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The 18th century New York frontier bred courage in those who survived its perils. Willa Obenchain has courage to spare. Returning to her white parents' abandoned homestead after twelve years of Indian captivity, Willa believes a solitary life is the only way she'll never lose again what's twice been lost: her family, and her heart. As she begins the backbreaking work of reviving her farm, Willa's determined isolation is threatened. First by injured botanist Neil MacGregor, found unconscious on her land, and also by her Mohawk clan brother Joseph Tames-His-Horse, a man who cannot give up the woman he calls Burning Sky. Willa is a woman caught between two worlds and the residents of the nearby frontier village, still reeling from a bloody revolutionary war, are reluctant to welcome her home. As tensions rise, challenging her shielded heart, Willa must find a new courage--the courage to again risk embracing the blessings the Almighty wants to bestow, and answer the question, "am I brave enough to love again?"
Lori Benton spent her late teens and early twenties pursuing a career as a wildlife artist. She attended Maryland College of Art and Design before she began painting professionally. She turned to writing in 1991, but a cancer battle kept her fromo pursuing publication for a number of years. She's a member of ACFW and a Genesis Contest finalist. Lori explores the mountains of southern Oregon in her spare time.
Favorite Verse: Isaiah 26:3 NKV: “You will keep Him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you, because He trusts in you.”
Christianbook.com Interview with Lori Benton
Please tell us a bit about yourself and how you started writing CBA fiction.
I seem to have been born with two primary creative passions, art and writing. I was preoccupied with both from an early age. Through my teen and art college years, on to a few years of painting professionally, it looked like wildlife art would be my life’s pursuit. Then in 1991 the writing bug bit in earnest, and hasn’t let me go. That’s when I turned my focus to writing with the thought of seeking publication.
Back then I didn’t know what CBA fiction was. I’d never met a published writer, had access to the internet—or owned a typewriter—or read a writing craft book. I sat down one day in December of ’91 with pen and paper, determined to write the kind of novel I liked to read, and it felt natural to include a strong spiritual arc for my characters.
In 1993, with that novel still in progress, my husband and I moved to Oregon, where I came in contact with members of OCW (Oregon Christian Writers), and the world of Christian fiction opened to me. Twenty years and many writer’s conferences and novels later, I feel at home in the supportive and encouraging environment of CBA fiction writers, agents, booksellers, and publishers.
What is your favorite Bible verse?
My favorite changes from season to season, so I’ll mention one that presently ministers to me and helps keep me centered. This year I’ve been reading the daily devotional Jesus Calling, and it strikes me that Isaiah 26:3 could sum up nearly every entry in this powerful little book. “You will keep Him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on you, because He trusts in you.” NKV
How much of Burning Sky is based on fact?
All of it, and at the same time very little of it. The characters (with the exception of Joseph Brant and other recognizable figures mentioned like Sir William Johnson) aren’t based on any historical person. Nor is the plot based on a historical incident. Shiloh is a fictional settlement. But what was happening on the New York frontier during 1784 as portrayed in Burning Sky is based on historical fact. The American Philosophical Society, the temporary breaking of the Iroquois League, Native trackers of deserting British soldiers, the sale of confiscated Loyalist lands, the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, the hatred of Indians among the white settlers, and the gradual return of survivors of the brutal raids on the frontier… all of that happened during this time period.
What inspired you to write this story? In this time period?
A combination of many factors, but two were uppermost. I began researching the 18th century in 2004, when an idea for what would become my first novel set in that time period made itself known. As I wrote and researched, I found myself intrigued by characters who didn’t fit into acceptable European American society of the time, because they’d been on the frontier, had encountered other ways of living, and come away changed, often with a sense of un-belonging to their birth culture—or with the skillful ease of belonging to both sides of that frontier. Or they were slaves on a plantation, a culture within a culture. It’s that “middle ground” experience of identifying with more than one culture or worldview at a time that draws me to write about 18th century American history.
