Many historical novelists prefer to make our main characters those about whom we know less than the key historical figures that dominate the pages of textbooks and biographies. Charles Frazier’s beautiful Cold Mountain, for example, follows the journey of an ancestor about whom all he basically knew was that this great-grand uncle deserted the Confederate Army and made his way on foot back to his home in the Western North Carolina mountains. Frazier has said they he was glad he didn’t know more than that of his ancestor because it freed him up to imagine his story from there. In the case of my novel A TANGLED MERCY, I became fascinated with the Denmark Vesey slave revolt, though less with its leader Vesey than with a fairly obscure member of the uprising, the urban blacksmith who initially refused to become involved in the rebellion. This blacksmith, Tom Russell, ultimately agreed to craft the weapons for the revolt, but insisted on only receiving cash payment for his labor—perhaps saving up to try and purchase his own or someone’s freedom, just as Vesey had done years before?—and keeping his name out of all lists of the revolt’s leaders. That was more than enough to send my imagination into overdrive on all sorts of back story for why he initially balked at joining, and what made him shift course to become the central weapon maker and what happened to him during the hunt for revolt instigators and the city’s brutal aftermath.
One interesting challenge for any historical novelist is not to overstep historical attitudinal boundaries of the time. For example, many contemporary female (and male) readers appreciate a novel with a strong and feisty woman protagonist—Scarlet O’Hara with a social and racial conscience. And, clearly, every era of history has had its Joan of Arc or Catherine the Great or Elizabeth I, but to put pronouncements on women’s right into the mouth of a random peasant in eighteenth-century Russia would probably strain the reader’s credulity—and the novel would sound a false note. The movie version of COLD MOUNTAIN—if I’m recalling correctly— includes at least one scene not directly from the book in which a main character gives a marvelously enlightened mini-monologue against slavery, and while we modern readers would applaud the racial sensitivity of the speech, it comes across in that moment as an insertion of modern perspectives into the mouth of a Civil War-era mountain man, who very well might not have gone off to fight for slavery, but probably wouldn’t spout a fully articulated treatise against it. Frazier, on the other hand, is meticulous in his novel to adhere to historical attitudes, so that his female protagonists are strong, courageous and determined, but don’t sound like modern women discussing their rights.
I had to walk a fine line with A TANGLED MERCY in “hearing” the speech of the various historical characters. For example, I chose not to use the N- word, despite the fact that it would have been historically accurate for various white characters in nineteenth-century Charleston to utter. But in thinking I would call a number of close African-American friends (whom I can ask most anything from professional decisions to child-rearing challenges) to see what they thought of my including the word in dialogue, I finally couldn’t even bring myself to make those calls. Which answered my question for me. And I read an article Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on the subject of white speakers or writers using the word. That confirmed what my gut had already told me: that especially as a white writer, that word—for me, at least— falls into a whole different class of vulgarity that I choose not to include, realistic or historically accurate or not.
And tempting as it was to make the two white young women of the historical story come off as brave and unflagging abolitionists, that would have been too easy, too superficial. Instead, I tried to show what the real Angelina Grimké (who did later grow up to become a leader in abolition and women’s rights) might have experienced as a seventeen-year-old that could have made her question her entire culture and upbringing—but it had to be showing that process of realization. And because I’d read so many archived letters and diaries of white slaveholding women for my doctoral dissertation, I knew the other young woman, Emily Pinckney (fictional but based on a number of actual women of the time) might have been rattled, horrified and deeply disturbed by what she witnessed in 1822, but probably would not have entirely rebelled against her culture, since the Angelina Grimkés of the time were extremely rare. So Emily Pinckney’s process of enlightenment goes only so far, and that’s part of what makes her character tragic: because she sees the horror of the system all around her, but can only bring herself to be quietly and secretly subversive, whereas Angelina, as a dazzling exception to the rule, would go on to be a public disrupter.
In answer to the question above, quite a lot, to be honest. But in writing both my most recent novel A TANGLED MERCY and my earlier novel BLUE HOLE BACK HOME, my hope has been that the stories could generate good and hard and healthy conversations that break down barriers.
I was thrilled when BLUE HOLE got selected as the Common Book for first year students to read and discuss at Baylor University and several colleges, universities and the junior class at one high school, as well as lots of book clubs, because it gave me a chance to watch people talk about difficult issues without putting up the usual walls and classifications we use to cordon ourselves off—and often to quit listening to each other.
I love that about any area of the arts: in discussing a play or movie or novel or painting, we typically drop our labels of Democrat or Republican or liberal or conservative or whatever tags we want to slap on ourselves or other people. We talk about characters and their motivations, about their decisions and their struggles, about what how we felt walking inside that person’s story.
