No More Books About Slavery

I’ve just finished my last books about slaves and slavery. Elysium, Book IV of the Plantation Series is now out, and in a few days, Orchid Island will be available too. And that’s it for me. I’ve written all I can about the injustice of racism and slavery.

In fact, Orchid Island was a step away in itself. I had been thinking and reading about happiness, and remembered Abraham Lincoln’s remark about most people being about as happy as they make up their minds to be.  And as I had one more book in me about slaves, I asked myself whether – and how – slaves could have been happy. I don’t mean odd moments of happiness or joy – I’m sure those moments came to them, too. But every-day, pretty pleased with the world happiness? What would that look like for a slave?

And that’s when Zeb and Livy wiggled into my head. They’re both slaves working the fields on a cane plantation. Zeb is more than cheerful – he is genuinely glad to be alive and sees no point on dwelling on the unpleasant fact of being enslaved since there is nothing to be done about it. Livy, on the other hand, is brittle with rage and frustration and lives for the day she can break free. Of course two such opposite personalities are drawn to each other – this is fiction, after all.

So I ended up with Orchid Island, a novel about slaves, not about slavery. The whites in the book are hardly more than tertiary characters, though Livy’s desire for freedom certainly circles back to the whites who control her and Zeb’s lives.

I don’t think the distinction between writing about slaves and about slavery is too fine. What I wanted to think about was how slaves had full, rich lives of integrity, dignity, hope and purpose regardless of being enslaved persons. Life is too big, too rich, to define a character like Zeb so that he is “only” a slave.

 

 

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Revolvers in 1867

It seems pistols in 1867 had no safety catches. Apparently, lots of guns still don’t. My source is the great and infallible internet, so it must be true.

I’m writing about Reconstruction days when the Knights of the White Camellias and the Ku Klux Klan were gearing up to commit mayhem. And crime. My heroine, Lily, a woman with no experience with firearms, is learning how to shoot a pistol because raiders have already besieged the house once and burned a cross in front of her house.

But. There are two little girls in the house. It’s not safe to walk around with a loaded gun. Lily is busy working around the farm and the house all day so that the gun could easily be bumped or fall out of her apron pocket and go off. I haven’t figured out a way for her to have a holster, but, really, now I think of it, I as master of that universe, can give her one. Well, that’s what revisions are for. (Maybe it magically appears in the mail like presents from Amazon.)

So I’m thinking, to be safe, she’ll leave chambers one and two of the revolver empty. That would mean she has to pull the trigger twice, nothing happening, before the revolver would put a bullet behind the hammer. So not until the third squeeze of the trigger would she have a bullet actually fire and kill the bad guy.

This morning, this is the writing process at work. Not thinking about plot, character development, motivation, historical accuracy (got that covered — no safety catches in 1867). Stuck on how the stupid revolver works instead. If I have it wrong, I hope to hear about it. Hopefully before I write the final draft.

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LEADING A DOUBLE LIFE, A SLAVE REBEL

I heard about Daniel Rasmussen’s book American Uprising, The Untold Story of America’s Largest Slave Revolt listening to NPR a couple of years ago. What a story! I did some more research and was still spellbound by the events of 1811.

In particular, I’m fascinated with Charles Deslondes, credited with being the prime conspirator. He was a mixed-blood slave driver, which meant he functioned much the same as an overseer on the cane plantation about forty miles north of New Orleans. His master, Manuel Andry, trusted him and gave him extra responsibility and extra privileges – because Deslondes had convinced his master and all the other slaves that he was the white man’s creature.

To have convincingly worn the mask of loyal slave while plotting to overthrow the white man’s rule took extraordinary grit and determination. The only people who knew what was coming were the few other slaves in on the plot. Necessarily the leaders organized the rebels into small cells so that no one knew more than a very few others who were involved.

Two other leaders in particular interest me. Quamana and Kook were Asante warriors from Ghana. They were captured in battle, enslaved, and shipped to Louisiana. But these were not ordinary slaves. They were young, but they were experienced, hardened soldiers who knew tactics and weapons and how to lead men.

I’ve stuck to the facts as I’ve discovered and understood them – mostly – in writing a fictionalized account of this slave rebellion. I do recommend Rasmussen’s book to readers who like their history straight, but I love fiction and readers who prefer to invest in characters and motivations as well as in events may find my new book, The Lion’s Teeth, as exciting as it was for me to write.

The Lion’s Teeth is available on Amazon in both print and digital formats.

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Blessed be and Mazel tov!

Saturday I’m taking gefilte fish to a pot-luck Seder. This year the moons, planets, and stars aligned so that Passover and Easter occur together. My church is holding a Seder with our Jewish friends and family to share those tenets we have in common and to celebrate each other’s faith.