My research eventually led me to the New York frontier, where those conflicting cultures and worldviews played a huge part in the history of that region throughout the 18th century. New York history is fertile ground for the stories I like to write.
The second factor has to do with the character of Willa Obenchain. A couple of visions of a character seemed to fall out of the blue into my head, rather close together in time. No doubt they were a product of my subconscious stewing over that aforesaid research. But what better point of view to tell a story of the middle ground and what that meant to an individual than a woman raised half her life by her white parents, half by her Mohawk captors-turned-family?
How much research did you have to do regarding the turmoil between the Mohawks and the Colonists?
Actually, I’ve never stopped researching. I plan to continue writing about the Iroquois (not just the Mohawk) and how they were affected by European American expansion and war. Research specific to Burning Sky began in 2008 and continued until I turned in the final edits. But it’s a subject that has a deep hold of my heart, well beyond the boundaries of one novel. The same can be said for the entire sweep of the 18th century frontier, along the length of the Appalachian mountain range and beyond it to the Overmountain regions. At the time the eastern seaboard was settled, it was the Wild West.
Do you live or have you visited the Mohawk Valley?
I’ve never visited the Mohawk Valley or the south western corner of the Adirondacks, where the story is set. I relied on book research, Google Earth, Youtube, and interviews with people who do live there, or once lived there, as well as my own memories of living half my life on the east coast, visiting states from New York to Florida. It wasn’t difficult to place my characters there, having spent so much time in eastern forests.
What was the Oneida Indians’ interaction with Mohawks?
They were both members of the Iroquois League, The Six Nations, along with the Onondagas, Cayugas, Tuscaroras, and Senecas. They were confederate nations who spoke similar languages, fought wars together, were each matrilineal clan based. They intermarried. Among the Iroquois, each individual was free to do as he saw fit. If he didn’t agree with the choices of those who led him, warrior or sachem, he was free not to follow them. The same held true for clans and nations.
By the Revolutionary War, the Mohawks, the easternmost nation of the confederacy, had been displaced or surrounded by white settlement. The next easternmost nation, the Oneidas, were neighbors to many whites. This created both conflict and ties of friendship, depending on individual proclivity. One factor that caused the Oneidas to give their support to the American Patriots was the influence of Protestant missionaries in their nation, like Samuel Kirkland, an ardent Patriot.
The Mohawks, with deeper ties to the British through the late Sir William Johnson, and the nations to the west situated near British forts where they received the supplies and firearms they’d become dependent upon, remained for the most part loyal to the Crown.
Each of these nations tried desperately to find unanimity, and to remain neutral, but the divisions between them proved too deep, and the pressure to become involved in the fighting too compelling. It was a wrenching and heartbreaking decision for all involved to fight on opposing sides.
You used quite a bit of botany with your Scottish character, Neil MacGregor; was he based on someone in history?
Neil MacGregor isn’t based on any specific historical person, but he was modeled after earlier 18th century botanists like Mark Catesby and the Bartrams, John and William.
Was there a purpose or something in your background that made you use a botanist as one of the main characters?
I have no background in botany, save my research for this and other novels. English and Art, not Science, were my interests as a young person. But I needed a reason for Neil MacGregor to be on the frontier. Historically, botanists were a daring and adventurous lot, their boldness in penetrating deep into the hinterlands of the continent an intriguing pairing with their artistic and scientific absorption in botanical research. Love overcomes fear, and a passion for botany apparently can overcome what might seem to others as common sense or self-preservation! I thought it the perfect profession for Neil MacGregor, a man of science yet bold in faith and trust in God, to have behind him as a driving force.
How do you select the names for your characters? Joseph Tames-His-Horse; Burning Sky/Wilhelmina Obenchain?
