The Voyage of the Pleiades: Finding a Protagonist
Four years ago when I began to draft what would eventually become The Voyage of the Pleiades, my protagonist appeared. Her voice was and is, the starting point for our story. It took years to refine Linnea, but her essence was set in those first pages. One of the most frequent questions asked of authors is where their characters come from: are they fashioned on themselves, on people they know? I’m not sure how to accurately answer that question. My characters exist in my imagination, but they are also an amalgamation of people I’ve read about, or known. There is a piece of me in every one of them. In November, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in a discussion with Jane Smiley, and something she said clarified this process. Jane said that as authors we have two brains: writer brain which has only the knowledge of your experiences; and a reader brain, that has all the knowledge of our experiences, plus the knowledge gained from reading.There are many ways we are able to utilize our access to those two pools of knowledge during the writing process, but I believe that it is especially vital when shaping our characters.
Writing historical fiction also allows me to alter history. I am dedicated to accuracy in portraying this period of time, but I am also equally dedicated to telling the stories of people of different genders and races that have not been equally represented in the past.
After I outlined Linnea’s character and wrote many of the chapters that defined her, I delved into the research and found women that shared similarities (I described some of these women in my first newsletter). There were many delightful surprises that emerged in my research. For example, I was aware when I created a position for Linnea at Kew Gardens, that women were volunteers at the garden, but rarely employed. About a year ago, I stumbled on this photo. This was after my book was completed, after I dressed Linnea as a boy to work at Kew. Perhaps not so far-fetched after all. Imagine the many voices that we have never heard from history that have been lost to time. In fiction, we have the opportunity to return them to the narrative.
Voyage of the Pleiades Chapter Excerpt
This excerpt is a letter from Linnea’s uncle William to Lord Martin (Hugh).
East Caicos Island
Sent from Nassau, Bahamas
18 January 1855
We’ve reached the Caicos Islands, as usual it is disconcerting to cross an ocean and find yourself in a place overrun by stiff British compatriots. Independence for these island nations seems more of a possibility now than the last time I visited. I am heartened that it appears as if the slave trade has been abolished from these shores. However, I am not writing to rehash the history of Turks and Caicos, but rather to share my impressions of traveling with a child.
The first couple days of the voyage I wondered what the hell I was thinking. Linnea is stalwart and her enthusiasm is infectious, but also exhausting. I had no idea what it would mean to attempt to confine that enthusiasm to a ship, but as usual, I underestimate Linnea. She has settled into ship life like a seasoned sailor, and she hardly keeps her feet on the deck and out of the lines. One morning I found her perched on the small ledge under the figurehead, cackling in joy as the sea spray pelted her face. I almost had an apoplexy when I looked over the rail and found her below, but her laugh vanquishes my irritation every time. Do you remember ever being that young and besotted with the world? I had forgotten how to view the world in that way until Linnea came into my life.
I admit that early in those days with her, I resented what I had lost and how life was forever altered, especially my life with you my dear friend. On the whole of it though, I have gained something priceless, and I could never regret it. Linnea has taught me not only how to love her, but also how to love the world again. I fear that before she came into my life I was ruled by resentment, resentment that the world we live in does not allow us to be together, that I could not have everything: my career, my love, whatever it was I believed was withheld or owed to me.
Yesterday Linnea and I spent the morning exploring the tide pools, she marched to the shoreline with that determined expression on her tiny face, clutching her field notebook in one hand. She confronts the world head on and damn anyone who dares get in her way. We spent several hours poking in the pools and sketching. I was absorbed in my own efforts when I was tugged back to awareness by her tenacious voice ringing across the beach, addressing some creature she had found.
“Little friend,” She said, “don’t worry, it is a big world in the ocean, but you are brave and beautiful, and you will be well.”
It seems a small thing, but for one who has had so much uncertainty in her life, she still has it in her heart to comfort another being. I would like to take credit for the remarkable person she is developing into, but in truth, Linnea came to me as such. I look forward to a world in which I get to see her unleash the formidable woman she will be, quick and brilliant, with a heart as wide as the sea. The world has no idea what it is in for.
I wish you were with us, my love. I hope that in time you will get to know her as I have and that somehow, we find a way to guide her together. We board the ship tomorrow, off to a new destination, I have high expectations of what my pocket-sized naturalist sailor will do next. Every day with her is an adventure whether we are on the ship or not.
Your devoted friend,
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Copyright © 2021 Amy Marie Turner, All rights reserved.
Photos by David W. Shaw and Amy Turner except where noted.
My interpretation of Jane Smiley’s words, any errors are mine.
Sometimes it seems as if fiction writers almost channel voices of history, pull them from another realm. They really do take on their own life and have their own kind of agency. They tell the writer what their next move or line will be. I'm thinking of the work of Toni Morrison and Colson Whitehead for example. The ghosts of history speaking back to us.