Back to Batoche

Today is a momentous day for the Métis people of Canada, and for all Canadians. After 128 years the bell from the local church in the town of Batoche is coming home.

Stolen by soldiers from the Northwest Field Force on the final day of the battle that put Batoche on the map of Canadian history, the Bell ended up in the town of Millbrooke, Ontario, where it was housed in the local fire hall, until that building burned to the ground. Cracked in the fire, it was then put on display in the local Legion Hall. In 1991 the Legion was broken into and the bell ‘removed.’ It hasn’t been seen in public since.

The Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph du Manitoba has now negotiated the bell’s return, promising anonymity with those who have held the bell for the last two decades.

Today (Saturday July 20) is the day of the Bell’s repatriation.

In May of this year I visited Batoche for a second time. I was on a book tour for the Third Riel Conspiracy, a mystery novel set during the four day battle that was the climax of the 1885 Northwest Resistance. I had an event scheduled for Saskatoon that night, but wanted to see once again the landscape the Métis fought to defend.

Like too many Canadians, I didn’t learn about Batoche while I was in school. I learned more about the American Civil War than I did the events that indelibly shaped my own country. The Durrant Wallace series of historically themed mysteries are as much an excuse for me to dive deeply into my countries own past as it is a chance to tell compelling tales of intrigue and adventure.

While walking over the golden fields along the Mission Ridge, watching the Saskatchewan River bend between high bluffs where Métis sharpshooters kept the much more substantial Field Force at bay for four days, I thought that this was one of those places that every Canadian should step foot. Reading about the events that lead up to the Resistance is fine – the destruction of the buffalo, the deplorable starvation of the Cree, Sioux and Métis, the stolen land, the effort to force the Métis to accept land away from the River, lifeblood of the prairie, and of course religion – but walking the same pathways that Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont did makes it real.

At the center of the battle was the church. On the first and final day of the conflict, the fighting engulfed that building. That building creates a focal point for any visit to Batoche, and it was from there that the Bell was stolen, the spoils of war.

As Canadians we still live in a nation divided. I’ve never condoned the tactics employed by Dumont and Riel in the spring of 1885, but I understand why a people, on the verge of starvation, their voices lost in the relentless crush of progress during that formative decade, would resort to any means necessary to get the attention of political Canada. Walking the trails at Batoche there is a feeling that Canada lost something important when both sides resorted to open warfare that spring.

Maybe, when the Bell rings out in Batoche once more, calling people not to pray but to consider our shared heritage and journey as a country, we can start to write a new chapter in our collective future together.

The Hardest Book I’ve Ever Written

The hardest book I’ve ever written is set to be released in the coming weeks (mid March, 2013). The Third Riel Conspiracy is the second novel in the Durrant Wallace Series of historically themed murder mysteries, and is my seventh published book. It was hard to write in several ways: the research was hard; the writing process was hard; and the editorial process was by far the hardest I’ve gone through.

The book follows Durrant – the one-legged North West Mounted Policeman – from the newly minted town of Calgary to the battlefield of Batoche at the apex of the Northwest Rebellion. He arrives during the chaos of the final day of the four day battle to find that a man has been murdered in the Zareba, the African inspired fortifications erected by the Northwest field force. A Métis man is in irons for the crime, but Durrant suspects that there is more to the murder than simple revenge.

When I started working on the Durrant Wallace series in 2007 I quickly plotted out the first three or four books in the series. This is how I’ve approached all of my writing projects. I don’t think in terms of single books, but narrative arcs that continue over several volumes. The first book in the series, The End of the Line, was published in the fall of 2011, and by the time it came out I was already neck-deep in the second volume.

That was the first thing that was hard: the research. Writing historical fiction isn’t like penning a regular mystery novel. In addition to mapping out the plot of the story and ensuring that the settings are accurate – something that I think is very important – there is the additional challenge of matching the storyline with the actual events of history.

