Cornwallis’ Cave, Yorktown, VA
The class had been studying the American Revolution.
Their teacher wanted them to have a sense of being there. What better way than writing historical fiction?
—Would I come model for them, help them get started?
—Are you KIDDING?
Let the revolutionary zeitgeist begin!
I set the fourth-graders to researching daily life, clothing, furniture, chores during colonial times. The story cannot come to life without some period details.
Then we worked on understanding that big ideas of the historical event don’t change, although we can make up some characters who live through it.
—A hand, waving in the air: “Like the Titanic sinking was a real historical event. The captain and crew were real people. Jack and Rose in the movie were not.”
—Other child, aghast: “They weren’t real? I thought they were!”
—Me: “Um, no, they’re fictional. Made-up characters.”
Back to the Revolution.
We move on to plot . . . who’s this story about, what does this character want to accomplish, and what’s getting in the way or putting the character in danger?
Then setting . . .
I did my own background research and decided to let the class choose which of two stories for me to write as a model.
“Okay, I’ve given this some thought, ” I tell them as they gather on the carpet at my feet. “A town right here in North Carolina was one of the first in the colonies to oppose the Stamp Act. The British burned the town and it was never rebuilt. What if my main character was a child who had to leave quickly with the family? What if they saw their home destroyed?”
“Ooooo,” murmur the children, wide-eyed. A couple of them nod their heads. “That’s a good story. It’s sad. It could have happened.”
“Yes, and as a writer that’s part of your job, to make the readers feel like they are there, experiencing everything the characters do. This story probably will be sad. And frightening. Or, here’s your other choice. I actually grew up near Yorktown, Virginia, where Lord Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington, ending the war. I visited Cornwallis’ cave countless times. Legend says Cornwallis hid from Washington’s troops in the cave but that’s not likely. What is true is that the cave was used to store potatoes! So, what if I have a character, a colonial child, who, for some reason, has to go into that cave for the potatoes when Lord Cornwallis comes to have a quick, private conversation with his next-in-command? What if the child hides, hears Cornwallis’ escape plan, waits until Cornwallis leaves, and somehow gets the message to General Washington—which is how the British get captured, and which forces the surrender?”
“Yes! Yes!” All the kids are nodding, bouncing on the floor. “The cave story! Write the cave story! The boy will be a the hero of the Revolution!”
—”Why can’t it be a girl?” asks a girl.
All faces turn her way.
Well, women helped in the war effort . . . some were even spies . . . why CAN’T it be a girl?
“What if,” I say slowly, my gray matter spinning hard, “what if a boy was sent for those potatoes . . . by someone, we can figure that out later . . . and he just can’t do it, he’s too frightened? Or sick—or injured? What if he has a friend, a girl, who has to help him by doing it in his place, who hides in the cave, overhears Cornwallis’ secret escape plan, and she gets the message to George Washington?”
Heads are tilted, fingers cupping chins, eyes shining. They all look like future history professors.
Except for the girl who made the suggestion. She glows like Victory herself.
A couple of other scenarios the class discussed for their own writing:
What if colonists were hunting in the forest and found a wounded British soldier? What would they do?
What if British soldiers were marching through a field or by the shore when they find an colonial baby, all alone? What would they do?
—”Wait a second,” interrupts a boy. “How would they KNOW this is a colonist’s baby?”
“That is a great question,” I smile. “You are the writer. That is for you to figure out.”