A New Writing Challenge: A Historical Novel

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As many of you already know, I am working on a historical novel entitled The Oldest Pilgrim. I am toying with the idea of changing the title to The Last Pilgrim. In any event, it is the story of Mary Allerton Cushman, the longest surviving person to come to the New World on the Mayflower – dying in 1699 at the age of 83, certainly a long life for a woman in those days.

You might wonder why I would tackle this particular history. The reason is that I grew up in Plymouth, played the roles of several Pilgrim girls in the Pilgrims Progresses, which were held for tourists on weekends, and later became one of the first tour guides at Plimoth Plantation (which was created two doors down from my home!). Along the way, I learned a lot and my interest is still there!

Women in the 17th century were in many instances little more than chattel, the society being patriarchal. But I believe the women of the Mayflower were strong and fiercely determined to survive, or at least provide that their children would survive in this new and challenging land.  Although they did not have a voice in the governance and major decisions regarding their settlement, its survival rested on their shoulders as much as on those of the men.

I had trouble with the voice at first, since how can one describe the horrors of the voyage in the words of a four-year-old? Finally, I decided to tell the tale first in the voice of her father, Isaac Allerton, who as it turns out, is quite a character, and then, as she reaches maturity, in Mary’s voice. She marries Thomas Cushman, who becomes one of the leaders of the colony, so through his relationship with her, I can follow the colony’s history.

I am loving the research for this book – right now I am deep into 1621 – the struggles with finding food and the interactions of the Pilgrims (they called themselves Separatists – the name Pilgrim came much later) with their Indian neighbors. The Pilgrims’ story is as much that of these neighbors as theirs.

There were thousands of Indians of various tribes living in the area of what is now the state of  Massachusetts. The Pilgrims’ immediate neighbors were the Wampanoags, who lived in villages spread out over a wide area and which gave them their local names. The Wampanoags had been decimated by disease during the 2-3 years before the arrival of the Pilgrims, and indeed, the decision to settle at the site which became Plymouth was made because the land there had already been cleared and it had a fresh running stream. The Indians who had lived there were Wampanoags called the Patuxet, but they were now all dead, leaving the site advantageous for the Pilgrims to build their colony.

The Wampanoags taught the Pilgrims how to plant corn, fish and hunt, and where to find wild foods – these Englishman were not skilled at survival!

Further south and east lived the Nausets. These were the first Indians the Pilgrims encountered after they moored in Cape Cod Bay and went exploring for a site for their settlement. They were also the Indians from whom the Pilgrims stole corn. Since several of their young men had been kidnapped by a previous English explorer, the Nausets were not kindly predisposed to the Pilgrims.

To the east of the Wampanoags lay the Narragansetts, an Algonquian tribe living in what is now Rhode Island. Their language was Algonquian and was largely unintelligible to the Massachusetts and the Wampanoags. They were the most powerful tribe in the area, having been largely untouched by the epidemic that killed so many others.

To the north of the Wampanoags lay the land of the Massachusetts tribe, which had often threatened the Wampanoags.

The leader or sachem of the Wampanoags was called Massasoit. He was the first to sign a treaty with the Pilgrims, which guaranteed that his tribe would help defend the Pilgrims in case of attack, and the Pilgrims would do the same for the Wampanoags. In this way did Massasoit ensure the survival of his much-reduced tribe.

The Pilgrims, under the leadership of their governor, William Bradford, signed treaties with the leaders of these various tribes to ensure their peaceful co-existence.

I promise to share more snippets of Pilgrim history as I go along, and I hope you will find my eventual book as interesting as I am the research!

42 thoughts on “A New Writing Challenge: A Historical Novel

  1. Oops… as I was saying been born and brought up in Norfolk. I understand one of her ancestors emigrated to the US and set up the university of that name. You’re talking about research puts me in mind of that no doubt tangential link.

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  2. It sounds fascinating, Noelle. Not being a native speaker (and even if I was) I always wonder about the language choice for novels set far back in the past, although I’ve read quite a few novels and authors use different techniques. I agree with you that the women in the expedition must have been hard-working and tough. I look forward to learning more about it. Good luck!

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    • The language was another problem, after the voice. I decided to use ordinary English and am compiling a list of words that would have been common then – will substitute them at the end of writing. Contractions are one thing I am not certain about since there seems to be no definitive answer – so I’m not using them.
      And yes, I need luck!

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  3. Terry Tyler

    I look forward to reading this, Noelle! I think The Last Pilgrim is the better title – do it!

    btw, I think describing the ship through the eyes of a four year old would have been excellent!!

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    • Thanks, so much, Terry!
      Mary’ll have her moments, but the information behind the voyage and most of the details was waaay out of the scope of a 4 year old! I hope through her father’s interaction the reader gets a sense of her (which of course could be completely wrong!)

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  4. This sounds like a very worthy and important undertaking. Even this particular blog post is very educational. I had never seen a map of MA/CT/RI explaining where different native cultures lived. And I had never thought much about how differences in native languages might make it challenging for different tribes to communicate. It’s obvious once you point it out! And how deeply sad that “The Indians who had lived there were Wampanoags called the Patuxet, but they were now all dead, leaving the site advantageous for the Pilgrims to build their colony…” Ahh, travel… and invasive species — whether they be fellow human beings, or microbes, or insects, or plants… Fascinating and heartbreaking history! Thank you for sharing what you are learning with the rest of us.

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    • Thank you, Willowdare, for you comments. I appreciate your support. I will post other things as I go along – I have some in my archives, too. I love research – you should never stop learning!

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    • Days and days, Debbie! My loft is piled with books and I use computer resources, too. I plan to go to Plimoth Plantation to get other questions answered. The best thing about it is that since it is a novel, I can take some liberties which historians can’t!

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  5. Days and days, Debbie! My loft is piled with books and I use computer resources, too. I plan to go to Plimoth Plantation to get other questions answered. The best thing about it is that since it is a novel, I can take some liberties which historians can’t!

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  6. Your novel sounds fabulous, Noelle. Actually, I can already see it being made into a screenplay too – would be a terrific movie, and one we need. Our kids don’t know their country’s Pilgrim history well enough – certainly not that of the strong women who kept everything going.

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  7. This is fantastic! A labor of love that will reap many rewards. While I’m from Massachusetts and teach school, I have to remember that much of our nation knows little of the settlement. So, thank you!

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  8. margaretskea Author of prize winning historical novel Turn of the Tide

    Fascinating story, and interesting to me the issue you had with starting the story in the voice of a 4 year-old. I had that same issue with my novel based on the life of Katharina von Bora (who married Martin Luther). It was a significant challenge to write it in 1st person throughout, starting with Katharina aged c5 – but I stuck with it and ultimately was glad I’d kept to a single voice – seems from reader’s reactions to have worked. The voice of a child is always the most challenging, I think. but good luck with the whole project.

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    • Thanks, Margaret. I just couldn’t, after three years of trying, get that four year old voice, So many interesting and profound things happened during the first dive years that I just had to use her fahter’s voice. He was a bit of a rapscallion. Maybe I can get you to take a look at it whenever it’s done – don’t hold your breath!

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