When I was approached to write for the historical fiction speculative anthology, Long Hidden, I spent the first two months wondering what I would write about. I charted key historical events and time periods from the 1500s to the early 1900s that I might be interested in writing about. I was able to narrow my choice down pretty quickly because a character revealed herself to me during the charting process. I decided to focus on the period of United States history known as The Great Migration, which spanned from about 1910 through the early 1970′s. It’s reported that some six million black Southerners migrated North and West during this time. With a protagonist and setting in mind, I set out to write the past.
I began my research by reading Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer prize winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. The 600+ page book focuses on the lives of three migrants who left the South for very different, but ultimately the same, reasons. Along the way Wilkerson expertly gives context to the stories of the three protagonists by juxtaposing them with lesser known migrant narratives, newspaper articles, census reports, lynching reports, the history of the towns they comes from and the cities they travel to, as well as the lives of more widely recognized migrants. Our three protagonists travel to the big cities of Harlem, Los Angeles, and Chicago to encounter loss and success in these new, big worlds. In the North, West and Midwest, they are country, backwards, unsure, poor and responsible for the family and friends waiting to join them. They learn the Jim Crow laws of these new regions quickly. While they were no longer in the South, the evils of racism and empire endured. Theirs wass an acute hunger—for work, for freedom, for education, for respect, and often, for food.
Because this year marks a migration in my own life, from New York to Los Angeles, and I’ve developed an interest in Western mythos, Western literature and the Black Western experience, the characters in my Long Hidden story migrate from various places in the South to Phoenix, Arizona. Once I finished Warmth of Other Suns, I sought out materials that were specific to the black American experience in Phoenix in the late 1800′s through the early 1900′s. I read census reports, and I read weather almanacs. I read old newspapers. The City of Phoenix published an African American Historic Property Survey that proved to be an invaluable resource to me. The survey chronicles the lives of blacks in Phoenix from 1868-1970. The first Phoenix migrants were just 3% of the population. They found community with other migrants and over time brought their families to Arizona. Phoenix’s very first Southern migrant arrived in 1863, a woman and domestic worker, Mary Green came to Phoenix with her white employer, Columbus Gray. Mary Green had her two children in tow.
In my story, “Nine” I write about Tanner and her family. Tanner owns a small colored-only motel in Phoenix, one of the only rest stops for black people traveling west during The Great Migration. Because Tanner is a small business owner, I had to think of her public and private needs, how she interacts as a public figure and behind closed doors. To make my story as full and historically accurate as possible given the speculative liberties I was allowed to take, I paid very close attention to details and researched every detail for exactitude. Was neon available in 1902? What about patent leather? What technologies in refrigeration existed? How much was a motel room? How much less was a motel room for colored people? What foods were available to my characters? What was their closest natural resource for water? How much was a newspaper? The average cost for a car? 98% of my research did not make it into my story, but I wouldn’t have been able to write the story without doing the research. I was able to generate ideas and think them through because I had background on my subjects. The speculative elements of my story were organic to the time and place because I did not try to force modern conventions, technologies or wants on them. My characters endure the trials of their time while their most interior selves are facing supernatural tests.
Research tends to be my favorite part of a project, and I will research at the expense of getting to the writing. Research is my favorite procrastination tool. I don’t want to under-research, but there also comes a point when you have to recognize that you’re putting the hard work off. For this reason, when it comes to writing the past, especially for a genre like the short story, as opposed to researching for a novel, consider limiting your research to 2-3 resources. Find a broader text that will give a condensed history of your time period and subject. Once you’ve narrowed your story down to place or place and industry, find another, more specific text. Keep notes, bookmark and highlight. Utilize the library— they often have hard to find first person narratives, newspapers and documentaries. Once you have a draft down, do a read specifically for modernity—have you written in anything that’s not of your specified time period? Unsure? Double check. Ask your writing partner or beta readers to check for modern elements in your draft. Be sure that you’re dialogue is of the time without being overwrought. Writing the past and the future is where I feel most at home, as opposed to writing contemporary, realistic fiction. Challenge yourself to choose new time periods, regions and industries for your characters as you write new stories. The past is as broad and alive and accessible to writers as the future.
All art for this post comes from Jacob Lawrence’s seminal work, The Great Migration Series. Lawrence painted the series between 1940-1941 at the age of 23. The complete series includes 60 panels. Jacob Lawrence lived and worked in Harlem.