Today I’m focusing on the importance of research as a historical fiction author. When I decided to write my series A Slave of the Shadows, it started from my interest in the antebellum era because many aspects of it were reflected in my childhood.
Though I’ve studied the antebellum era of US history thoroughly, I certainly don’t claim to know every detail and I strive to learn more each day. Over the years, I’ve visited many plantations and museums across America. I’ve found my visits to be informative and inspirational, but I derive most of the information for my stories from historical books, documents, and maps. Educating yourself by wading through a mass of records can be daunting, especially with so many gray areas and years where documents seem to contradict one another.
Before I started developing characters and plotting A Slave of the Shadows, I visited Charleston, South Carolina. It was at this point I began contemplating if my protagonist Willow would be a plausible main character against a background where the barbaric slave trade was a thriving business in the South. However, it was during this trip I learned of the valiant Grimké Sisters. These two white women were raised in Charleston during the height of the slave trade, and they openly protested cruelties they witnessed against blacks. As a result, they became advocates for abolition and women’s rights. Their bravery in taking a stand against injustice when females didn’t have a voice or position of power, ultimately inspired me to pursue my character development of Willow. This courageous account of the Grimké sisters affirmed my dream of painting Willow as I first envisioned her.
My goal in writing this series was to shine a unique light on a period of history where Southerners are generally perceived as abusive slave owners. This simply wasn’t the case because plenty of Southerners were poor, illiterate, and couldn’t even afford slaves. In truth, some owners unleashed unthinkable cruelties, but others worked to keep their slaves content, feeling a better profit would result. In the minority were the Grimke sisters and my own character Willow, disagreeing with the system altogether, despite being raised in a climate supporting its values.
From our vantage point, there is a danger in looking at the negative exploits of the past and generalizing the actions of its participants. It is essential when painting the portrait of an era to shed truth on the dynamic nature of all people involved. My job as a historical fiction writer is to depict a time period with unbiased accuracy and authenticity as much as possible based on documents and records. So, I must find a balance in weaving historical data into a tale while still intriguing and connecting with my readers. I love history, but I don’t want my audience to feel like they’re in a history class when they read one of my books or novellas. The beauty of being an author is the freedom to craft stories within a historical context that keeps people turning the pages. These are the stories I gravitate to myself, and I want to share the same experience with my audience.
I also feel it is my duty as a writer to honor and protect the truth of atrocities inflicted on enslaved people during the antebellum era. Many were stripped of their power in dehumanizing ways, but thankfully they rose from bondage to take a stand as more equal members of society. It is for this reason, investing time into historical research is so vital to the work I do as an author.