Names come from everywhere. Reading original period documents, my maternal family tree (which traces back several lines in the colonies to the 1600s), research into the cultural backgrounds of my characters, the credits of films and TV shows. Sometimes they fall out of the blue and I couldn’t tell you from where. The name “Willa” came with those two visions I mentioned. It was the first thing I knew about her. Eventually I decided to give her a German surname, because many of the settlers in the western Mohawk Valley region were of German descent. I sought long for the right one, and found Obenchain at last on a street sign on a highway that leads to the mountains where we hike on the weekends. I decided Wilhelmina sounded of the period, original for a heroine, and German. Sometimes characters come with names attached, sometimes it’s a long hunt for the right one.
Who was your favorite character in Burning Sky? Why?
I love them all—or most of them—and it’s hard to name names. But I do have a soft spot for Neil MacGregor. Neil is a survivor. He’s suffered a debilitating injury that might have caused him to give up his life’s passion, not to mention to wallow in self-pity and bitterness. It’s an injury that renders everyday life more challenging, not just the professional commission he’s undertaken as a botanist. Yet he presses on, finds ways to compensate, discovering by God’s grace he’s capable of more than he knew. I find that inspiring. I hope readers do too.
What was the most interesting tidbit that you learned while writing Burning Sky?
The history of the Iroquois held a lot of surprises for me, and I learned things that have really gripped my writer’s heart. That they were divided during the Revolutionary War, for one. And how ardently some of them, especially the Oneidas, had by this time embraced the gospel of Christ, in a way that resonates with me as a believer today. I look forward to learning and writing more about them in the future.
What aspects of being a writer do you enjoy the most?
The writing. There’s nothing more fulfilling, and exhausting, than coming away from a day at the computer with a scene existing where none did before, of inching my way forward through a story, peeling back layers of character, coming to love these story people and grow passionate about the their lives and loves and hopes.
What is your writing style? (Do you outline? Write “by-the-seat-of-your-pants? Or somewhere in-between?)
I definitely need to outline, quite thoroughly, before I begin writing. The more history that invades a story, the more research and outlining needs to be done ahead of time, to be sure the characters’ personal stories fit the historic framework on which they hang.
Do your characters begin to take on a life of their own as you write?
They take on life, certainly. Just because I do a lot of plotting doesn’t mean I know my characters as deeply as I will once I begin writing. I’m open to surprises happening, but characters can’t take the plot and run away with it, not to any great degree. Not if there’s a historical framework in place. The stage when I do allow the characters to have greater say in forming the plot is during outlining, when I’m creating them and their story world, or they’re walking on stage and announcing themselves and I see where they fit, or could broaden the story in unexpected ways. But always within that historical framework. It’s such an organic process, creating characters, plotting, and researching. I’m not sure I can do it justice in trying to articulate it.
What is the one thing that most people don't know about you?
The one thing? There are so many, and most I prefer to keep that way! Grabbing one at random here I don’t mind sharing: when I was a child I made bows and arrows out of cuttings from the giant forsythia shrubs that lined our long gravel driveway. I still like to target shoot, but I’ve moved on to fiberglass for my bows.
What is the next project that you are writing?
My next release, The Pursuit of Tamsen Littlejohn (WaterBrook Press) will be available April 15, 2014. The story is set in western North Carolina, 1787-1788, a time of upheaval in that region following the Revolutionary War. Readers can learn more about it at my website. http://loribenton.blogspot.com/
What are some of the challenges that you face as an author?
My greatest challenges stem from six months of chemotherapy and radiation I had for Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, back in 1999. By that autumn I was in remission, my hair was growing back, and I appeared to be a healthy 31-year-old woman walking around.
What I was, really, was a bewildered, frustrated writer with her brain in a fog who’d given up on ever writing again—at least the kind of novels I’d been writing before the cancer treatment, and still wanted to write. I was experiencing chemo fog, a common side effect of cancer treatment.