As I wrote the scenes of A TANGLED MERCY’s contemporary timeline that involve the 2015 shooting in North Charleston, SC, of an unarmed African-American man running away from a white police officer, who, it later turned out, had lied about what transpired—captured on a bystander’s cell phone video—I really struggled to imagine the rage I would feel as the sister or wife or mother of the man shot in the back eight times in a clear instance of police brutality (the officer later plead guilty). And I also struggled to imagine the frustration I might feel to be a police officer across town, one of integrity and good relationships with my colleagues of all races, to have a handful of hot-headed, trigger-happy fellow officers erode the public’s trust by treating citizens of color differently than whites.
That’s what is so marvelous about the arts: that we can enter into a story and then begin to discuss the story for itself—grounded in actual events, in the case of A TANGLED MERCY—but without the divisiveness and name-calling that makes people leap onto different sides of the barricades and start shouting at one another. I am so grateful when I hear readers discuss a certain scene, and if I happen to know some backgrounds of their political party or commitments, to watch people of opposing “sides” have a vulnerable, authentic discussion in which they connect in surprising ways—and often end up startled at how much they agree on.
Stories can do that for us, I believe: help us set down our swords and see if we can’t agree on some basic building-block issues: feeling compassion for a person in this situation. Wanting justice if that happened to our family. Laughing at a particular scene together—then weeping together at another. Wanting to change our culture in some way but not knowing how to speak out. Wanting to connect but feeling we’re all alone.
Reading culturally relevant novels in groups or watching films or plays together can be extraordinarily unifying, and promote conversation in ways very different from what happens we when hear political speeches or sermons, or get our separate news from Fox or CNN.
The contemporary climate has also suddenly given new angles on my first novel. I published BLUE HOLE BACK HOME in 2008, and back then when I spoke to college groups who were reading the novel as a Common Book, they marveled at the scenes involving the Ku Klux Klan harassing a Sri Lankan family that moves into a small Southern Appalachian mountain town. It was as if they were analyzing a Model T Ford, making gracious comments about its lines, and finding ways it had led up to their present day lives, but basically letting me know that they lived in a “post-racial” culture, that their generation had “solved” racial tensions and was moving on to solve other areas of cultural conflict. They were always polite and always engaged in the story, but I often felt like Sue the Tyrannosaurus at Chicago’s Field Museum: the students were astounded that the novel could have been inspired by actual events in my lifetime, and the actual appearance in my own hometown of Klan members—so clearly, I must be a gazillion years old.
But in the summer of 2017, just as the novel’s rights were reverting to me, here we were faced as a country by rallies of neo-Nazis and neo-Confederates chanting “blood and soil” and proudly displaying fascist and white supremacist symbols. Suddenly now, this backlist novel loosely based on events in 1979 and ’80 reads like the day’s newsfeed on our phones.
The first and most important step is…drum roll, please… nothing sexy or spectacular, sadly. Honestly, there’s no book you can buy with all the answers or all the plot templates: it’s simply carving out time to write every day—or at least five days a week. That alone is the biggest difference between those who finally publish a book and those who always intend to but never do.
For the vast majority of us, especially just starting out, there aren’t huge pockets of unfilled time just waiting for us to hide out with a laptop— the dog quietly curled at our feet—while we produce an international bestseller. So we have to be a little ferocious in staking out time and protecting it from all comers—and especially from ourselves, the absolute worst enemies of our writing time. The voices in our heads, most writers at least, tell us we’re delusional to think we can write a book, that we’d spend our time better just paying the bills or cleaning the commodes during this time (because who are we kidding, anyway?). Those voices kill creativity.
Some people find they need to get up an hour earlier than usual—before driving to work or before the kids wake up. John Grisham did this writing his first and I believe also his second novel while still practicing law full time—before The Firm became a film and a blockbuster book. My friend Camille DiMaio, who wrote her first novel while working as a successful Realtor and raising four kids, simply stayed up ‘til 3 a..m. writing each night for six weeks in order to finish a first draft. She was utterly exhausted, but that early push made the difference between being a wannabe or a published novelist. During semesters when I was teaching boatloads of classes at a local university and also had small children at home, I would try to write very early before anyone else woke up (except the dog, who always insisted on following me to my attic office as crucial support staff) and then I’d sequester myself during lunchtime in order to reach a page per day goal. Even at times when I didn’t have an office of my own, I’d hole up in the corner of a coffeehouse or an off-hours restaurant and keep my nose in my laptop, shoulders hunched, so that no one dared bother me. My first novel BLUE HOLE BACK HOME came into being this way—a crazy mix of sleep deprivation and mule-headed determination.
