"I've asked myself the same thing with each of my books. I do a lot of primary research into materials produced during the period that I'm writing about. Sense of place is equally important to me. This gives me a flavor of the times. Since most of my books involve African and African American history, I read the WPA slave narratives from the states where my stories take place, particularly Missouri and North and South Carolina. These formerly enslaved persons' narratives told their memories to mostly white writers primarily during the 1930s. These folks lived and died, by now, well over a hundred years or more before my time. Their white interviewers may have reinterpreted some of what those old folks told them, of course. When I read, "Slavery was good to me and I were better off being a slave than I is now," I must remember that the conversations took place during the Depression. In addition, some of those old Black folks were very guarded and protective in their responses because they were talking to members of the same race that had had total control over their lives and, in many respects, still did.
I have a racial memory, long memory. I know about racism and prejudice, successes and failures in every day living because I still have to deal with racism and prejudice, enjoying the roses despite the thorns, so to speak. I've never been physically whipped or had my children sold away from me, but that's where the primary research comes in. From it I can get printed descriptions about the physical treatment African Americans received. Internally I can certainly imagine the anger, the degradation, humiliation, helplessness, and sense of loss. I know what's happened to me.
I can get printed accounts of the enslaved or sharecropper family's activities during holidays and celebrations at the Big House. But unlike some writers outside (and a few within) my culture, I remember always that these folks were human beings whose happiness, joy, hope, etc. during these times were despite slavery. They had these positive feelings of "good times" despite slavery, and that's what makes my stories authentic.
Physical primary source material includes old newspapers, old history books, courthouse papers, wills and deeds of the times, and I study photos, paintings, drawings, and read the novels of the times. I can glean bits of concrete information from those old books, which include descriptions of place and culture as the writer back then saw it around him or her. I read "secondary" source material—often scholarly material written more recently about the time—but I have to be careful with that because sometimes it's revisionist. The authors didn't experience firsthand what they were writing about, either, so this material is through those authors' life experiences and interpretations, and not objective."
***The Inkpot is going on end-of-year hiatus after this week. Check back in early 2014 for more from the MFAC community.