Begin With What You Know: Charles Dudley Digges, Jr.
They say, "Write what you know." Charles Dudley Digges, Jr., knows about the lives of the mountain men in the 1840s (he'd participated in re-enactments for years) and had an interest in this time period, and particularly the variety of lifestyles the time offered to the common man. It was the era of the gold rush, mining, and the mountain man. His interest in the time period grew, and a story began to develop in his mind. That story turned into his book, The Last Rendezvous.
Digges had participated in rendezvous re-enactments for years. And apparently he's not too bad with a 40-caliber rifle. One of those shooting contests popular at the real rendezvous back in the day, and still popular today, is the event where you get five shots to break a piece of string. A marksman event. After breaking two strings in two shots, Digges was told he was done.
Mountain men and Native Americans held rendezvous as a social gathering and a sort of sporting event. Participants would enter skills contests, like ax throwing and shooting. In his book, Digges shows how John, his main character, did well in these contests because of the skills he'd learned in the wilderness. Ax throwing and shooting, for example, were necessary hunting skills. Both participants and observers could pick up useful tips for the coming year.
Though Digges already knew most of the mountain man stuff, he knew little about mining. So he set out to do research. He knew books wouldn't provide sufficient information about miners' lifestyles, so he visited the McDade mine in Pennsylvania six times and spoke with miners there. It took him about a year and a half to conduct all his research for his novel.
The novel's main character, John, is the tool Digges uses to portray the variety of lives that existed in the 1840s. He begins his life as the son of a coalminer, and starts down that same path himself at an early age. But he soon realizes that this is not the life for him, and makes the bold decision to get out of the little shantytown he called home. So he travels the eastern seaboard, picking up what will later be useful skills, such as blacksmithing. He learns how to provide for himself in the real world. He later catches gold fever and heads out west to make his fortune.
Circumstances in his life (you'll have to read the book to find out) lead him to retreat to the solitude of the life of the mountain man. This is where the second half of the book is focused. And it's probably the most interesting part. We've all read outdoor adventure stories at some point in our lives, so the topic is familiar, and easy to follow. It traces the path of a man roaming about, making his own life, living happily by his own two hands.
In choosing a main character, Digges creates an ordinary man, born in what are certainly ordinary surroundings. John is a regular guy who has a tough upbringing, but who has a passion for life that seems to defy his shantytown upbringing. He is the good boy from next door who has the strength, endurance, and patience to see his dreams through to the end. Throughout the book, he takes the odd jobs that no one else wants to earn the money necessary to pursue those dreams.
Digges says that once he got the synopsis written and the research completed, the writing was a tad more difficult. He says he tried to be specific without going over the top on the details. Digges says that every writer has his/her own specific style, and detail works for some, while vagueness works for others. His goal was to walk the middle line so that readers could get a clear picture in their heads, while not becoming bored with two full pages describing the vein of a leaf, for example.
How does Digges describe the topic of his novel? "It reveals an era in time, in the 1840s, leading up to the time of the end of the fur trade era." Digges says his target audience with this book is a wide one. He says that anyone from a fairly young age can read it in a relatively short amount of time. Digges claims that interest, not age, is the dominant factor. He wanted the story to be flexible enough so that anyone with an interest in that time period could pick it up and become engaged.
This book is a good starting point for anyone interested in this time period. It covers a wide variety of topics relevant to the time. Digges provides us with a broad look at a particular era, but also provides enough detail to get any budding 1840s historian started. The novel is meant to be enthralling on the level of a mystery, but anyone interested in the novel's topic should find enough to occupy his/her curiosity.
Mr. Digges currently resides in Spotsylvania County, about five miles from Lake Anna. He has been working on a second novel for about a year and a half about wildfires out west. He says he hasn't worked on it in a while, and it's not ready to go to print yet. But he hopes that anyone who is interested in mountain men and 1840s life will pick up this book and open themselves up to a new world. Digges says he delighted in writing about something he's interested in and hopes you will be too!