I could be the poster child for how hard it is to learn the art and craft of fiction writing. It requires not only reading good fiction to see how certain things are done well but also lots of study and practice.
My first blog every month is traditionally about some of the books I read the month before. Usually, I’ve read five or more novels and I’m eager to write about them; however, in August I concentrated on reading books about the art and craft of writing fiction.
Not being able to afford to take the best writing courses in August, I prioritized the books I needed to read to bone up on such things as characterization and emotion in fiction. Between the books I had purchased through the years (most of them used books or inexpensive e-books) and the books I could borrow from the public library, I identified 18 books and two workbooks I wanted to work through before I attempt to finish polishing the historical novel I’m writing.
In August, I read the following books about the art and craft of writing:
Making It in Historical Fiction, by Libbie Hawker;
Writing Deep Point of View, by Rayne Hall;
Writing the Intimate Character: Create Unique, Compelling Characters Through Mastery of Point of View, by Jordan Rosenfeld; and
The Plot Thickens: 8 Ways to Bring Fiction to Life, by Noah Lukeman (pertinent chapters);
Also, I’m about 50% through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D. I’m working through a few pages each day and doing the many writing exercises provided. It has helped me immensely in rewriting and expanding my characters’ biographical sketches.
There are also many free resources online. There are bloggers with much more writing experience than I who give wonderful tips and advice. There are free online interviews with authors. Check the websites of independent bookstores for scheduled author events. Some are in person, but most seem to still be virtual.
I hope virtual author events will continue after the pandemic. They’re a wonderful way for readers and aspiring writers to get to hear authors. Many of us wouldn’t get to hear them otherwise. At least one good thing has come out of the pandemic!
Once in a while an excellent opportunity comes along that doesn’t cost an arm and a leg. Such was the six-hour “Writing from the Heart” free webinar I got to watch several weeks ago. (See my August 9, 2021 blog post, 2 Environment- and History-Related Booksto find out some of the topics covered by that webinar.)
Online course: “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel”
In light of the critique the first 50 pages of my novel manuscript received in July (See my July 26, 2021 blog post, How My First 50 Pages Stood up for Critique), I needed to take C.S. Lakin’s online writing course, “8 Weeks to Writing a Commercially Successful Novel.” I must have read the course description a dozen times, but I couldn’t afford to take it.
Then, out of the blue, on August 4, Ms. Lakin offered a $200 discount on the course. That discount made all the difference in the world. I registered for the course, which starts today!
I’m excited about the skills I will learn in the next eight weeks. I’ll keep you posted. Today’s lesson is about high moment and character change.
Since my last blog post
In addition to the writing books I listed above, in August I read Seven Things That Steal Your Joy: Overcoming the Obstacles to Your Happiness, by Joyce Meyer. It not only helped me with my personal life, it gave insight into the inner conflicts some of my characters struggle with.
Until my next blog post
I hope you have one or more good books to read. Thanks to my cousin, Jerome Williams, I’m reading Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear.
There are many sources of conflict and concern in our world. Let’s all try to find something to be thankful for and joyful about every day.
Today’s blog post is the last in a three-part series about some of the things I learned by reading How the Word is Passed, by Clint Smith. At the end of today’s post, I’ll include links to the other two.
Today I share with you some of the things I learned about Galveston Island, Gorée Island, and the Epilogue in the book.
There was just too much information in this book to give it appropriate time in one or two blog posts. Needless to say, I highly recommend the book. I’m just hitting the high points in my blog posts.
I did a double take when I read the following words at the beginning of the chapter about Galveston Island: “The long-held myth goes that on June 19, 1865, Union general Gordon Granger stood on the balcony of Ashton Villa in Galveston, Texas and read the order that announced the end of slavery.”
So soon after Juneteenth 2021, I couldn’t get past the word “myth.” What in the world could Mr. Smith mean by calling this a myth?
After rereading the opening sentence to make sure I hadn’t misread it, I had to keep reading. My curiosity had been piqued.
Mr. Smith continued with the following: “Though no contemporaneous evidence exists to specifically support the claim, the story of General Granger reading from the balcony embedded itself into local folklore…. It is an annual moment that has taken a myth and turned it into a tradition.”
