People ask me how I write. Sometimes they want to know where I get my inspiration. Other times people ask what my writing schedule looks like. As soon as aspiring writers learn that I write historical fiction, they also want to know about my process.
There is an old saying in MFA programs: Write what you know.
But writing historical fiction is all about writing what you don’t know. So how does one do it? How much research should you do? How much of the story ought to be true, and how much made up? Do you research before you write? While you’re writing? After you’ve written?
Before I begin writing a piece of historical fiction, I need to find a passionate, almost magical connection to the piece of history I’m writing about. Lots of history interests me. Only sometimes do I feel that a story is calling out my name, screaming to be told. Sometimes I’ll be inspired by a story, a news article, or another archaeological fragment–but inspiration isn’t enough. So I will tuck the article away in a drawer, or write it down on a post-it note, or bookmark it in my email, and wait for passion to come. I never know why my mind selects one story over my other hundred clippings, sometimes decades after I’ve put the story away! But that’s writing. All I can do to explain the process is try to retrace my steps.
As you may know, my upcoming book, called Sugar, is about a little girl who works in the cane fields during Reconstruction, alongside the Chinese who came to the American South during that time, as well as other African-Americans. My dear friend Edward sent me an article about the Chinese who came to America just after Emancipation, in search of a better life. The story didn’t yet reach my passions; it didn’t call to me. But I knew there was something there. A seedling. I also read an adult historical text by Moon-Ho Jung, Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. (I should mention that there is a wonderful work of nonfiction out there written by young adult writers Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos called Sugar Changed the World. It takes children twelve and up all around the globe, charting the impact of sugar. I highly reccommend it!)
I followed my curiosity like a yellow brick road, having no idea where it would lead me. I found an adult historical text by Moon-Ho Jung called Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor, and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation. During this first level of reading, I read a lot of history, paying close attention to drawings, paintings, and photographs.
So I followed the trail to Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, which was fascinating. So, too, was Sugar of the Crop, My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves, by Sana Butler.
But I knew I was only circling the target. I had not yet found my passion for the subject. I had not yet received the call. I was doing the research but I hadn’t yet gotten in touch with that part of my soul that does the writing.
Okay. I needed to get closer to this one. So I decided to take a modern-day tour of a plantation in Louisiana, only a day’s drive from New Orleans. (After writing four books about New Orleans, it’s practically my second home!)
The plantation was lovely.
And I was struck. Here, I’d read about the great brutalities the people had endured, and this landscape had done it all. They’d been crippled by lovely nature, destroyed by sweet sugar. Not just adults. But children. Children working 12-14 hour days cutting cane, doing back-breaking work, in the heat, in starvation. As a modern mother in 21st century America, it made me ill. Children should play. They should come to this world and find delight, and what had they done, these men and women of the plantation? How many gentle spirits had they broken? What had we, as a nation, done?
And there it was. The call. What would it have been like to be a little girl forced to work sugar, day in and day out, never allowed to play? That question would sustain me creatively and intellectually throughout my research as well as throughout my writing process.
Soon I started seeing visions of a young girl full of life wearing a white shift. She kept smiling at me and I thought, irrepressible. Her life is hard but her spirit is irrepressible.
My heroine was born.
(I found the picture to the right of this post while writing the book. Learn more about it, and these children, here.)