I have finished my latest novel, Sloane, about a black man who continues to struggle amid his many triumphs. This man’s life is a storybook of many chapters. Each is filled with unexplained loss, conflict, secret visions that shelter hidden fears and love as it suits him. His tale begins with the back story; circumstances of birth that challenge his self-determination. This part of his narrative need not bind his hopes and possibilities. On the other hand, it could define him by the chains of ancestral struggles, unreliable memories and even myth. Like a river rushing to the sea, the back story is always chasing his present story. When they merge, the two flow together as one, the back story finding its place in the greater tale of this man’s life. Always, the clues to his survival are in the back story. If he ignores this part of his journey, he does so at his peril.
A new year is a new opportunity to begin, continue or complete your literary or creative project. Be it a novel, how-to-manual, poem, essay, sculpture, play, photo exhibit, short story, movie script, music project or a creation not seen before; begin today. Commit yourself.
Your time, energy and allotted resources have value. Use them appropriately and you will be rewarded with successful movement toward completion of your project.
Begin with a solid plan or continue with the plan you have developed. Next, commit to this plan, focus on each step of the plan, be disciplined in establishing and strengthening habits that only move you forward and persevere to completion.
Get moving. Time is on your side and will walk beside you if you give it respect. It will leave you behind if you disrespect its value.
As you record your family’s history, remember to tell the stories of the institutions that enriched your journey and how they affected your life. If you don’t provide the historical record of these institutions, then others may attempt to do so without complete and authentic information. For my people it was necessary for our survival to create institutions that eased our struggle for equal rights and forward movement.
Tell your story of the secondary schools that prepared students for their next level, whether it was the work-world or higher education. The HBCUs, many which continue to deliver superb performance, educated the majority of the black middle class.
There were culturally relevant newspapers such as The Miami Times, The Pittsburg Currier, The Amsterdam News and The Afro- American to name a few. There were magazines that chronicled our dreams-come-true There were radio stations that also kept our stories alive . These media connected and encouraged us while recording our hopes, triumphs and setbacks..
The religious institutions set boundaries for community-wide behavior, provided weekly respite for the work-weary, gave young people opportunities to enhance self-development and practice civil discourse. They also provided opportunities for leadership, with many of the pastors eventually becoming leaders in the Civil Rights Movement.
The small businesses that populated the neighborhoods provided lessons in entrepreneurship and fueled economic stability. Supporting these businesses were a host of other community groups, clubs and member-driven associations that provided investment, burial and loan opportunities,
The stories you record of these institutions provide an important written record of your family’s part in the history of our country.
Those of you who have been with me since the start of my literary journey will remember that Memphis, Tennessee is one of my favorite cities. In Friends to Die For one of the characters was from Memphis and the city plays a small part in my upcoming novel, Sloane.
I was in Memphis last weekend and was reminded why I’m so fond of this wonderful city.
I had a chance to have lunch at the Soul Fish Cafe on Poplar Avenue. It was a fabulous experience: great food, ambiance and of course, the service. The menu was expansive and the prices just fine. The great southern drink, sweet tea, flowed freely. I felt comfortable not having to make a reservation.
The cafe is the type of place made for a scene in a book. Patrons could enter from the front or side. Plate glass across the front permitted sufficient lighting to penetrate the restaurant. Every table was filled. There was no worry about dropping something on the concrete floor. The servers seemed like old friends. The sweet tea flowed constantly. Everything you expect to eat in a southern city along the Mississippi was on the menu, especially catfish (even catfish nuggets), collards, coleslaw, fries and other juicy treats.
I’d feel comfortable placing characters into this setting.
1. Don’t leave your readers wondering, say what you mean e.g. ‘Under the circumstances, he hesitated.’ What are the circumstances? Try this: ‘He’d exceeded his credit limit and didn’t want to apply for a loan, therefore he hesitated.’ We’ve added details.
Explaining what the circumstances are gives more information to the readers. This additional information leads them to wonder about the reasons he is in so much debt. Wondering about your character’s motives and seeking answers will keep them engaged and satisfy their curiosity. You’re drawing them deeper into the story.
2. Pump up your sentences with strong words.
His voice was low. Weak, not much action. It is a comment describing action.
He spoke in a low voice. This version is stronger, it demonstrates more action. It shows directly what he’s doing.
We were gathered together one last time. Weakish.
I gathered my family around me one last time. This sentence carries a sense of anticipation of an event that he feels is important to his family. It also carries a sense of finality. The reader wants to know why, thereby becoming more engaged.
If you’re thinking of creating a family history, don’t wait another day. Start where you are with what you have. You probably have more information available than you realize. Here are some resources you may already have: (1) Older relatives, (2) family friends, (3) school records, (4) birth certificates and death certificates, (5) funeral programs, (6) information on cemetery headstones, (7) old photos, (8) memories of what you think someone said to you, (9) real estate records, (10) employment documents, (11) year your family members joined the Great Migration.
Discovering your family’s past is empowering. It’s like opening the door on a mystery or solving a puzzle, while giving strength to your personal identity, which in turn strengthens the family bond. For African Americans it has even more value. Often the search slows down or stops when reaching back to the time of enslavement. There are ways, however to pierce this seemingly impenetrable curtain. Some of the southeastern states, mostly those that fought for the confederacy, have limited records, but some information e.g. Cheraw, SC. On this city’s website there is information regarding two large migrations of Blacks from the area; 1871 and 1900. In some of those states, the large plantations are still in the same family ownership after more than 150 + years; the Mississippi Delta is an example. Information can be found in the public library.
Just get started.
These are some of my favorite friends. They have taken me on many adventures, provided important information, corrected me when I made mistakes, comforted me in times of grief and just being all around companions whenever needed. Books will always support us.