I read on for several pages before I had a clue why Mr. Smith was calling any part of the Juneteenth celebration a myth. What I learned was something I’d never heard, and we’d do well to learn about the aftermath of June 19, 1865 in Texas.
Now that I have your attention, you’ll need to read Mr. Smith’s book to learn the rest of the story. I don’t want to steal all Mr. Smith’s thunder in my blog post.
Gorée Island is off the coast of Senegal on the west coast of Africa. The native translator who accompanied Clint Smith to the island admitted he felt guilty for never having visited the Slave House. He explained his confliction over realizing that if his ancestors had been captured and taken to the United States as slaves, he would be an American. His ancestors weren’t captured. It gave him a confused feeling.
Over the centuries, Gorée Island was colonized and renamed by a variety of European countries. It was important in the slave trade from the 1500s until 1848 when France abolished slavery in its colonies.
The author just wanted to see where the Slave House was. He didn’t want the full tour, but that’s what he got. He was shown two tiny rooms where African captives were held while waiting to be shipped to America. There was a room that was more like a dungeon where captives who were rebellious were supposedly kept. Mr. Smith was reminded of the Red Hat cell block he’d seen at Angola Prison.
The Slave House has become a symbol of slavery. Bonbarer Joseph Ndiaye, the curator of the facility from 1962 until 2009, came up with the concept of the Door of No Return. I remember seeing pictures of the Door of No Return, but I didn’t remember the name of the island where it was.
The Door of No Return is the focal point at the Slave House. It is presented as the door through which the captives being held inside the Slave House passed just before being loaded on slave ships bound for the United States.
Since Gorée Island is the only chapter in Mr. Smith’s book set in Africa, he addressed the African end of the slave trade. I learned more than I had known about that. Based on what Mr. Smith was told by Eloi Coly, the curator and site manager of the Slave House at the time of the author’s visit, I learned why some African tribal chiefs decided to capture other Africans and use them as currency for what they wanted from the Europeans and Americans. I invite you to read Mr. Smith’s book if you want to learn more about that.
I found it interesting that Mr. Smith found parallels between Senegal and the United States. Just as towns in the U.S. are struggling to change street names from Confederate generals’ names to more appropriate names, in Dakar, Senegal, there is a move afoot to replace the names of streets bearing French colonial names to the names of African heroes.
And just as there is conflict over the removal of Confederate statues in the U.S., in Senegal there is a statue in the ancient capital of Governor Louis Faidherbe, but being an independent country since 1960, perhaps it’s time to take down statues of people associated with colonialism.
Mr. Smith talked to the history teacher at a boarding school for girls on Gorée Island to get his perspective about teaching about slavery in a school in Africa. They also discussed reparations. The teacher has some interesting things to say on that topic.
In the Epilogue, Mr. Smith wrote about how talking to his grandparents born in 1930 (if memory serves me right) and 1939 and hearing their stories as an adult made racial injustice and segregation real to him in a way that textbooks and old black-and-white photographs could not. His grandfather’s grandfather was a slave.
Mr. Smith expressed how jolting it is to realize how recently, in the big scheme of things, slavery was and school segregation was. He is 33 years old. I’m 68 years old. I was in the seventh grade when the schools in my county in North Carolina were optionally desegregated. At the end of that school year, the Black school was closed.
When Mr. Smith wrote his grandmother’s memories of the white children riding by them as they waited for their bus to the Black school, I was right there in my memories. When she told him the white children would throw things at them and hurl racial insults at them through the school bus windows, I was right back on my school bus on Peach Orchard Road at present-day John Bostar Road in the early- to mid-1960s.
I didn’t throw anything and I didn’t yell out the bus window because I was raised better than that. But there were white students on my bus who did those things, and I remember being embarrassed at the time because I knew it was wrong. I can remember it clearly nearly 60 years later, and I wasn’t even one of the victims.
Like Mr. Smith said in his Epilogue of the people who shouted insults in Little Rock and the people who threw things at his grandmother who was born in 1939, some of them are still alive. Likewise, the people on my school bus back in the 1960s and the children they called “the N word” out the bus window are also still alive. It wasn’t that long ago.
Since my last blog post
I keep studying books about the art and craft of writing. I’m working my way through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional & Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon, Ph.D.