It does help immensely to establish a word count or page goal for each day, and be fairly tough on yourself about meeting it, even if that means not getting to watch Netflix that evening. If you have family responsibilities, there will simply be times you have to let go your word count for the day, like when a child has the flu or you need to take an aging parent to the doctor and wait five hours to see a specialist. I think the key is not to let those days when you have to offer yourself mercy become the norm so that you fall out of your routine.
Beyond that, there is no hard and fast step by step, since each writer is different and each genre requires different methods of its authors. If you want to write a thriller or mystery, you’d better have a fairly detailed plot from the start in order to map out each of your reveals and twists. Other types of novels can simply grow from a single idea or image, and the writer simply lets the characters lead the way as they grow and develop. J.R.R. Tolkein was grading papers for his classes at Oxford when, out of the blue, he scribbled “In a hole, there lived a Hobbit” on one paper. And thus was born a future classic. Even then, though, it helps to know generally what the final scene or chapter might be before writing the first, so all that sleep deprivation and mule-headed determination doesn’t go to waste!
Readership Book not Preachy
Posted: November 7, 2014 - 8:17pm
Joy Jordan-Lake may or may not have intended for feet to be symbolic, but they are kind of obvious on the covers of two of her books. The paperback of her 2008 novel, “Blue Hole Back Home,” shows two sets of bare feet dangling down from a dock over a swimming hole.
One set of feet and shins is shiny white, while the other is a little darker. That photograph illustrates a theme of the book that is Amarillo College’s Common Reader this year, a story that won the 2009 Christy Award for best first novel. The Christy Awards go to books written from a Christian worldview, but don’t even think of “Blue Hole” as anything preachy.
Like the teenage character Jimbo, who’s a preacher’s kid in the story, Jordan-Lake’s beautifully written work presents any spiritual concepts subtly. Jimbo is part of a handful of southern white teens who, some less reluctantly than others, welcome newcomer Farsanna into their group of friends in the summer of 1979.
Farsanna, whose skin is darker than theirs, has moved to their rural community with her family from Sri Lanka. Showing his church background — as Jordan-Lake reveals her own — Jimbo said things like, “Gotta go barefoot on holy ground,” when the teens make their first visit with Farsanna to their beloved swimming hole, the Blue Hole of the title. Beyond throwaway lines like that, Jimbo hints at real spiritual insight with comments such as “Ain’t none of us harmless.” I suspect Jimbo had heard his dad preach on Romans 3:23.
The book, based on various real incidents in the author’s growing-up time in the South, makes it clear that racial hatred still was flaring up in the late 1970s, years after civil rights supposedly had been achieved. The word “Ferguson” reminds us that there still are lessons we haven’t learned. The main character is Shelby Lenoir, nicknamed Turtle, a tomboyish girl who first invites Farsanna into the back of the group’s pickup. Turtle has genuine empathy for “the new girl” but admits to herself that she hesitates to get involved when some nasty things happen.
In Jordan-Lake’s other book with feet on the cover, she also admits that she likes to avoid conflict. “Why Jesus Makes Me Nervous” was published in 2007. Its cover shows two feet with red nail polish, their toes on the end of a diving board. In a personal, again skillfully written book, Jordan-Lake digs into “Ten Alarming Words of Faith” that Christians throw back and forth every day but that might require more of us than we want to acknowledge. She writes, “This book attempts to explore just how uncomfortable Jesus can makes things.” For each of the concepts – “resurrection,” “peace,” “worship,” “hope” and more – she uses her own experiences to illustrate how Christianity requires more than nice words; it means getting your hands dirty and helping people. Jordan-Lake’s background gives her a rich trove of knowledge and experience to write about. She grew up in Tennessee and worked in Boston. She has a seminary degree and a doctorate in English literature. She has talked about writing at a C.S. Lewis seminar in England and to the Panhandle Professional Writers in Amarillo.
At 6 p.m. Monday, she will discuss the creative process in the College Union Building on AC’s Washington Street Campus, and at 7 p.m. Tuesday, she will talk about “Moral Courage,” AC’s theme for this year, at the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. Both events are free and open to the public. Moral courage certainly is at the forefront of “Blue Hole Back Home” as young people cope with prejudice, from a high school kid spitting tobacco juice at the new girl’s feet to adults donning white cloaks and hoods. Jordan-Lake manages to weave in wisdom from the 1600s — John Donne’s poetry — to the 1960s — the Beatles: “I was alone, I took a ride, I didn’t know what I would find there.” That lyric certainly fits the teenage Turtle, and Jordan-Lake’s writing inspires us to put our feet on the ground and follow Jesus’ example.
Mike Haynes teaches journalism at Amarillo College. He can be reached at AC, the Amarillo Globe-News or firstname.lastname@example.org. Go to www.haynescolumn.blogspot.com for other recent columns.