and capture the fly.

Waad is a wealthy merchant and a bit of a dandy, but also very steeped in the rules of honor. When Osborne has Waad’s house guest arrested for beating a local tailor with his cane (what was the tailor’s offense, I wonder?), Waad is embarrassed and insulted. He writes a letter to Osborne that not only complains against the arrest, but goes on to call out Osborne’s corruption and whoring.

Waad is now ensnared in Osborne’s trap. Osborne is head of the militia, and calls the letter treason. Waad is arrested and, because it is a weekend, Osborne is able to call together only his cronies (and not the full militia) to determine Waad’s fate. The action is swift. Waad is executed by firing squad. Osborne takes over his estate and management on behalf of his nephew, who is Waad’s heir.

This story is true. I only wish I’d been able to find an image of Osborne to see if his countenance shows his personality. His interactions with Elvy are imagined and highly likely, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

Writing on a theme

Part 5 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

Reviewers said a big reason Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was so successful was that he wrote on a theme no less important than the existence of Jesus himself. It was a question almost universal, and he took it to the next level, whether Jesus actually had children and a bloodline could exist today. Pretty compelling, and writers who target such a theme can easily tap into a large audience.

In my case, I was exploring a story that was unfolding as I researched and studied my topic area. And while themes certainly emerged, my goal was to tell the best story I could. Sharavogue began as a story of revenge and self-actualization, about the obstacles that can confront you on your way to your goals. Ultimately, and I only realized this after I stumbled across a Keats poem that rang home for me, it is about the range of emotion–from violence and hatred to love and mercy–that humans are capable of feeling and expressing.

I think writing on a theme is great if you are really emotionally engaged with that theme. For me, thinking about what my theme would be stifled the creative process. I needed to let the story unfold in its own way, and then refine it through revisions. When it came time to publish, I did feel a bit exposed, that through my writing I had perhaps revealed more of my private self than I wanted to or should.

As Glen C. Strathy writes:

Curiously, some novelists say they don’t believe in theme – or at least they don’t believe in giving any thought to the matter while writing. They prefer to concentrate on telling a good story rather than delivering a profound message. However, theme cannot be excluded. Every writer has interests, opinions, biases, and attitudes. Some are conscious; some are unconscious. Some you gain from experience and honest reflection, while others you pick up uncritically from others. You cannot avoid your personal “wisdom” creeping into what you write, creating patterns that can be identified as “themes.” via Choosing a Theme for Your Novel.

I believe in writing from the heart. In my case, I was working on the book for several years. If I had not been deeply and emotionally engaged, I don’t believe I could have maintained the energy to complete it. I also had enough self doubt without allowing concern over the proper theme to feed the flame. That theme naturally emerges from creative writing is all part of the magic of writing, and what makes it such an interesting process of discovery.

What’s your book about?

Part 4 in the series: How I found the snow path to Dingle

I never would have guessed that one of the hardest things about writing a book is being able to describe it to someone in a succinct and compelling way. And when the story is set in a period that most people don’t know? A nearly impossible nightmare. What was I thinking?

My publisher sent me some questions to help me prepare for a radio interview. Question 2: Summarize your book in one to three sentences. Here’s what I came up with:

Sharavogue is a novel set in the turbulent 1650s, in the time of Oliver Cromwell and his brutal domination of Ireland. This is the tale of one girl’s vow of revenge, her journey through the lawless lands of the West Indies as an indentured servant, and her struggle to return to England to confront her sworn enemy and claim her destiny.

It’s all true but I’m not sure compelling, and it doesn’t quite get at the fun and adventurous aspects of the book. To do this, I really like the book Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. This book is aimed at screen writers but it is a fun, quick read, straight to the point and so helpful. You’ve got to be able to describe your book (screen play) in one sentence. “It’s about a guy/girl who _______” fill in the blank. Simple, right? If only!

One thing I really liked about this book is that I realized I had basically and instinctively followed Blake’s advice before I had even read it, in terms of the structure, the conflict, the beginning, middle and end. And I read the chapter on character development over and over again.

But mostly I liked the honesty and clarity about what works, what doesn’t, and reminding us that writing is just one aspect of the book business. If you want people to read what you’ve written, you’ve got to sell it. Selling books and selling screenplays is a business, so you have to think in terms of what your customers want and care about.

The book’s title refers to the idea that if you want readers to care about your main character, he or she can and should have flaws, but must also do something early on to win their hearts. Save the cat! In my case, my character tries to save her village. She fails, but hopefully by the time that happens the readers have already started to care about her and want to know what happens next, so they keep turning the pages.

Honestly, I still struggle with those one to three sentences. I’ve practiced saying them, described the book to many readers, and still there are times when I get a blank expression in return. Maybe one day I’ll write about a time that people can immediately relate to, and I’ll work in an irresistible cat.