This blog series about How the Word is Passed has created some good discussion. Every comment is appreciated. I hope you’ve gained some new insight into how we present our history in the United States. The book has reminded me that things aren’t always as they seem. Anything we read – even in history books – should prompt us to look deeper into the sources of information. Always search for the truth.
A case in point: The story from history that I originally based the ending of my historical novel on turned out to be a myth. Not wanting to perpetuate a lie, I had to drastically rewrite my book – and that process continues.
I hope you have a good book to read and a hobby to enjoy.
Note: September starts on Wednesday. It is Library Card Sign Up Month, Be Kind to Editors and Writers Month, National Literacy Month, and Read a New Book Month. Wow! Lots of literature-related things to celebrate in September!
You do know that library cards from your local public library in the United States are free, don’t you? That free library card can open up a whole new world to you. All you have to do is ask for it. Maybe the best things in life are free!
My skill doesn’t lie in reviewing books. Most of the books I read, however, do make me think. Many of them prompt me to question the way I’ve seen the world all my life. To my mind, that’s a sign of a great book.
I promised myself to lighten up on my reading in July. In a way, I did. I didn’t read as many books as I usually do in a month’s time. I didn’t lighten up on the content of what I read. The books I read in July were all “heavy” in topic and were not the kind of books you want to read while on vacation at the beach or in the mountains. At least, I don’t. Since I wasn’t going anywhere in July, these books suited me just fine.
Three of the books I read in July had to do with race. I read a book about the caste system in America, and I read a book about the Confederate monuments and how they’ve brought out the worst in some of us. (See my August 2, 2021 blog post, _2 Books about Racial Injustice.)
I read a book about how various venues present either an honest or a skewed image of the history of Black Americans and how many white Americans treated or interacted with them. All three books were thought-provoking to say the least.
How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith
What a book! I found myself taking copious notes, which slowed down my reading considerably. There were so many little gems of insight in the book, I couldn’t stop taking notes.
The author allotted individual chapters to how the story of slavery is told at Monticello Plantation, the Whitney Plantation, Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, Galveston Island, New York City, and Gorée Island.
Before starting to read the book, I didn’t know how it was organized. The way each chapter was written about how the story of slavery is told at these various locations was powerful.
Today’s blog post will cover some of the things I learned about Monticello Plantation and the Whitney Plantation. I’ll save Angola Prison, Blandford Cemetery, and New York City for my next blog post. Galveston Island, Goree Island, and the Epilogue will highlighted in my August 29, 2021 blog post.
Tours available and displays at Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, have changed dramatically since the house and grounds were opened for tours in 1923. In the beginning, the tour guides were Black men dressed as house slaves. They had to play a role. Today, tour guides do their own research, plan their remarks, and shadow other guides. There are several tours. One is about slavery on the plantation.
The author was struck by the fact that his tour guide referred to Jefferson’s slaves as “human beings.” To say Jefferson gifted his children and grandchildren with human beings doesn’t sound as palatable to our ears as saying he gifted them with slaves. The tour guide went out of his way to impress upon visitors that the slaves were human beings.
Although Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence (“all men are created equal”), he owned 400 or so slaves over his lifetime and even until death. He wrote eloquently about equality but, as a politician, could not speak out against slavery. When it got down to it, Jefferson didn’t consider his slaves as being human beings.
That leads us to the matter of his relationship with Sally Hemings. There is now a Sally Hemings Exhibit at Monticello. It has received a range of reactions from visitors. I suppose I knew this at one time but I’d forgotten that Sally Hemings and Jefferson’s wife, Martha, were half-sisters.
The Whitney Plantation
I hadn’t heard of the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, an hour west of New Orleans. It’s off the beaten path and not the kind of place one just happens upon and decides to visit. How is the story of slavery told (or, the word passed) at Whitney Plantation? In a rather shocking way.
There are 55 ceramic dark heads of black men on metal stakes.
In 1804, slaves in Haiti rebelled and defeated the French. They founded the first “Black-led republic in the world.” After this defeat, Napoleon Bonaparte sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States (while Thomas Jefferson was president) for $15 million (= four cents per acre.) If not for the success of the revolt in Haiti, Napoleon probably wouldn’t have sold Louisiana to the United States!
