I’ve known Gwenda Bond for years, and I’m delighted to be able to give her a spot in the Big Idea for her debut novel Blackwood. It’s a book featuring a mystery that I once touched on, in a tangential fashion, in a couple of my own books. But for her own tale, Gwenda gets under the skin of the mystery, then adds layers to it, for an entirely new experience. Here she is to explain it all to you.
If you’re like me, these words will give you a little spine tingle, an automatic thrill, the promise of mystery and intrigue:
The Lost Colony of Roanoke Island.
Most of us who grew up in the United States can probably remember when our elementary school teachers brought up this provocative piece of history, talked about it for five or maybe ten minutes, and then skated on past to sterner stuff like Puritans and men in powdered wigs signing important papers. But still, the story is sticky, not easily brushed off—it was too intriguing to be consigned to the pile of dates and battles that could be safely forgotten and looked up later, should we ever need to know them. Because it wasn’t just a story, but a mystery.
A refresher on that story as it’s typically told: in the 1580s, Sir Walter Raleigh (provocateur extraordinaire) received permission from Queen Elizabeth I to try and establish a permanent settlement in the New World. After some failed attempts, more than one hundred men, women, and children signed onto a voyage in 1587. They traveled to what is now Roanoke Island, North Carolina, and established a colony there. But all too soon they were facing unfriendly farming conditions and tensions with the Native American tribes whose home the area already was. Governor John White was sent back to England for aid and fresh supplies…only to be unable to return for three looong years. When he did come back, the colonists, including his young granddaughter, Virginia Dare, the first English child born on American soil, had vanished, leaving only the word CROATOAN carved into a tree trunk. They were never found.
The Big Idea behind Blackwood is that on a modern day Roanoke Island where the Lost Colony is an interesting story for the tourists, history turned into popular outdoor summer theater, there’s a new mass disappearance overnight of 114 people, the exact same number as vanished hundreds of years ago. Two local 17-year-olds—Miranda Blackwood, an outsider from the island’s most infamous family, and Phillips Rawling, a teen criminal who hears the voices of the dead—begin to discover they may have ties to both disappearances, then and now, and must unravel the secrets of the new Lost Colony to save the missing people and themselves.
I had these pieces—the main idea of the disappearance set on present-day Roanoke Island and two characters I loved—from the beginning. Unusually, I actually remember exactly where and when I got this idea. My husband and I were on a road trip to Raleigh, and we passed an interstate sign for Roanoke. It was for the one in Virginia, of course, but it reminded me of the Lost Colony, and I turned to him and said, Has anybody ever done a book where…. Neither of us could think of one. As soon as we got back home, I started doing research on the island and the history, made a few false starts, and finally wrote 50 pages or so…
And stalled out, because I didn’t know what my solution to the mystery was. And despite a few minutes when I thought, “Well, maybe it could just all remain mysterious—sure, that won’t make people hurl a book across the room. Er, except it will,” I realized if I was going to tell this story I’d have to come up with a solution. So, I put the idea on the shelf for years. It would be excellent synchronicity if I could tell you I put it away for three years, the number it took John White to return to the colony. In fact, it was more like six. I went off to grad school, wrote another book or two that didn’t sell, and then came back to this story that I still wanted to tell and still didn’t have an answer for.
But when I went back to my research books, the answer came almost immediately. The name John Dee, famous alchemist and advisor to Queen Elizabeth, popped up—it turned out he’d been involved in the preliminary planning for the voyage. New possibilities began to open up, and, click, this was finally a story I could actually finish. I won’t say anymore about how it all pans out, because I hope the book is a fun read full of surprises and twists.
I wanted the main characters—Miranda and Phillips—to be very much modern teens, and also excellent nerds. Nerds don’t get to have enough fictional adventures in my opinion, and they certainly don’t get to have enough romances. I grew up in a small southern town, and so that experience, of being from a place where everyone knows everybody, and which can feel claustrophobic and inescapable (except—for me at least—when reading, or watching TV and movies, or listening to music) even if there are parts of it you love, well, that bled into the Roanoke Island I created, too.
Blackwood is a blend of fact and fiction, a mix of history real and invented. I hope you’ll be willing to come along on a voyage that brings then to now.