In the case of The Third Riel Conspiracy, that meant doing a great deal of reading about the Northwest Rebellion and actually visiting many of the places in the book. Starting in the summer of 2009 I began reading dozens of books on the history of this seminal period of Canada’s development. The roots of the second Northwest Rebellion were in the uprising of 1870 in Fort Garry so I had to reach back that far in my research. The conspiracies that form the backbone of the novel’s plot are based on actual political skulduggery at the time so I made a chart of the real life machinations afoot and then changed them to meet my needs. (Interestingly Riel and his colleagues’ sentiment in 1885 was that “the west wants in;” 100 years later the Reform Party would use that same sentiment as a motto but with a much different result.)

I tried my best to understand the various motivations – religious, social and political – for the return of Louis Riel from Sun River, Montana to the Saskatchewan Territory in late 1884 and use those to create suspects for the murder. This gave me the chance to explore each of these themes in turn throughout the novel. In addition, I wanted to tell the story of the Battle of Batoche, a fascinating and often overlooked marker in our nation’s history, but didn’t want to reduce myself to mere exposition. Instead, I selected four key suspects and through Durrant’s interrogation of them revealed the events of the four-day conflagration.

I made dozens of pages of notes and charts and printed maps of the battleground and created a detailed timeline that placed my characters into the context of the real action of the day. As is my custom, I created a thorough outline of the book – what happens in each chapter, and how the characters interact – before I started writing. I made a chart of all the suspects – and there are a fair number in this novel – and then created a list of red-herrings that would be used to distract the reader from the actual killer.

All of this took place in the summer and fall of 2009. It was obvious that I would have to visit Saskatchewan, so instead of taking a trip to Utah to ride our mountain bikes, Jenn and I went on a four- thousand-kilometer road trip from our home in Victoria BC to the battlefields of the Resistance: Fort Pitt, Frenchman’s Butte, Fort Carlton, and finally Batoche National Historic Site. My wife is a good sport.

Photo taken from a grown-over riffle pit on Frenchman's Butte, looking toward the ground held by General Strange during that skirmish.

This on the ground research was vital. While I had a vague sense of the landscape from reading the historical accounts of the conflict, seeing it, feeling it underfoot, breathing in the prairie air, was critical to being able to write about the place, and for understanding the origin of the uprising. It was very much about the land and the Métis and First Nations relationship with these beautiful places.

When we got back from the trip we were distracted by our upcoming move back to the Canadian Rockies (we had bought a house in Canmore on the final leg of the journey) and writing The Third Riel Conspiracy got put on the back-burner. It would be a year before I took it up again.

That was the second thing that made writing this book so difficult: the time lapse between research and writing. I’ve outlined some of these problems in more detail in the section of my blog I call “deconstructing draft one.” The main problem was that my notes, while plentiful, left me guessing in places about what I wanted to happen, to whom, and when. I didn’t have to start over once at the keyboard, but I did have to reconstruct some of the plot.

Reconstructed gate at Fort Pitt.

The next challenge was fitting the actual historical events into the timeline I had constructed for my characters. Durrant Wallace is a sergeant in the Northwest Mounted Police, but because there was no official investigative branch in the NWMP, he operates outside of his jurisdiction. He reports to Sam Steele, who during the period of the Battle of Batoche was more than 300 miles away, tracking the Plains Cree and Big Bear as they fled towards Frenchman’s Butte and Steele’s Narrows. I had a critical exchange that I needed to engineer between the two men, but they couldn’t just text each other; I had to get them in the same place at the same time. Steel stopped at the burned-out Fort Pitt at one point, so that’s where the scene would take place. I had to jimmy dates and Durrant’s progress in the investigation to allow him to arrive at Fort Pitt the same time Steele would. It worked, but it took several tries to get the dates aligned.

Similar challenges occurred with Leif Croizer, who was the Deputy Commissioner of the NWMP at the time. I took some liberties there.

Undoubtedly the greatest challenge with writing the book was how to address Louis Riel. More than one-hundred and twenty-five years after his execution, Riel remains one of the most contentious characters in Canadian history. One possible motivation for the murder in this book was the complex web of politics that surrounded his life, and death. I figured that having Riel as an actual character in the book would be a flashpoint for controversy, but only he could have the critical piece of information that Durrant Wallace would need in order to find the real killer in the novel.

You’ll have to read the book to judge how I handled this challenge.

The cemetery and Mission church at Batoche; the scene of heavy fighting on day one and day four of the battle, and where the Métis killed during the fighting were buried.

