[Editor's Note: Jacqueline Sheehan, of Florence, Massachusetts, is author of Truth, a novel based on the life of abolitionist Sojourner Truth (who also lived in Florence). She spoke to the Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association about the challenges of researching a 19th century black woman who didn't read or write, and about writing fiction rooted in real people and real events. She was inspired to write the novel after reading a column by local historian Allison Lockwood, published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette]
It was like skydiving with a rickety rig, to write about a black woman in the 1800s; I had to understand what the 1800s were like. I had to learn what people wore, especially what women wore. What they ate, what made them laugh, how they cursed. Most cursing has to do with body parts, bodily functions-but also one-upsmanship. Calling someone a bastard is referring to someone of limited parentage. Cursing in the 1800s had everything to do with class. A woman in the New York City area who really wanted to put some one down would call them a bivalve-because the poorest of the poor sold mussels on the street. You're the lowest of the low. Bottom-suckers (now bottom-feeder).
I spent five years researching this book. I don't know how authors who never visit where they write about can sleep at night. I went to museums, read other novels and diaries. Newspapers from the period were the best resources. The Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts-they give you a pencil and paper, you can't bring in a pen. I checked out a newspaper called The Sun. I needed to know how people spoke, how blacks were referred to in public discourse-which was pretty shocking-the current sentiment of the time. Sometimes not the most accurate, but it's going to give you a feel.
Your own library will have a collection of letters that have been donated. They were so much more eloquent than we are. They would close, "I remain in close harmony to your spirit, your loving brother." I waned it to be as historically accurate as I could; I could not be politically correct. But I wanted it to be fiction.
When I first started research, I did it in a traditional white European way. I looked for birth records in church records, bibles. I could not find them. A woman at the University of Massachusetts told me, you're looking in the wrong place-look at property. I had to look at property after the death of one of the slave owners: cider press, Negro girl weaned-and that was Sojourner.
I had before me two great historians, Nel Painter, the foremost Afro-American historian in the country right now, and Carlton Mabee. They had done all the grunt work.
I felt there were great books of history about this particular woman. But what was not there was letting the reader get as close as possible to a character. [So she wrote a book that] stays in first person to tell it as close to the bone as possible. Her mother constructed stories of each of their births. If you were a slave parent, you had to teach everything in the first five or six years, because after that, your children might be taken away.
My motivation was always her character. I only had to know what she could see from her eyes. I did not have to know the ins and outs of presidential campaigns, or other material that she and the people around her would not know. Her first language was Dutch. She did not speak English until she was 10. I could have gone so wrong if I had tried to create a black southern cadence. The Dutch really hung on to slavery, until 1827.
Most people are eager to share, but sometimes you get strange information and you have to filter it. There were people in Ulster County (NY) who were very dedicated to Sojourner. She and her owner admired parts of each other that had to do with physical strength and power. This woman asked me, "don't you think that she had an affair with that slave owner?" If someone owned somebody else, I would not call it an affair. Her thinking about what it means to own another person was not very evolved. I had to sift out some of her information.
There are two very different versions of Sojourner's "Ain't I a Woman" speech. She gave a version in Ohio, in 1851, it motivated and catalyzed. A reporter had it as "Aren't I a Woman," and it didn't have the kind of cadence that a white woman reported 10 or 12 years later, and that one, written from the white woman's memory, is the one that has come down to us. I have to be in her body having her speak those words. I went with something that felt it might have been more immediate that came out of her mouth. She dictated a book in 1850, but that is also filtered because she did not read or write. She would dictate letters, reporters would write about her. It was tricky, but it gave me a lot of freedom.
Advice to Historical Novelists
Use a flashlight technique. If you want to put us in the 1800s or 1930s, beam your flashlight on two or three things: language, clothing, a particular setting, real prices of the period. You don't have to do very much of it to set the tone. Period regional slang.
Jean Auel was spurred to create her entire series by reading a small clipping about an archeological find of a body in a cave in Russia that had been buried with flowers.
You can write the whole thing in period idiom-Toni Morrison does that very authentically. But if you want the language to disappear, you can use standard English and drop in an occasional reference. I'm still waiting for the phone call or e-mail from someone who catches an anachronism in the book. I'd thought hullabaloo was modern. But people in the 1800s used it to mean a big commotion, a big fuss.
As soon as you say the word novel, it's fiction. I have composite characters. There are things that may not have happened in her life-as soon as you say "I thought," "I felt"
A lot of what is presented as history is based on fiction.
There is one line in her narrative, where she is taken away at 9 years old and sold to a cruel master, "My war with John Neely had begun." I changed the language to avoid plagiarism, but I kept the feel. And I footnoted it in the back. I took great pains to point people to the historical sources.
Your own family, if you're looking for inspiration, is a great starting point. The stories you wanted to find out more about. When my parents were first married, in New Haven in the 1930s, they split up when he moved her and an infant in with his mother. So my mother lived for a year in a cottage in Southbury with no electricity or running water, until he changed his mind. I did write a book about that (so far, unpublished).
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