God brought me through that valley, and five years post chemo, in 2004, I did begin writing again. Along with working to regain the discipline of daily writing without letting it overwhelm me—still in a rather fragile mental state—I gave myself a crash course in Colonial, Revolutionary, and early Federal American history. Over the course of writing that novel, the fog cleared, and reclaimed that part of my identity. With a few extra challenges still to face. I don’t have much of a long term memory anymore. Things I researched five years ago (okay, honestly? a few months ago) are no longer where I put them in my head. If I find I need them again for my current work, I have to do the research again. So really my researching never ends, because I’m constantly reading up on subjects I’ve already researched. I do this now as a matter of course, because I know it’s not going to stick for long.
What it boils down to is that I have to work harder at the research aspect of historical fiction writing than I probably would have if I’d never had chemotherapy. In some ways I’m glad about this. It’s a challenge, but really it’s a blessing wrapped in a challenge. When I become frustrated I think about the fact that I’m writing at all and know it’s not by my strength that these stories are getting written now. It’s God’s (Philippians 4:13). I have to lean on Him, every day. And I’m thankful, every day, for the strength, time, and mental acuity He’s lent me to get these stories out of my head and onto the screen. I take a lot more things a lot less for granted than I did as a healthy writer in my twenties.
Who is the person who most influenced you with your writing?
Her name is Lauri Klobas. I met her at an online writers forum I’ve been a part of for the past fifteen or so years. It was during that season when I was coming out of the chemo fog, struggling with that first manuscript I’d managed to complete after the illness. It was a whopping 325,000 words long, and I was exhausted and too close to the work to begin to know how to start editing it.
Lauri, having her own battle with chemo fog but a little farther down that road than me, kindly stepped in, took that monster of a manuscript and over the course of a summer ruthlessly red penned it, showing me just how much I’d overwritten. With her help I trimmed it down to 198K. Still very long, but I wasn’t finished. It now sits at a much more reasonable 120K, and because of Lauri’s help it caught the interest of an agent, who now represents me.
As she edited my story Lauri’s own love affair with reading and writing was rekindled for the first time since the chemo fog had settled over her, for which I’ll always be glad. It was all too brief, however. Her cancer returned, and she passed away just after I signed a contract with my agent. Her last note to me was to tell me she always knew I could do it. She was my cheerleader. Burning Sky is dedicated to her.
Do you have a critique partner?
I’ve had wonderful critique partners on and off over the years. I still have writing friends who are ready and willing to read a few chapters or give me feedback, and I them. But it’s not a regular thing anymore.
What message would you like your readers to take from Burning Sky?
Neil MacGregor says it best in the pages of the story, but I don’t want to spoil that for readers by quoting him! In a nutshell: God is good. He delights in giving His children blessings. That doesn’t mean He’s concerned primarily with our present earthly comforts. His canvas is much bigger than that and stretches into eternity, and sometimes it’s through trials, even grief, that we come to know Him most intimately.
What is your goal or mission as a writer?
Whatever God has planned is fine with me. My goals are subject to checking in with Him frequently to be sure I’m not forging out in a direction He sees isn’t going to work out for my best, even if it looks good to me. As of right now, I intend to keep writing stories of the 18th century frontier, or middle ground—historically, culturally, emotionally, spiritually—and hope that readers will continue to enjoy them.
What is your greatest achievement?
Finishing that first novel after my chemotherapy, then seeing it place third for Historical Fiction in the 2008 ACFW Genesis Contest (under the title Trouble the Water). I call it Kindred now, and I hope to share it with readers one day.
What are your favorite books?
Historical fiction by James Alexander Thom, Diana Gabaldon, Ellis Peters, Catherine Marshall, Susanna Kearsley, Susan Meissner, Laura Frantz, Francine Rivers… and many more that have slipped my mind just now.
What do you do to get away from it all?
Head for the mountains with my husband and my dog. Once a week, whenever possible. It’s part of my Sabbath.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Thank you so much for these great questions. I hope my answers have prompted readers to check out Burning Sky, and other stories of the America’s first wild west, the 18th century frontier.