The final challenge for this book (so far) occurred when I sent it to my publisher, and the book went through the inevitable story-editing hell. I love my publisher, and I love my editor. We’ve worked together on five books now, including The Third Riel Conspiracy, and the upcoming Glacier Gallows, and without a doubt they have made every single one of those books better. But it isn’t easy. Buy the time I press send on another novel, shipping it off to the publisher, I’ve spent several years with the book. I’ve dreamt about it; I’ve sweated bullets over dialog; I’ve made painful decisions about, as Bob Seger says, “what to leave in and what to leave out.”

So I’m attached. I try not to be, but inevitably when the edits start rolling in, I realize that I am.

The Third Riel edits were very difficult. I’m not going to go into details, because it’s water under the bridge, but suffice to say that for the first time in decades I seriously considered stopping writing. It lasted for a few weeks. On a good day I require a pretty heavy hand when it comes to edits, but The Third Riel was by far the most red ink I’ve ever seen. I plowed my way through, frustrated and a little despondent, wondering how it could be that seven books into my writing career I was still making all the same mistakes. I got through them, and with a pep talk from my publisher, got excited once more about writing. But there were some pretty dark days during the editorial process for this book.

The book should be back from the printer this week, which means soon I’ll get my shipment of complementary copies, and will experience once more the excitement of opening the box, smelling that fresh-printed-ink smell, and get to fondle a copy of The Third Riel Conspiracy for the first time. I know from experience when that happens all the challenges of creating the book will dim and I’ll get to feel the excitement of holding this creation in my hands.

I don’t know if this being the hardest book I’ve ever written will equate to being the best book I’ve written. I’d like to think that’s true for every book I write, which would mean that my writing is always improving. That’s for you to decide.

Five Chapters and an Owl’s Nest

I did a little mini-tour of Calgary’s books stores last night. I didn’t get to all of them, but a lot. I thought that with the Vanishing Track enjoying some degree of success in that city that I should do what I could to maintain momentum. There’s only so much an author can do; one of the things is sign books.

It’s always humbling to walk into any book store, let alone five Chapters stores in a row. The first Chapters I visited was in the Chinook Centre and I had to navigate my way around a massive circular table adorned with the biggest stack of books I’ve ever seen. It must have been piled as tall as a person could reach, and all by one writer: Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games trilogy.

She also got her own section. Similar piles of that same book greeted me in the other Chapters.

More than just that display of marketing power, the thing that really humbles me when I walk into a Chapters is the sheer volume of titles vying for the consumer’s eye. There are tens of thousands of books on their shelves. And that’s just a drop in the bucket of what is being published each year. Ten times that number are being published as e-books. It’s good to keep perspective.

I dutifully sought out copies of The Vanishing Track and the End of the Line, my two most recent books, on the store’s shelves and signed them and introduced myself to store staff and asked for “signed by the author” stickers. I don’t really know if this helps book sales. I don’t think it hurts, and I suppose if a reader has to choose between two books, a scrawled personalization might tip the scale in my favour.

I did have two really positive experiences. The first was visiting Owl’s Nest Books, one of my two favourite book sellers in Calgary, the other being Pages on Kensington (who I visited last week). They had lots of my books on their shelves, including copies of The Darkening Archipelago, a previous Cole Blackwater title. Owl’s Nest, like other independent stores, is not so easily influenced by mass hysteria around books like The Hunger Games. I’m sure they had copies in the store, but nothing that threatened to bury a customer if they inadvertently knocked the display table.

The End of the Line, Darkening Archipelago and The Vanishing Track at Owl's Nest Books. You can just see Stieg Larsson being crowded to the side by my titles.

The other really positive experience was in the Dalhousie Chapters. They were short on staff, so I just grabbed copies of my books off the shelves and took them to the checkout counter where I signed them and handed them to the clerk for stickers and re-shelving. The people in line behind me had a small armload of mystery titles and they asked me about my books and then happily added copies of The End of the Line and the Vanishing Track to their purchases. Connecting with readers is one of the best parts about being a writer.

In the end, I don’t know if driving all over Calgary and signing books will help sell a few more. But it was good to meet more book sellers and a few readers. And my message is that, as a writer, I’m willing to go the extra mile to make a success of my books.

