The last time you enjoyed a novel I bet you didn't stop to think if the author deliberated over what point of view to use, if she worried over the scene sequence, or if she wondered about just how much dialect to include. My guess is that you didn't question why the author gave the protagonist a dog rather than a cat as a pet and you didn't stop to wonder why the author included what the antagonist ate for dinner one night or what type of car her father drove. If the novel was written well, then you didn't stop to think about any of these questions because the book was seamless. The story flowed and you allowed yourself to be carried along with the current.
I'm on the opposite end of that process. I'm trolling about for the pieces that will fit together to create my story. I'm sitting down at a blank screen with thoughts sparking in my brain but not a clear idea of how they will come together. As a nonfiction writer, I feel more comfortable describing the intricate process of making a glass paperweight then imagining the conversation between my characters. Fiction feels a lot like I'm jumping off a cliff and I'm not exactly sure where I'll land. It is, as I wrote to my friend, Joyce Hostetter, writing into the unknown.
But as I explore Charlotte in 1950, the setting for my middle grade fiction, I'm meeting and talking to wonderful people who willingly share their stories. Already I have talked with several women who were pictured on the cover of LIFE magazine in July of 1951. One woman asked me why I was writing this book and wondered if it wouldn't be easier to write about something I already knew. I laughed, agreed, and said, But this is so much fun!" I paused and then added, "And I'm learning a lot too.
I find that as I tackle this project I need "real" prompts to weave together my story. I refer to several Norman Rockwell books of illustrations. My newspaper clippings file of Charlotte's history grows. I watch TV documentaries and plan to scour the public library to uncover what was newsworthy in the south in the summer of 1950. I'm looking forward to interviewing Charles Jones, one of the individuals who led 200 people to protest segregation in Charlotte in 1960. Each person I speak to adds another dimension to my story; each article another tidbit. With their voices in my head, their words recorded in my laptop, their pictures staring at me from books, I feel more equipped--but ultimately, when I sit down to write, I'm still writing into the unknown.
Joyce Hostetter, writing fiction, Norman Rockwell, Charles Jones, Charlotte segregation
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