Gefilte fish is meant to be served chilled, I gather. I have never had it, and I do not look forward to it. I was told to get the kind with jelly, not just a marinade. I’m sure it’s wonderful. Surely. Not everybody has had cracklins corn bread or chilled souse either…

When you consider all the yucky foods of the world, gefilte fish doesn’t seem so bad. Souse, for instance. Tongue. (A very fine Chinese restaurant I know serves duck tongues. My son ate them, right in front of me.) Raw oysters. Brussel sprouts. Gefilte fish starting to sound pretty good.

Most of all I’m interested in the music. Our choir has been going over the songs everyone will sing at the Seder. Wonderful stuff. And I’m keen to hear and see and experience the solemnity and joy of Passover with our friends.

Blessed be and Mazel tov!

 

 

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MAROONS: The runaway slaves who stayed put.

I’ve been reading about the maroons, the escaped slaves who didn’t try to go all the way north to a free state. Instead, they either fled into the countryside and formed their own little colony, or they hovered around the edges of plantations, hiding in the woods but coming in close to accept food from the slaves remaining on the place.

I didn’t realize how common these latter were, the so-called borderland maroons. By remaining on the edges of the plantations, they could see their loved ones now and then and receive clothes or food. In some instances, the white master knew his slaves were aiding and abetting the runaways, but they were hard to catch at it, and the runaways themselves were hard to catch. Well, some of them weren’t, and they were soon back in the quarters “where they belonged.” Others, though, managed to stay out for weeks, months, even years. Of course they had to be constantly vigilant – the country was full of slave catchers. And some of them were not very good at living on the land and would eventually stagger back onto the plantation emaciated and sick.

The ones who established a life for themselves hidden from the white world were the most successful maroons. Camps built in the swamps were the hardest to find, but in parts of the South, there were plenty of undeveloped, even unexplored forest areas to hide in.  Some of these camps grew quite large. Apparently some had scores of people and some even had a third generation growing up on the site. More often, sadly, small encampments of maroons were found after a few years and the captives enslaved again.

It was not practical to try to live completely independent of the greater world, so oftentimes maroons produced goods from cypress to trade in the cities as well as bringing in game and pelts. They mostly needed guns and shot and powder, not just for defense, but also for hunting. They needed metal-goods like knives, hoes, axes, saws, and shovels. And seed to sow. And textiles – clothes did not last long in the woods.

That they achieved the level of self-sufficiency they did is a measure of their resourcefulness, inventiveness, hardiness, determination, courage and grit.

And why did these capable people choose the maroon life rather than make a run for it to New Hampshire or Canada?

Because running was a little bit crazy. The odds were incredibly low that a runaway would get very far or survive the journey. There were slave patrols and scenting dogs on the trail. There were snakes and mosquitoes, gators, bears, panthers. Hunger, heat, cold. There were hue and cry notices in the papers alerting all the whites with an escapee’s description. Some made it, of course, and that is testament to great courage and maybe some luck thrown in.

The better bet was to join a group who had set up a camp deep in the woods or swamp. Their greatest fear may have been betrayal by one of their own for the rewards offered, but their vigilance against the white hunters had to be constant. Still a better life than slavery.

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LYNCHINGS: Another humbling history lesson

I recently read an article about ISIS and the beheadings and their burning of the Jordanian pilot. Then I read something about the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese in World War II. I thought how savage and brutal – how primitive. And how foreign. And a few pages over, I found an article titled History of Lynchings in the South Documents Nearly 4,000 Names (NY Times, 2/10/15, A11).

Four thousand? Four thousand! Of course I knew there had been lynchings. Lots of them. I thought maybe a couple of hundred. Good grief. Four thousand. How savage, brutal – and primitive. But not foreign. Here, right here at home.

The graph showed red dots, big and little, representing the number of lynchings all over the South from 1877 to 1950. I will show my near speechlessness with yet another repetitive exclamation. 1950?! I was born by 1950, so there were lynchings in my lifetime! And, like ISIS, white Americans did worse than lynch. Black men were subjected to castration, stabbing, beating, and being set afire.

As you might expect, most of the red dots were in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. I can’t grasp it. I have always been fascinated with evil, and in particular with how ordinary people can do evil and still believe themselves to be pretty good folks. I have read up on psychopathy, have read about the Nazi doctors and death camp commanders, about slavery, and still – I can’t see into it.

I want to see into it. I want to understand. I get it how an individual can do a dreadful thing once in a lifetime, or how an individual can be psychopathic and do lots of dreadful things. But how does a whole society agree to participate in atrocity? Sure I know the reasons given to some of the well-documented events (punitive damage payments after WWI contributed to the rise of Nazism, for example, racism and economic pressure in the South halted Reconstruction) but those facts only help explain on the intellectual level. On the visceral level, I cannot comprehend it.