First Draft Doldrums

I hit the first draft doldrums this morning. I didn’t write a word of the first draft of The Glacier Gallows, the 4th book in the Cole Blackwater series. First morning in three weeks I haven’t penned a word. I’m at 33,000 words of what will be a 90,000 word first draft – twenty chapters in – and I hit the wall.

One day isn’t a big deal, but I suspect that this will last a few days. The problem isn’t a lack of passion for this book. On the contrary, I am really enjoying this story. Nor is it that this book is particularly hard to write. It isn’t. Compared to my recent foray into the morass of Canadian history in The Third Riel Conspiracy, this is easy. Unlike with the Durrant Wallace series, where I have to remain true to historical events, characters and timelines, with the Cole Blackwater series I can make just about everything up. It’s simple, easy writing that flows and as I’ve said elsewhere, I am really enjoying visiting with Cole again after so long apart.

The problem is that I’m out of my element. I’m writing this update from a hotel in East Glacier Montana. In the last week I’ve been in Nanaimo and Comox, BC; Pincher Creek and Calgary, AB, back home for a single night, and now back on the road. (There is a Doberman pincher with a shot gun guarding my house; don’t get any ideas).

I need habit to write well. I get up at 4:45 or so, drink a cup of strong tea, listen to the 5am news, and then write for two hours straight. On the weeks when the kids are with us, I break for breakfast and to walk them to school, and then come home to my day job. Weeks when they are not I can usually stretch my writing time until 8am. Sometimes in the evening I get a little editing in.

But life is busy and these are trying times, and so I’ve been on the road this week.

It’s not a big deal. In another week or so and I can resume my pattern. The book will get written. That’s not my concern. But I miss it. I love the feeling that comes with churning out three or four thousand words in the morning. It feels as if I’ve accomplished something of value.

The wind will be back in my sails soon enough. I won’t throw any horses overboard (oblique reference to the Horse Latitudes). And sometimes a break is what is needed to allow the story to congeal a little during my traditionally spastic episodes of first draft mania. What I’ve learned is that the pause is often as necessary as the activity in creating something of worth.

Done. Now start again.

On Sunday morning at 10 a.m. I finished the first draft of the Third Riel Conspiracy. To say it felt really good would be an understatement. If I had a pet I would have danced around the house with it. But I don’t, and the kids were happy playing with Lego, so I made myself a cup of tea and sat for a few minutes marveling at my accomplishment and then did the breakfast dishes.

Jack Cornfield, one of my favorite Buddhist authors book After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, comes to mind once more.

When I started this project on August 4th I had a clear vision that I wanted to be done this draft before leaving on a business trip to Polson, Montana on the 21st. That I’m writing this post from the KwaTaqNuk Lodge on Flathead Lake doesn’t escape notice.

This brings to mind one of key lesson’s I learned when writing this first draft:

1) Deadlines are important. Create realistic deadlines for yourself and work hard to meet them.

For me the challenge was timing. Jenn and I had a trip planned in the middle of the period of time I’d set out to pen this draft, and I knew that would interrupt my momentum. It’s important not to abandon all semblance of normalcy when trying to write a book, but it’s also important to make writing a high enough priority that you can capture the natural momentum that comes while writing.

2) Momentum is everything when writing a first draft. It’s the wind at your back. Once you’ve got momentum, do everything in your power not to lose it.

Momentum was hard to capture, and hard to hold during much of the writing of this draft. The trip was great, but cost me two weeks of writing (one for the trip itself, and one for the time it took to get back into the story) The next challenge was that I had done the research for, and written the storyboard of this book almost a year ago. Between now and then I had written two other books, each with three or four drafts, moved from BC to Alberta, and started a full time job. I simply forgot a lot of the details of how the plot was supposed to unfold. In the future I will:

3) Do the research for, and write the first draft, as one continual process.

