Friday, June 21, 2019

Why did I Write Tempest at Dawn?

I recently received a query about writing Tempest at Dawn. Here’s my answer.

The United States Constitution is one of our country’s two most revered documents. It’s one thing to write a history book about the Constitutional Convention, but a novelization could be seen as trespassing on sacred ground. When I started Tempest at Dawn, I knew the gravity of the project, but I had no idea how much work it would entail. It was twelve years between the first word and publication.

How did I get myself into this predicament? When I left corporate America to become a consultant, I found myself traveling a lot. My longest engagement was in Boston. I grew up in Southern California, where anything over fifty years old was ripped down to build something brand sparkling new. My hotel room in Boston overlooked Faneuil Hall, which had been an active meeting place since 1742. All of a sudden I was surrounded by history. I went to a bookstore looking for nonfiction about Boston, but instead bought Christopher Collier’s Decision in Philadelphia. I found the book’s description of the Constitutional Convention fascinating and ended up buying book after book on the subject. I had never known how much drama hid behind the dry narratives I had received in school. The real story was raucous, thrilling, perilous, and filled with colossal characters.

Breathtaking drama, great characters, a happy outcome, how could it go wrong. It didn’t go wrong, it went long. In the end, I believe I read every history book ever published on the convention. I wanted to treat the framers honestly, so I read at least three biographies of each of the major players. I studied Madison’s convention notes (over 230,000 words) and made sure everything I presented inside the Independence Hall was true to his notes. A good historical novel must present the period accurately, so I read dozens of books on how people lived in the late eighteenth century. Then I studied events that occurred during the convention, but were not directly associated with the proceedings. These included Washington having a carriage built, John Fitch demonstrating his steamship, horse races, Charles Peale painting a portrait of Washington, balls, and other events that I used to add variety between the deliberations.

(A special thanks to Clive Cussler, who helped with the research on Fitch's steamship demonstration in Philadelphia.)

Tempest at Dawn is tightly structured. The point of view alternates each chapter between James Madison and Roger Sherman. This allowed me to present the perspectives and biases of the two opposing forces within the convention. I had to build elaborate timelines so I could know well in advance whose point of view I would be using when something happened.

I was a stickler for accuracy. I bent rules a little to present a better story, but I wanted to know when I diverged from historical fact. This even came to the lodging. I tried to put each character in the home, inn, or boarding house where they actually stayed. Roger Sherman gave me a problem. No matter how much I looked, I couldn’t find where he stayed. I knew he wasn’t rich, so I guessed he would stay at a boarding house. Finally, I picked my wife’s maiden name and plopped him at Mrs. Marshall’s boarding house.

I made several research trips to Philadelphia. On one trip, my wife found an illustrated map of Philadelphia in 1787. It had been created for the bicentennial. It was perfect. I bought two. When we returned to our hotel, I went over the map in detail from left to right, block by block until I got to the lower right hand corner. There it showed a building with the caption, “Mrs. Marshall’s Boarding House, where Roger Sherman stayed.” I was dumbfounded … and encouraged. I took it as an omen that this book was something I was supposed to write.

Getting an agent for the book was ridiculously easy. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. While he shopped the book, I wrote a Western. After all the constraints of Tempest at Dawn, I wanted to let my imagination fly. Unexpectedly, The Shopkeeper, A Steve Dancy Tale sold very well and became a highly successful series. On the disappointing side, Tempest at Dawn did not sell to a publishing house. So away it went in a drawer while I wrote westerns and contemporary thrillers.

Around 2009, I noticed increasing interest in the Constitution. I dug my book out of a figurative drawer (actually a file folder on my computer) and reread it. Oh, oh. First, it was way too long—well over 200,000 words. There were too many characters for a reader to remember. My penchant for accuracy caused me to use speaking patterns and language of the day. In fact, I had used direct quotes whenever possible. Except the quotes came from written records. Until email and texting, people wrote more formally than they spoke. I did a major rewrite. I modernized the language leaving only hints of the eighteenth century. I cut ruthlessly. I combined characters. Although I put the debates in a logical sequence, I didn’t alter the arguments or events inside the chamber. The book remains true to Madison’s notes.

I believe the best thing to happen for Tempest at Dawn was that by the time I did my rewrite, I had learned the craft of storytelling with my other books. (And from reading countless books on the art of novel writing.) The distance of several years also lent creative perspective. After I completed the new draft, the book reads like a novel … yet still remains truthful, even if not always precisely accurate. (There is an author note in the back that identifies the deviations from historical accuracy.)

Tempest at Dawn has been well received by professional critics and readers, and without a doubt, my favorite book. Download a sample onto your Kindle or order the paperback. I'm sure you'll be surprised and delighted by the story of our nation's founding.

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