word craft


Story Behind the Story #22:
The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

I began the last sto­ry about a sto­ry by telling how Book A (Some­thing Upstairs) led to Book B (The Man who was Poe). Here is the sto­ry how the Poe book led to Book C, The True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle.

Poe is gen­er­al­ly cred­it­ed with hav­ing invent­ed the detec­tive tale with his short sto­ry, Mur­ders on the Rue Morgue. (1841) That sto­ry, pro­found­ly influ­en­tial, also came to be known as a “Locked Room Mys­tery.” Which is to say some­thing hap­pens in a room that is pre­sum­ably inaccessible.

Well, I thought, liv­ing as I was on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, what could be more of a “locked room” than a sail­ing ship at sea?

If you turn to page 129 of The Man Who Was Poe, you will find these words by a char­ac­ter named Cap­tain Elias:

“Now, Mas­ter Edmund, if you’ve time to hear a good yarn, I’ve one for you. You see, The Lady Lib­er­ty, had a sis­ter ship. Sea­hawk, her name was—”

True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleWhen I wrote those words, it was the begin­ning of my think­ing of The True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle: I would write a mys­tery set on a 19th Cen­tu­ry sail­ing ship. I even signed the con­tract to write a book which, for the moment, was called The Sea­hawk.

But I did­n’t begin the book. The first prob­lem was that for about eight months, I moved to Venice, Italy. My wife had a sab­bat­i­cal and a for­mer edi­tor of mine offered a Venet­ian apart­ment. I could not resist.

Indeed, Venice was a fab­u­lous experience.

How­ev­er, I had not reck­oned on two things. Being sur­round­ed by the Ital­ian lan­guage (or the Venet­ian ver­sion of it) meant that I was, to my great sur­prise, rad­i­cal­ly ham­pered in my writ­ing. It crimped my rhythms, made my Eng­lish exces­sive­ly for­mal and ornate, and stunt­ed my vocab­u­lary. Also, this being in the ear­ly days of portable com­put­ers, I had no access to a print­er. A key part of my writ­ing process was missing.

I stopped writ­ing the book. All I could do was think about it.

True Confessions of Charlotte DoyleOnly when I returned to Prov­i­dence did I resume writ­ing, and by then the book had become The True Con­fes­sions of Char­lotte Doyle. It also began as a mys­tery, and while it has ele­ments of that, it float­ed on to become some­thing rather different.

The book was done (I thought) when edi­tor Richard Jack­son called. “I’ve been think­ing,” he said. “We missed some­thing. When Char­lotte leaves the boat after the voy­age, she does­n’t say good­bye to the crew. That’s out of character.”

Which is to say, since I had writ­ten the end­ing, I knew she would return to the ship. But at the nar­ra­tive moment, she did not. So I wrote that farewell scene on page 199. When the char­ac­ter Ewing says, “You’re my mer­maid now,” I had tears in my eyes because like so many read­ers, I too had fall­en in love with Char­lotte but it was time for me to say “Bon voyage.”

But wait! That was not the end of The Sea­hawk. She reap­pears in anoth­er book! I’ll tell you all about it in prop­er sequence.

5 thoughts on “Story Behind the Story #22:<br>The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle”

  1. This is my favorite book of yours that I’ve read, so far. Thanks for shar­ing the sto­ries behind the sto­ries. It’s been inter­est­ing and led me to new books I’ve not read before.

  2. My favorite, too. I dis­cov­ered it twen­ty plus years ago in an ado­les­cent lit­er­a­ture class. And just yes­ter­day I dis­cussed Crispin — anoth­er favorite — with a young reader. 

    I’m lov­ing these behind-the-scenes glimpses into your work. Thank you!

  3. This is a favorite to read, and to teach. My paper­back is held togeth­er with an elas­tic band, with all my anno­ta­tions! And I for­got to bring it to a con­fer­ence where I would have a chance for you to sign it (I was one of the lucky ones to be “assigned” to you dur­ing my favorite of the con­fer­ence, the Author’s Round­table.) I was SO ANGRY at myself for for­get­ting the dilap­i­dat­ed and much loved book!! There is so much there that is rich for teach­ing and learn­ing. Thank you for this story.

  4. I have the fond­est mem­o­ries read­ing this book aloud to my chil­dren then putting it in the hands of count­less oth­ers. Char­lotte is one of my favorite char­ac­ters in chil­dren’s literature.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.