That stalled momentum as I had to read my notes over and over to try and implant the trajectory of the plot back into my brain-like mass. Another challenge was that the book is set in several diffident locations and while I knew one like the back of my hand, others were less clear for me. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the “set” remained the same for much of the first 45,000 words: the battlefield of Batoche. But once my main characters parted ways, and my protagonist left to track down leads, I felt the momentum wane. Frankly, I got a little bored, and a little frustrated by my lack of clarity around details and the direction of the plot. But I remembered:

4) No matter what happens, write through it. Just keep writing, even if you KNOW what you are writing will end up in the shredder or set on fire during the penning of the second draft.

If something feels hard, if it feels as if it’s stuck, sitting back and having a good long think or stepping away from the project for a protracted period of time isn’t going to get it unstuck. When your truck is stuck in the muck, does stepping away from it get it unstuck? No: pushing and pulling does. I’ve written elsewhere that sometimes the best thing to do when faced with a problem is to do nothing. The Tao te Ching counsels that sometimes the write action to take is no action. That’s true for just about everything except first drafts. With a first draft, writing is the ‘nothing’ that will lead to a solution. If you just keep writing, you keep your momentum, and that unlocks the extraordinary potential for your brain to tap into vast unexplored stores of creativity.

Part of my challenge, as I said, was that there were parts of the story that I wasn’t really into. I looked at them as bits I had to write to get to the good stuff.

5) If I don’t like what I’m writing, nobody who is reading it will like it either.

When I realized this, it made it easy to just stop and move onto the next scene. I realized that whatever I thought was so important about what I was writing likely wasn’t and that the story wouldn’t be served by my labouring over it. If it’s important enough to the plot I can fix it during the next draft.

The challenge here – and every piece of advice on writing I’ve ever read says this, so this is by no means original –  is to not be attached to writing a good first draft. In the case of the Third Riel Conspiracy, even with a couple of days now between me and the end of the spastic vomiting of words on the page that is my writing process, I can see gaping holes in the plot, massive fissures in the development of the characters and an utter lack of texture when it comes to describing the settings for the book.

6) Trust that in subsequent drafts, the writing will get better. It almost always does.

For many writers – or maybe it’s just me – there is a sort of first draft amnesia that takes hold when we are going through this process. I forget that the other books that I’ve written all started this way: just plain bad. Some of them got better; most often after I enlisted the help of an editor.

Finally, and I can’t emphasis this enough: I would not say that every word was written in bliss during the development of the first draft. On the contrary, some sections, scenes and chapters were a labour. That’s why it’s called work. And that’s what it is: good, plain honest work. There’s nothing to say that writing can’t be the kind of work that Kalil Gibran talks about when he says that “work is love made visible.” It is for me. But it’s also hard sometimes, and it takes discipline to keep your ass in your chair for five weeks, every morning, and on weekends, in order to accomplish something. But it feels good when you do.

7) Writing is hard work that requires discipline. But it is also blissful, and one of the surest routes to connecting with our own, and the universes creative potential, and that makes it worth the effort.

So now what? What happens now? Well, the novel stands at 80,000 words, which is short by my standards. It needs some meat on its bones, and I have several pages of notes with questions like, what exactly did Regina look like in 1885? And could Sam Steele or Leif Crozier have been in Fort Battleford on such and such a date? I need to answer those questions, and then, in a few weeks or maybe a month, sit down and start again.

In the next draft I’ll add words, and in the third draft I’ll start the process of shaving them off, layer by layer, like some kind of reductionist sculpture project, until what remains looks something like a novel.

But in the mean time, there are other projects. The Vanishing Track is overdue for a review of the copy edit. That better get done soon or my publisher will put the leaches to me.  And The Slickrock Paradox is almost ready for its first story edit. None of these are complaints: this is exactly the sort of opportunity I’ve been dreaming about for two decades.

Now it’s over to you. Do you have your own thoughts on writing a first draft? Post them here. And follow the progress of these novels on Twitter @stephenlegault.

Between 1-10 on the Suck-o-Meter

One of the problems with first drafts is not knowing just how badly they suck. I mean, almost all of them suck. It’s said that Jack Kerouac only wrote one draft of On the Road, which probably explains why at times it was brilliant, and at times to also sucked. But most of us aren’t Jack Kerouac, and are likely grateful for that, and so we write four, eight, twelve, eighteen drafts of a book before it gets published, if we’re even so lucky.