And it has happened always and everywhere. No, not always. But it has happened over and over again all around the globe.  I really cannot comprehend how we can do this to each other.

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Reconstruction, so much better and so much worse than I knew.

To honor Black History Month:  I have now read two books about reconstruction (A Short History of Reconstruction by Eric Foner, and The Great New Orleans Kidnapping Case: Race, Law, and Justice in the Reconstruction Era, by Michael A. Ross), not enough to make me a scholar, but they have made me aware of how much I did not know.

First surprise for me was how really wonderful Reconstruction almost was. It’s heartbreaking to see how much progress was being made against great obstacles, and then for that progress to be squashed.

In the first years after the Civil War, black communities were filled with energy and determination. Foner writes that in 1860 over 90% of the South’s adult black population was illiterate, but they knew the importance of literacy. Some new black communities taxed themselves, poor as they were, to build schoolhouses and pay teachers. Some charged tuition but awarded scholarships to the poorest children. If they couldn’t build a schoolhouse, they held classes in abandoned warehouses, billiards rooms, even in former slave markets. (Foner, p.43)

Black communities “established orphanages, soup kitchens, employment agencies, and poor relief funds.” (Foner p. 42) Clearly ambition and enterprise and organizational and business skills were unleashed with the new opportunities.

In New Orleans newly freed slaves and already free blacks joined the police force to great effect. All over the South, blacks ran for local and state offices, and won. It must have been a giddy time for Southern blacks.

But Lincoln was killed and Andrew Johnson was sworn in as President. What a disaster. His earlier years as a politician had indicated Johnson was something of a populist. He was, after all, allied with Lincoln and had what we might now call liberal ideas. But some evil worm burrowed into his heart and another one into his brain, and he began to systematically dismantle Reconstruction.

Naturally Johnson did not do this by himself. Racism had been declared illegal under the Constitution  with the passage of the Civil Rights amendments. That didn’t, however, erase it from people’s minds. Economics was a big factor, too, since freeing the slaves tore up the economy and substituting some form of labor that favored the planters, for instance, seemed to many the only course to stabilizing the economy. Then the vote was restored to former rebels who proceeded to infect every state house as well as Congress with more and more obstacles to black’s establishing themselves financially or politically. It’s complicated, and I don’t have it all at my fingertips, but within a few years, the glory days of hope were smashed.

At this point, significant elements in our country are so enmeshed in racism that we have the need for Black Lives Matter movements. Ferguson. New York. St. Petersburg. Everywhere? The difficulties of being black in our country today are not subtle. And not uncomplicated, either.

One can’t help wondering, What if Lincoln had lived another 10 years?

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A White Woman Writing Black History

A reader has asked me by what lights should I, a white woman, be writing about Afro-Americans, slavery in particular.  Once I get all of the flip answers out of my system, what it comes down to is that people do not need to actually experience an injustice to feel its sting. Were there not white Freedom Riders during the 1960s Civil Rights movement? But I want to take the question seriously, so let me back up for a more personal accounting.

I’m a Southerner, born and bred, and I was a teenager and young adult in the 1960s. I remember segregation. Separate rest rooms, water fountains, buses, schools.

My parents were Southerners as were their parents back for many generations, but somehow my mother and father were not infected with racism. They had siblings who were certainly racist and proud to proclaim that fact, but not Mom and Dad. They also did not much mention the Civil Rights Movement nor Martin Luther King, Jr. We didn’t have meaningful discussions at our house; it was mostly, did you get your homework done kind of conversations.

Maybe it’s true that any young person not indoctrinated with hate will have a keen sense of justice. I hope so. At any rate, I remember walking down the sidewalk and realizing that my attempt to demonstrate fair-mindedness by nodding at or making eye-contact with black people was not welcome. And at it last occurred to me that for a black man to make eye-contact with a white girl on the sidewalk was foolish. Why should he risk trouble just to assuage my liberal conscience? And for black women — why would any black person bother with me? That was a humbling moment of attitude adjustment.

I write about slavery as a way to explore injustice, not because I have experienced racial prejudice. As a woman, I have certainly been stung by sexism, but that’s not the point here. I could write about poverty or ageism or sexism or homophobia or any of the many injustices that surround us. Certainly the sex trade of today is a howling injustice, but I know very little about it. I have not been touched by it. Racism, however, has touched me. I’ve seen it first-hand even if I have not been subjected to it myself, and I have been appalled. Most any Southerner my age could give you accounts of specific moments witnessing injustice, but I don’t want to talk about that right now. They are painful moments, and I’m trying to be in think mode, not feeling mode at the moment.

