An Early Fall Night
It was dark there in the September forests in Upstate New York. Growing up and chasing hounds before the advent of modern headlamps, conserving one’s batteries had become ingrained. Although my headlight’s power probably would last until the sunup, standing in the darkness beneath the heavy limbed hemlocks still felt natural.
And it was training season in 2017—only a few months after I’d published my first novel, The Last Coon Hunter —and anymore, it had become a running bet if the older hounds would strike first, or if the 14-month-old, Seth, would strike the raccoon’s trail first.
That night, Seth opened first, and I remembered thinking he had the makings to become an exceptional hound.
My cell phone buzzed. Its light lit up my pocket. I had to check it—there could be a family emergency calling me out of the woods sooner than expected.
It was a text message that read, “Are you Jacob?”
I recognized the sender—a classmate—and knew I she was reading the first book and referencing the father figure, Jacob Ernst, in The Last Coon Hunter. That brought a smile to my face.
“No. LOL!” I texted back. It was a short response, but Seth had opened again, and Maggie, his mother, had now sounded, too. The business of running a ringtail was at hand.
I’d no sooner put my phone back in my pocket when it buzzed again. I had to answer.
“Are you Nathan?” she persisted, referencing Jacob’s oldest son.
“No.” I replied.
“Is your dad, Jacob? Is your brother, Mead?”
“No and no.”
It was endearing, and I’d learn much later that, as a writer, this would become the most asked question about my novels.
And it’s a fair question. One I suspect many writers of family sagas and other fictional genres are asked frequently as well.
A Basis in Reality
To be sure, writers will write what they know, have experienced, or researched. Even in fiction, a solid understanding of the facts, history, and legends of an area or subject is required to lend credibility to the story. And if you’re going to refute a historical understanding (e.g., the history of the real “painted” post that Painted Post, NY, is named after), you have to make it clear to the reader that, “Yeah, that may be the common understanding of the history about [pick your topic], but I’ll let you in on a little secret, the ‘true’ history of [chosen topic] is really this . . .”
For example, the villain in An Exceptional Hound, Scar Paw, is labeled a “Great Bear.” This name is taken from the Iroquois legend —a story that likewise closely parallels other ancient cultures—about Ursa Major, the constellation that contains the Big Dipper amongst other stars. For some reason—something buried in our collective psyche—when humanity looked at this constellation, they saw a bear.
In The Legends of Ryland Creek, the creature, the Gandalark, is introduced. While the creature’s name (created because it rhymes so easily) and origins in the story are admittedly completely fabricated, the tales of Big Foot-like creatures, although perhaps more popularly known in the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest, also have origins not only in New York, but also some stories of strange sightings very near Painted Post as well.
Yes, there is a real Seth as mentioned, but the character Seth, introduced in The Last Coon Hunter, was written before the real Seth was born!
What About That Other Stuff?
What about fictional characters* and events in an author’s life? Do they weave their way into a story?
Again—there may be some close parallels with a story and an author's life—and there are running jokes from writers and accusations from others that this character or that is really so-and-so in real life.
Are you Jacob?
But odds are, fictional characters are at best patchworks of people we’ve met with some good and bad characteristics added, eliminated, or amplified to suit a story’s need.
But Don’t Go Too Far . . .
And (in 2019, after I’d published my third novel) I received some very wise advice from another friend and classmate. When I told her that I was considering a “tell all” book that explained some of the real life stories behind certain scenes in the Ryland Creek saga, she looked me dead in the eye the moment I stopped talking and said, “Don’t do it.”
“No. You’ll replace each reader’s special takeaways from your stories with your memories.”
The moment she said it, I knew she was right. By this time, after three books, I had heard dozens upon dozens of personnel stories about what scenes each reader liked best—and when I asked them why they liked that scene—it was exactly as my friend said—their personnel memories they associated with a fictional scene. If I ever did that book (it won’t happen), I would be stealing something very personal from each reader I had no right to take.
One Tiny Exception.
I will reveal one thing—that in a small part—the character of Uncle Arthur McCutcheon was based on a man I’d never met—my great, great Grandfather Arthur Crance.
My great, great grandfather was a master with a bullwhip, an expert horseman, and a woodsman. Other than a few short stories between my grandfather (Clayton, who died when I was three) and Arthur (relayed to me through my father, Gary), I didn’t know much about him. But Arthur McCutcheon is based on those few tidbits that I did know—with a whole lot more of imagination rolled in.
Back to that Early Fall Night in 2017
As I listened, it became clear: Seth was trailing his own racoon, while his mother Maggie was trailing another. The distance between the two was over one hundred yards now according to my GPS tracking unit.
But Maggie, a very good hound in her own right, was having difficulty working out her track.
Then something happened.
Seth turned around, leaving his trail, went to his mother, figured the track out, and treed that raccoon ahead of his mother. (She would join him less than a minute later.) Then, when I called them off that tree, together they went and treed the second raccoon! (Yes—those were two raccoon I’m sure were quite grateful it was only training season that night.)
As I watched this pup, I couldn’t help but think, there truly is an exceptional hound.
And wouldn’t that make a great title for a book.**
*To be sure, the introduction of real, historical figures into fiction happens a lot—especially in time travel novels.
** Even if a chapter in the first book was already titled that.