Right now I know that The Third Riel Conspiracy sucks. What I simply can’t remember is how badly it sucks in comparison with other first drafts that I have written, several which have become books, with covers and ISBN numbers and the faint promise that someday there might be a royalty cheque. Maybe.

Before The Third Riel, I’ve written eight other complete first drafts. Three of these are now books. Two more will be books in the next year. Two more just might be books sometime, somehow. The final one is a yet a dream. I think that’s eight. Yes, eight. I know that the first draft of The Vanishing Track, which will be released by Touchwood Editions in the spring of 2012, sucked pretty badly. It went eleven drafts before someone had finally had enough and gave in. So too The Cardinal Divide, and the Darkening Archipelago. I can’t even remember how many drafts each of them went, but it was at least eight or nine each.

The trouble right now is that I’m so deep inside the narrative arc of the Third Riel that all I can think about is plot. I really couldn’t care less about anything else, and it’s the anything else, at the end of the day, that makes a book worth reading. And that’s why I’m feeling as if the novel is really just a load of rot. It isn’t, but because there’s little else to it but action and dialog – no tone, no texture – I’m getting worried.

What I need is a suck-o-meter with a built in memory function so I can measure, and remember, how each book stacks up. It might be cold comfort I realize.

I know that what makes a book worth reading – the shadows, the way light falls across the scene, the variances in a characters voice – all will come in time. There are still so many drafts to pass through before the suck-o-meter registers something near 0.

Cut to the Chase

I am seriously considering cutting to the chase, literally, and letting anything in between sort itself out in the second draft. I’m feeling a little end-of-first-draft undertow right now. I know I just have to sit in the chair every morning and keep my fingers moving. Its easier said than done.

Write it in Layers

I’ve realized now that I’m writing The Third Riel Conspiracy the way I would read it: hastening from one climatic scene to the next, anticipating the thrilling conclusion. Time to time I worry that the story is pretty thin in places: the characters are not developing; the language lacks prose or any real texture. Large elements of the plot are being skimmed over in the effort to maintain momentum through this first draft.

Each morning when I sit down to write I remind myself that I don’t have to write all of the elements of the book at once. I can write it in layers. In the past I’ve known this instinctively, but now, with so many opportunities to write stacking up on each other, I fear I may run out of time.

But it doesn’t work that way. It can’t. The plot has enough complexity that to try and write it all at once would be a stagnating impediment. I’d grind to a halt trying to tell the convoluted take of Canada’s religious and political entanglement with the North West rebellion, its myriad causes, and the trial of Lois Riel, while simultaneously map out and keep track of the movements of the Alberta Field Force, Sam Steele, Lief Croizer and others.

So I’m writing in layers. I’ve started to think of the story as a human body.

Right now, I’m building the skeleton onto which everything can hang: the plot, the main events of the story, and of course the intrigue around the murder mystery itself. As I’m reminded (often) by my story editor Frances Thorsen, despite the historical or environmental themes of my novels, the books I write are mysteries. Stay focused.

Next will come the connective tissue: the muscles and assorted viscera. This is where I’ll build the story of the politics and religious bigotry that was so integral to the North West Rebellion and the execution of Riel.

Then will come the tendons, and the various joints, cartilage, etc, that give the body form and allow it to move. Here the story of the protagonist must be “fleshed out.” I can’t speak for others, but when I read a mystery series, it’s as much to see how the central character develops as for the mystery.

Then the skin: the whole story has to get wrapped in language that flows; that is evocative and crisp. The country that this story takes place in – the Saskatchewan River, the plains surrounding Fort Calgary, and the foothills and river breaks around Fort Benton and Sun River Montana – have to transport the reader. So do the physical settings: the battlefields of Batoche, and the Courthouse in Regina.

Then maybe we’ll work on the hair; give the whole story a nice bouffant – or more appropriately a crew cut – by trimming out all of the excesses that creep in while writing.

The skeleton is taking shape. And I can’t wait to put some meat on the bones.

Beware: Mushy Middle ahead

I hit the mushy middle this weekend. Chapter seventeen. I could see it coming. I had been warned. One of my favourite bloggers, Chunk Wendig said this:

“The beginning’s easy because it’s like — BOOM, some shit just happened. The ending’s easy because — POW, all the shit that happened just lead to this. The middle is where it gets all gooshy, like wet bread or a sloppy pile of viscera.”

