Lori Benton joins us to talk about her writing and the culture and history she includes in her novels.
Melissa: You have two published books and another that will release in April. Tell us a bit about your writing and what you tend to focus on in your books.
Lori: To put it simply, I’m drawn to characters who find themselves caught between two worlds. Those worlds might consist of culture, race, countries, loyalties, or social strata. Since the 18th century American frontier abounded with such men and women from all walks of life, I’m finding an endless sea of possibilities for story-weaving as I learn more about the time period. The hardest part is narrowing down the choices!
Melissa: In both Burning Sky and The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn, you include several Native American tribes. From your research, so far, which tribe do you find most fascinating and why?
Lori: I’m finding so much about the Eastern Woodland cultures (Cherokee, Shawnee, Delaware, Iroquois, and many more) fascinating. I think I’ll be a scholar of these peoples and their histories for the rest of my life. But it’s the Iroquois I’ve been most strongly drawn to—most specifically the Oneida Nation—and again I think it’s that “caught between two worlds” scenario that holds such deep interest for me.
Melissa: You incorporate Native American culture into your books. One of the parts I’ve found most interesting is the way in which women are treated. In Burning Sky, Willa says, “she [the wife] allows him [her husband] to live in her lodge with her, but the lodge is hers.” Throughout The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn, there is this obvious respect that Jesse has for women which is rooted in his upbringing. Talk about the view of women in Native American society.
Lori: I can only speak to Eastern Woodland cultures, even then only to those I’ve studied. Traditions and practices varied from nation to nation. For the Iroquois in particular, women and men had their separate roles in society, but a woman’s role was considered of equal importance. For example, the fields and the crops grown there (by the women) belonged to the women. They could refuse food to a war party if they didn’t feel that war party’s aims were in their best interest. Children belonged to their mother’s clan. They remained with their mother or their mother’s family, females lifelong, males until they married. The home belonged to a woman as well, usually a clan matron and her daughters. When a man married, he moved into his wife’s home and lived with her clan. A council of clan women selected who among a sachem’s (peace chief) lineage would succeed him, and the women had the power to remove a sachem from his office if he fell from favor.
Melissa: Your books are very well research and the history well integrated into each one. In The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn, you include an obscure part of history when you set the book against the backdrop of the dispute over the state of Franklin. Would you share with us another obscure piece of history you haven’t found a place in your books yet, but you hope to one day?
Lori: I haven’t looked too much further ahead than the book I’m presently writing, so I don’t have a specific answer for this—at least not piece of history that I feel is as surprising as the State of Franklin. But I’m willing to bet there will be some aspect of 18th century history in all my books that many readers will find obscure or surprising.
In my next two published books, the Pathfinders series (The Wood’s Edge and A Flight of Arrows), I’ll be giving readers a glimpse into another aspect of Iroquois history that was hinted at in Burning Sky, the breaking of the centuries old Iroquois Confederacy during the opening years of the Revolutionary War.
As I research a book, invariably some event or person or issue related to—but not directly part of—the work in progress will snag in my imagination and take root. It’s happening all the time. Often I’ll start a file for it. Not all will make it to a novel, but I doubt I have enough years left on earth to write all the ones that could.
Melissa: Your characters are brilliant. I loved following Willa and Neil in Burning Sky and Jesse, Tamsen, and Cade in The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn. However, your minor characters are just as interesting and intriguing. Which characters have been your personal favorites and which ones are you hoping to revisit?
Lori: Thank you! It’s hard to name favorites, but in Burning Sky the slave, Goodenough, stands out as a character I enjoyed creating. As do the children, Matthew and Maggie. And of course, I adore Joseph Tames-His-Horse. In The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn I was very drawn to Luther Teague and Catches Bears.
There are a couple of characters I have revisited. I created The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn’s Charlie Spencer in another novel set in North Carolina in the 1790s. When I needed a trapper sort of character for TPoTL, I decided to show some of the Overmountain backstory I’d hinted at for Charlie. That book hasn’t yet found a publishing home, but I hope one day readers will get to meet him again.
The second character has a very minor part in Burning Sky, but readers will get to see far more of him in The Pathfinders series. That’s the Oneida elder, Clear Day, whom Joseph Tames-His-Horse briefly encounters during his adventures. And speaking of Joseph, you’ll be seeing him in The Pathfinders series too, beginning with my April 21 release, The Wood’s Edge.
Melissa: What part of historical romance do you find most enjoyable to write and conversely, which parts are a ‘necessary evil’?
Lori: Thankfully I don’t find any part of writing historical fiction to be too grievous, but some aspects are more challenging than others. When I’m having to work a story around a complicated historical event, the planning and execution of scenes becomes much more tedious. There’s a tension between what my fictional characters might want to do (though I plot my stories, I leave them a lot of freedom along the way, and am happy to go with something that shows up unexpected on the page, if it feels right) and the limitations of the historical record I’m working with. I have to weave the story into the pre-existing historical record, and if I stray from that I need to be sure I have good reason, that it’s still plausible, and that I let readers know in the author’s note at the end that I did so. I’m not writing history books, but I do want my books to be as accurate a representation of the times and settings as I can make them, without sacrificing good storytelling. It’s a tricky balance at times. But a challenge I’ve obviously embraced.
The part of story crafting I enjoy most… that’s hard to pin down, because all of it is good some of the time, and all of it is wearying and challenging at times too. It depends on the day and if I’ve had enough sleep! But two things I almost always enjoy:
The early days of plotting, research, and character building, discovering all the connections and the twists and turns, and seeing the shape of the story emerge, and reaching that point where I just have to start getting it down on the page. It’s the honeymoon stage with a book.
Once the first draft is finished (even the first draft of a scene), I adore that first read through. When the story is on the page, a scene, a chapter, the whole book—no matter how rough—then a process takes place in my brain; layers are peeled away and I can see deeper. I can bring out so much more in nuance and depth than I was able to see when I was just trying to get what happened and why out of my head. I find the first draft of a scene to be exhausting work. But subsequent editing passes (dozens of them, sometimes), polishing prose, going deeper with character, bringing a setting to life… while it’s still work, there’s more joy in it.
Melissa: Would you give us a little tease about your upcoming book, “The Wood’s Edge”?
The Wood’s Edge is a pre-Revolutionary epic of identity, action, and romance.
On the day Fort William Henry falls, Major Reginald Aubrey is beside himself with grief. His son, born that day, has died in the arms of his sleeping wife. When Reginald comes across an Oneida mother with newborn twins, one white, one brown, he makes a choice that will haunt the lives of all involved. He steals the white baby and leaves his own child behind. Reginald’s wife and foundling daughter, Anna, never suspect the truth about the boy they call William, but Reginald is wracked by regret that only intensifies with time, as his secret spreads its devastating ripples.
When the long buried truth comes to light, can an unlikely friendship forged at the wood’s edge provide a way forward? For a father tormented by fear of judgment, another by lust for vengeance. For a mother still grieving her lost child. For a brother who feels his twin’s absence, another unaware of his twin’s existence. And for Anna, who loves them both–Two Hawks, the mysterious Oneida boy she meets in secret, and William, her brother. As paths long divided collide, how will God direct the feet of those who follow Him?
Link to the first two chapters of The Wood’s Edge
Visit Lori at her website or her Facebook Page