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How Much Is True

Give Me Liberty

cover_liberty.gifGive Me Liberty was born in the back of a New York City cab. I had just had lunch to discuss Annie, Between the States with my wonderful editor, Katherine Tegen. Right before she got out of the taxi, Katherine suggested that my next book should have a boy protagonist (like Under a War-torn Sky) and that it should be about the American Revolution. As wonderful as Johnny Tremain is, she said, it would be nice to have something new, an alternative to the classic.

Huzzah! As the colonists would cheer. Writers are always thankful for assignments and ideas rich with story potential. Now all I needed was a good story.

I looked to Virginia. I really hadn't planned on becoming such a "Virginia writer." But as author Willa Cather commented it's best to write "about the ground beneath your feet." I have lived in Virginia almost all my life and am fascinated by its history. And in this case, its history provided the perfect complement to the classics, Johnny Tremain, My Brother Sam is Dead, and The Keeping Room. Those books explore the protests and armed clashes in Massachusetts—the shots "heard round the world." So I traveled to the other hotbed of dissent, the place where the words that explained the rage and the dreams of colonists were penned—Williamsburg.

At the beginning of my books, I tend to use an "epigraph"—a quote that hopefully guides you to the thematic spine of the novel. For Give Me Liberty, I quote Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, widow of JFK and a literary editor. "All the changes in the world, for good or evil, were first brought about by words," she once wrote. It's so true! Words can inflame, steel, push us into action, coax us into recognizing what is noble in the human spirit and what is necessary to feed it—such as liberty, freedom of choice.

Today it's hard for us to recognize what a radical notion it was that each human being—no matter how poor or "lowborn"—had the innate ability and right to govern himself. It was a hope, a leap of faith in ordinary people that would throw out kings and turn the world upside down. Without the words of Thomas Jefferson or Patrick Henry, the courageous risks taken by the Sons of Liberty in the Boston Tea Party might have seemed simply vandalism by the rabble. Without words that inspired and legally and morally justified a unified rebellion, the Revolution might have died right there in Lexington and Concord.

So I had my main theme. I needed a plot and some characters! Because I am a former journalist, I "report" my novels. I ­gather information about historical events which I then use as my plot twists. I see research as the treasure hunt. Rooting through information about Virginia battles, I discovered a gem—a little known but crucial battle in December 1775 at Great Bridge, just outside Norfolk, Virginia. Here the Chesapeake Bay opens onto the Atlantic Ocean. Here ragtag volunteers stood up to well-equipped, professional British soldiers and not only held their ground, but sent the Redcoats scattering. Virginians reclaimed the strategically vital port town of Norfolk. Had they not, the British would have bottled up Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay all the way up to Baltimore and cut the colonies in half.

The battle was a perfect climatic ending to my book. It also pushed me to create two characters with very different experiences in their quest for liberty. Here's why: runaway slaves fought at the Battle of Great Bridge, not for the Americans, but for the Redcoats, as part of the Royal Ethiopian Regiment. They mocked Patrick Henry's galvanizing slogan "Liberty or Death" which the Virginia regiments embroidered on their hunting shirts—by wearing a sash that read: "Liberty to Slaves."

That terrible irony insisted that I create two characters with opposing story lines, a slave (Moses) with the British Ethiopians who had to face off with a close friend (Nathaniel) fighting with the patriots. Discovering that one little battle provided me with an ending, two main characters, a moral dilemma, and an important secondary theme—how people had to seek liberty in different, dangerous, and sometimes disappointing ways.

Nathaniel's journey is far from easy. An indentured servant, Nathaniel is battered down to a timid, hesitant boy when we first meet him. I made him an indentured servant after reading that at one point nearly half of Virginia's residents had willingly sold themselves into many years of bondage in order to buy their passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World—America's promise was that enticing. Slowly, Nathaniel is coaxed into believing in himself and the Revolution by a loveable, slightly eccentric old schoolmaster and a hotheaded apprentice named Ben.

The pivotal scene, in which Ben is injured by a booby-trap left by British marines in Williamsburg's gunpowder magazine, is true and came from a one paragraph mention of the incident in a June 1775 Virginia Gazette. The character Edan Maguire was spawned by ads placed in the same newspaper by an irritable and increasingly desperate coach-maker named Elkanah Deane whose livelihood was destroyed by the shifting loyalties and protests of the Revolution. Reading Deane's ads made me far more sympathetic to those who couldn't quite make themselves take up the patriot cause or who had deep, personal ties to England.

Details that really bring the period to life—like the fact people treated colds by drinking curdled milk laced with shavings from a deer's antlers or wore wigs made from goats' fur—were culled from reading journals of the times. Likewise with using the right language of 1775. Can you guess where the terms bigwigs, old goats, and powder rooms came from? (Tall or big wigs told people you were wealthy and powder rooms were right of the front entrance of mansions, where bigwigs could re-apply powder and women might check the melted beeswax they put on as make-up to "save face" and hide pock marks left from smallpox. Heaven forbid the ladies "crack a smile" and literally crack their waxen cover-up. Once out of the powder room the old goats would be careful not to bow too far over in greeting, thereby "flipping their wig.") What about "necessaries" (I'm sure you can figure out that one) or "dark horse" candidates? (To improve their odds at races, the owners of horses that had previously run and won were painted a different color to mask their identity.) And what is macaroni? Think about Yankee Doodle coming to town. That feather is not really pasta. Macaroni had come to mean that something was terribly fashionable because pasta was a new fad.

See? I promise—research is the stuff of novels, the magical incantations that awaken a writer's imagination!

Of course, the trick is using all those vivid everyday details, those inspiring, eloquent words of our founding fathers, and those important historical battles in such a way that creates a story you will want to read, characters you will care about. Perhaps the best lesson I learned as a journalist was to tell a "national" story—a story exploring a cultural trend or a medical discovery—through the eyes and experience of an ordinary person, whose life is completely thrown off balance but who overcomes challenges through resilience and new hard-won knowledge. We've all read the inspiring words of Thomas Jefferson and about the stoic leadership of George Washington. I hope Give Me Liberty brings that amazing time alive by showing how abstract ideals and the force of events around them completely altered the lives of boys—frightened, endangered, emboldened, and then finally liberated them.