Chucks advice, crudely put: keep the interesting shit happening.

The middle of the Third Riel Conspiracy involves a major scene shift, from the battlefields of Batoche, Saskatchewan, to well…somewhere else. Everywhere else. Fort Calgary, Fort Benton, Sun River….Christ, Legault, make up your mind! The protagonist rides off in search of clues to unravel a mystery, but because of my insistence on holding the narrative tightly against the facts of history, I have a lot more research to do to make sure that what I want to have happen could have happened. In this case, the conversations with people that I want my protagonist to have can’t happen if he’s in the wrong place at the wrong time. Fort Battleford or Fort Pitt? Could Sam Steele have been there?

My solution to this problem was to just make the shit up (which is, after all, the point) and flag it so I can return to it later. It’s all about momentum.

The second problem is just as Chuck describes it. The first sixteen chapters are all set in the aftermath of the Battle of Batoche, and involve the suspects in the murder mystery retelling their perspective on the four days of fighting. When Durrant Wallace, the NWMP Sergeant who is the hero of our tale, rides off, suddenly things get eerily quiet.

I have a few tricks up my sleeve, but the main one is not lapsing into exposition – babbling on about how interesting the old McLeod Trial is, or giving a narrative history lesson on the comings and goings of Fort Benton, Montana – and keeping the story moving along. I can almost hear my editor, Frances Thorsen, saying “Keep the story moving here,” and then using her meat clever to cut the entire chapter….

Over the course of the weekend I ploughed through five or six thousand words (a few of which might endure) and have crested the hump of the mushy middle. There are no sloppy piles of viscera clinging to the manuscript, at least not that I can see. And now things are going to start picking up speed towards a series of apex moments in the story and then all the shit will lead to something happening. I think. That’s what I’m counting on.

The Characters Run Amok

This afternoon I felt a familiar sensation when working on Chapter Eleven of the Third Riel Conspiracy. Two familiar sensations, actually. The first was that euphoric rush that comes when the story starts to fall together. It’s a breakthrough moment in penning the first draft of a novel. It happens when my fear that the story simply won’t work, or won’t work very well, is eclipsed as the characters take over and plot the direction of the book themselves. Stepped aside and letting them do the writing is the best course of action. At least until the second draft when adult supervision may be required again.

The second sensation is apprehension. The Third Riel Conspiracy is a historic murder mystery set during the Battle of Batoche during the 1885 North West Rebellion. In preparation to write this book I read dozens of histories and biographies of that period, and last fall, rather than riding our mountain bikes in Utah or going somewhere sunny and warm and drinking fruity drinks, Jenn and I went to Saskatchewan.

It was fun, but there was no beach, no bikini and no sound of waves on a tropical shore. There were no slick-rock abrasions either, which is usually what I come back from Utah with, so I’d say things turned out even-Steven.

Anyway: I did a lot of research, and have dozens and dozens of pages of notes and charts and timelines that are supposed to help me keep the decidedly fictional events of this novel corresponding with both the people and the timeline of the Rebellion.

And then today I decided to say to hell with it, and did something that’s likely strictly taboo in historical fiction, and that someone somewhere is likely going to get rather pernickety about, but to whom I say: tough. I introduced a real historical character to the book who was never at Batoche, at least not that I can tell. But the circumstances of the story simply demanded it.

This is what happens when you let your characters run amok. They take over. They make unreasonable demands. They cause trouble.

So now I’ve got this real historical figure (other than Riel, who has a walk on cameo part in a couple of places. Hint: it doesn’t end well for him.) that has inserted himself into my well laid plan, and I like the chapter that I just wrote with him in it. I may change it later, but for now, he can have his moment in the sun. Okay, Okay: if you must know, it’s Leif Crozier, who was the Superintendent of the NWMP at the time, and a hero of the Duck Lake Massacre, but who I don’t believe made an appearance at Batoche.

But there he is. And who knows if it will last. But that was what happened today in First Draft World.

All told, two full chapters today, and 5,860 words, not including the 500 or so here. This is what happens when you get a head of steam.

Follow this novels progress on Twitter @stephenlegault.