When our book was released this week, other writers asked, “How did the story begin? What was the process?”
One cold winter night, four of our grandchildren huddled around us, anxious for a new story. The children were zipped up in their one-piece fleece pajamas, their father smiled as he made bread, their mother loaded wood into the fireplace. The scene was the epitome of safety and security.
I started telling a story about the Poughkeepsie Day School, in Poughkeepsie, New York. When I was a boy, the school was housed in a rambling three-story house. There were rumors of a secret passage and a hidden room, a place where runaway slaves had hidden on their way to freedom in Canada. My friends and I spent hours searching the building but we never found the secret passage. But a mental image of that hidden refuge became a fixture in my mind.
The grandchildren, who were then under ten years of age, had never heard about slavery. They were shocked that people could be bought and sold, that they could be denied dignity, respect and freedom. Question after question arose.
I decided to tell a story about slavery, about a girl named Rebecca who had the courage to flee from “midnight to dawn,” and to include many historical figures, freed blacks and abolitionists who helped runaways to freedom. As we now live in Canada, we wanted the children to know that Canada was one end of the bridge to freedom; without Canada, there would have been no Underground Railroad.
We saw the children every month; in the interim we did the necessary research. The story was told in installments, and, after it ended, the oldest child suggested that we write it down.
I started transcribing tape recordings I had made during some of the story sessions. But I soon abandoned the effort. In the oral story, action and suspense trumped character development; in the written version the reverse was true. After about six months of intermittent writing, I had what in hindsight would prove to be a very rough first draft.
A recurring worry was, “Why am I doing this, as the odds of finding a publisher are not great?” Our daughter and son-in-law encouraged us to keep writing. I went online and researched Canadian publishers who accepted unsolicited manuscripts, picked out ten publishers and prepared a Proposal to accompany three sample chapters.
In the Proposal I described the concept, the niche, and our potential North American market and provided a synopsis of the novel. I had the ten Proposals printed professionally and sent them out. I didn’t hear back from five publishers and got rejected by four. I waited to hear from Ronsdale Press. I wondered about sending out more Proposals, but frankly I was losing steam.
Then I got a brief email from Ron Hatch, Editor and Publisher of Ronsdale Press. He wanted to see the whole manuscript. My wife now became the co-writer. She specialized in character development and description of the settings for the story. We scrambled for two months because we now knew just how rough the first draft was. We sent Ron a revised draft in a bound format. Then we had to wait again. After three or four months of suspense, Ron wrote to say there might be a chance of publication. How hard were we willing to work?
We worked through two more drafts with Ron coaching us. Finally, he said he might offer a contract if we could fix a couple of major recurring, structural issues. It took two more drafts to fix these issues.
Finally, we were offered a contract, a moment of great joy and gratitude for Ron’s expert guidance. I wish I could say that “the rest is history,” but there was still a lot of work ahead of us given the high professionalism and commitment to excellence of Ronsdale Press.