As a writer, I’m keen to explore what makes us human, and being hurt and oppressed, as well as being ugly and cruel, is also human. I want to know how it feels to be cruelly treated and yet endure, and I want to know what it feels like to be a person who could treat someone else cruelly. Writing is perhaps a way for me to exorcise feelings of guilt for being white in a racist society, but I believe it is more about examining humanity. We have done this to our fellows, and I want it understood. The way I find most satisfying and the way I am most able to share my thoughts is through imagination, fiction, and I believe that is how many readers enter the realm of not-me and come away with a deeper understanding of who they – and we — are.

I’ve written five books about African Americans and a few about other things. I may do one more, carrying my saga’s families into Reconstruction, or maybe I’ve said all I want to on the subject. But I do know that empathy is a powerful tool in countering any kind of injustice.

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Writing Description Readers Won’t Skip

You know how lots of times when you’re reading your eyes glaze over and you have no idea what the last paragraph was about? Odds are, the paragraph was descriptive. Either long-winded, or boring, or both.

My last post was about exceptionally good description. I gave examples from Flannery O’Connor, Dean Koontz, Louise Penny, Joanna Bourne, and others. All kinds of books represented. What distinguishes really good description from the humdrum?

First of all, you won’t be surprised, is to make up your own similes and metaphors. Clichés are deadly. I like them when I’m lazy, but they don’t win you any accolades, and they don’t help your readers see things clearly. Go back and revise the next go through.

Second, don’t tell your reader exactly what street your character is on unless it is truly, absolutely essential. I go bug-eyed trying to keep up with street names and cross street names and on and on. Stieg Larrson comes to mind with his set-in-Sweden books. Hated all those street names that meant nothing to me or to the story.

Same with landscape or weather – if the readers really need to know, then show them with action. For instance, the famous “It was a dark and stormy night,” is telling. Instead, show us:  Rebecca pulled her cloak tighter, trying to keep out the wind and the rain… or … Rebecca stumbled in the dark, her thin cloak useless against the rain and the wind.   Look at the verbs: pulled, to keep, stumbled. And you have a character for whom the dark and stormy night is important. So the reader will find it important and palatable, too.

Use your similes and metaphors sparingly. Make them sing, and you won’t need so many.

And how do you make them sing? The best description is not at first glance a simile or a metaphor. Again, look for ways to describe character or scene by using action, by showing, not telling.

Example: “She shook hands with her son at the airport when he left for Hong Kong.” From “The Duck Egg” by Molly Bruce Jacobs.    Look how much we know about that woman and her relationship to her son from that one sentence. The author could have told us all about how the mom was rather cold at heart, or so emotionally stunted she felt nothing, or her own mother had never… but she didn’t. She showed us an action – the hand shake with the added detail of the trip being all the way to Hong Kong – instead of telling.

Another rather long example, but it is too good not to share. This is from John D. MacDonald’s The Empty Copper Sea and exemplifies showing a state of mind, not the easiest thing to show, not tell:  a piece of newspaper has blown around his ankle as Travis walks along, thinking of Gretel, with whom he’s newly smitten. “I wadded it to walnut size and threw it some fifteen feet at a trash container. The swing lid of the trash container was open about an inch and a half. If it went in, I would live forever. It didn’t even touch the edges as it disappeared inside. I wished it was all a sound stage, that the orchestra was out of sight. I wished I was Gene Kelly. I wished I could dance.”  Look at the verbs. (I love that passage.) (Contrast: Travis was in love. … or … Travis’s heart sang with new love (ugh).)

So look for ways to show by having the character do something significant, like shake her son’s hand instead of hugging him. Look for brand new ways to compare familiar things. (Dashiell Hammett: “He went like that – like a fist when you open your hand.”)

You may think these wonderful descriptions just pop into a writer’s head. Sometimes they do, but lots of time, the writer sits there and ponders. Give yourself time to think, and time to revise, and time to think some more. You can do it.

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Favorite Bits From Other Writers

Now and then I jot down passages I especially like. Sometimes it’s a life-lesson sort of thing and sometimes it’s a description that catches me. Today I’m going to share some bits of description I admire.

From Joanna Bourne’s The Forbidden Rose:  “The child folded her giggle up inside herself and enjoyed it there.”

From J. D. Robb’s Survivor in Death: “…rage spitting into his throat, the burn scorching the rim of his heart.”

From Jonathan Kellerman’s Silent Partner: “…fade like breath on a razor mirror.”

From Louise Penny’s A Fatal Grace: “wearing a sweater made of either cashmere or kittens.”

From Dean Koontz’s Forever Odd:  “… faint thrum of wings as bats fished the air for moths.”

From Sue Monk Kidd’s The Mermaid Chair: “… the egrets lifting out of the marsh carrying the light on their backs.”

From Flannery O’Connor’s “Good Country People”:  “She looked at nice young men as if she could smell their stupidity.”

From Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, quoting Fred Hoyle:  “…a stunning improbability – like a whirlwind spinning through a junkyard and leaving behind a fully assembled jumbo jet.”

Aren’t these wonderful?

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