In 1811, there was a slave uprising in Louisiana. Within 48 hours the armed (knives, machetes, muskets) rebellion was put down. It had been led by a mixed-race slave driver, Charles Deslondes. He was captured and to say they made an example of him would be a gross understatement. To quote from the book, “His hands were chopped off, the bones of his legs were shattered with bullets, and he was burned over a bale of hay. Many of the rebels were slaughtered on-site, their heads cut off and posted on stakes that lined the levee, a warning to other enslaved people that this was the price to pay for rebellion.”
How is it that I’ve never heard or read about this?
John Cummings purchased Whitney Plantation in 1999 and invested almost $10 million in it over the next 20 years. He donated it in 2019. It is now a non-profit.
There is high poverty in the area, which is 90% Black. The area is known as “Cancer Alley” due to the high incidence of cancer caused by the petroleum plants nearby. As quoted in the book, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II said of the area, “ʻThe same land that held people captive through slavery is now holding people captive through this environmental injustice and devastation.”
At Whitney, they utilize the late-1930s Federal Writers’ Project to help them tell the stories of slaves using their own words. According to the book, “The voices and stories of enslaved people are the foundation of how visitors experience the Whitney.” The author’s point about this was that through the Federal Writers’ Project, former slaves got to tell their stories in their own words. The author theorizes that by allowing such former slaves as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to tell their stories, they consciously not only denied most average or common slaves (the ones who did not escape) the chance to tell their stories but also thereby made sure those slaves who did not escape would be looked down upon as not trying “hard enough.”
This is part of the insidiousness of white supremacy – to shine a light on the exceptions and place “blame on those who cannot, in the most brutal circumstances, attain superhuman heights. It does this instead of blaming the system, the people who built it, the people who maintained it.”
There is a Wall of Honor at Whitney with the names, country of origin, and date or year of slaves at the plantation.
Sexual violence is also addressed at Whitney. The rape of female slaves by white owners was about power. The owners knew the female slaves were powerless to refuse their advances. To really understand slavery, the sexual violence against women must be included in the equation.
The trade in slaves’ bodies is also addressed in this chapter. Medical schools like Harvard, and the Universities of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia often bought Black corpses on the black market for research.
Did you know all this about Whitney Plantation? I didn’t. And to think, I considered skipping that chapter because I’d never heard of that plantation!
Since my last blog post
I had a rollercoaster week with my novel. In studying point-of-view, I wrestled with which one to use. In my draft of the novel, I was apparently head jumping as I changed the story’s point-of-view character occasionally at scene or chapter breaks. I thought that was acceptable, but not when you’re writing in third person intimate.
I considered rewriting the book in first-person, but that would be a real challenge for several reasons. I spent hours studying various points-of-view and the rules governing each. I find these rules maddening. I took a walk to clear my brain overload because I thought some fresh air and exercise would result in mental clarity. Then, I took a second walk. Sometimes this works, but sometimes it doesn’t. I went back through my manuscript scene-by-scene and determined how every scene could be changed into Sarah’s point-of-view or which parts could be modified to be part of the trial. I concluded third person intimate is still going to work best for this novel.
In the process of digging deeper into point-of-view, I stumbled upon several articles and YouTube videos about the Rashomon Effect. I realized I’m already using it in my trial scenes, and now I know what it’s called.
On Tuesday evening I watched and listened to an interview with author James Tate Hill. Mr. Hill lost his vision as a teen. In addition to his just-released memoir, Blind Man’s Bluff, Mr.Hill has written a novel, Academy Gothic, which was awarded the Nilsen Literary Prize for a First Novel. It always gives my writing a boost to hear an author speak or be interviewed. This interview was online and was hosted by Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC.
I’m slowly working my way through Breathing Life into Your Characters: How to Give Your Characters Emotional and Psychological Depth, by Rachel Ballon. I purchased it years ago and should have read it and taken it to heart then. I’m glad I rediscovered it. It’s really putting me through the paces and will help my writing on many levels. It has a 4.5 out of 5 stars rating on Amazon. I don’t know why it doesn’t have a 5 out of 5.
Until my next blog post
If you can get your hands on a copy of How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, by Clint Smith this week, please do so. I can’t imagine you will regret reading it.
I hope you have How the Word is Passed or another good book to read.