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In 2016, Christian Market offered a review of The Magnolia Duchess, stating, “White’s readers are reminded of the political intricacies and what families sacrificed during America’s early years.” White explores similar themes of struggle, sacrifice, compromise, and romance in the wake of the Civil War in A Rebel Heart, the first novel in her new Daughtry House series.
In A Rebel Heart, readers are transported to an impoverished plantation set in the Deep South. Selah Daughtry, her two younger sisters, and their spinster cousin can barely manage to feed and clothe themselves. With their family’s Mississippi plantation swamped by debt and deteriorating around them, the only option seems to be giving up their ancestral land.
Pinkerton agent and former Union cavalryman Levi Riggins is investigating a series of robberies and sabotage linked to the impoverished Daughtry plantation. Posing as a hotel management agent for the railroad, he tells Selah he’ll help her save her home, but only if it is converted into a hotel. With Selah otherwise engaged in renovations, Levi moves onto the property to “supervise” while he actually attends to his real assignment right under her nose.
Selah isn’t sure she can entirely trust the handsome Yankee to protect her home and family in these hard times, but she’d do almost anything to save the Big House. What she never expected to encounter was his assault on her heart.
What is one thing you’ve learned the hard way so that others don’t have to?
What have I learned the hard way? Only one thing?
Okay, here goes. Less is more.
A complex plot with lots of characters may seem like a good idea on the front end, but after eighteen published novels (along with a few others that will likely never see the light of day), I’ve discovered that each character introduced requires a certain amount of development (i.e. word count)—otherwise, their presence is not needed or even desirable.
Here’s the problem. Beth White, as a human being, is insatiably curious about why people behave the way they do and how things came to be. Well, that makes sense; it’s why I became a storyteller, to begin with. Even as a very little child, when I first learned to read, I read the encyclopedia set my parents bought from some door-to-door salesman—literally from cover to cover. Sitting on the floor in front of that bookcase in the hallway, I read every biography first: female scientists and artists and authors and rulers and saints. Then I delved into the Founding Fathers, revolutionaries, anarchists, poets, architects, rulers of ancient civilizations, scholars, inventors. I wanted to know about the geography of African and South American countries, who discovered the cure for incurable diseases, and who started wars and why.
Above all, I was interested in love stories.
The more I read and absorbed, the more intricately woven the world around me seemed to be. This affects that, which leads to something else, which causes another cataclysmic event, which changes the world.
A weird little introvert, I explored relationships in my mind. My dolls and paper dolls talked to one another, and an infinite variety of characters peopled my interior landscape. As my imagination matured, I began to write down the stories in my head. Every hero and heroine who crossed my path showed up in some form, including the ones from novels and short stories and fairy tales and biographies I read.
Folks. That’s a lot of characters. People are fascinating. They’re inscrutable. The minute you think you know why they behave the way they do, some random emotion or outside force takes them in an unpredictable direction.
Fast-forward to my current career/hobby of writing full-length novels for publication. While developing the Daughtry House series that launches in this month with A Rebel Heart, I conceived the series as focused on three young women who grew up on a Mississippi plantation before and during the Civil War. The Daughtry sisters have to make a life for themselves without the protection of parents, husbands or brothers, in a world hostile to somewhat independent-minded women.
In the first book of the series, eldest sister Selah wants to turn the plantation into a resort hotel as a way of keeping it out of the hands of the railroad. That’s a complicated enough venture, but for some reason, a gaggle of seven war orphans taking shelter at the plantation, along with a family of former slaves, wouldn’t leave my head. I had to write through half the novel before the weight of juggling all those backstories began to take a toll on my mental energy. I couldn’t focus on the central plot, which was Selah’s love story with a Pinkerton agent using the hotel as a cover for his investigation of a series of railroad murders.
I tell you what, by the time you’ve written five or six scenes with a character—even a minor one—it’s very, very difficult to eliminate her. Especially an adorable, sassy blonde six-year-old named Olivia. But you will not meet Olivia Priester in A Rebel Heart. She had to go, along with her funny, mischievous twin brothers. I kept her older brother Wyatt because he has an integral part in the mystery plot. I discovered that removing the distraction of Olivia, as hard as that was, helped me focus on Wyatt’s goals and motivations and conflicts. It also freed my attention for the more important work of developing Selah’s journey from guilt and regret to the freedom of repentance and forgiveness.
Perhaps Olivia will resurface as a major character in some other story, who knows?
In any case, I am applying the lesson I learned from “Too Many Characters Syndrome” as I write the sequel to A Rebel Heart. Keep the main thing the Main Thing. Focus on the central story, only bringing minor characters onstage—as entertaining as they may be—when they are absolutely essential to the plot.
I hope my readers will not mind this peek behind the curtain, where a somewhat unfocused, insatiably curious writer struggles to produce a coherent fictional adventure. And I hope fellow writers will learn from my rabbit trails that it’s a lot easier to add characters, layering them in during the course of rewrites than it is to remove them!
Happy reading and writing to you all!