setting characters in place

Humble soup for humble work. Atlanta has been iced in for days. Nothing has moved. Almost five million people in a city with ten snow plows. Add in arctic air that won't let up, and you've got a cozy space of time indoors in which to write, to contemplate, to stoke the fire, to rummage through the pantry and find cabbage, potatoes, onions, and a bit of cream with which to make a meal you can eat by the fire.

 You may remember that I had a full draft of book two of the sixties trilogy which was set in 1966 Mississippi. After meeting with my editor in June last year, I made the tough decision to ditch that draft completely (I will save it for another book, another day), and begin again, this time in 1964.

Even though I have written a picture book that takes place in 1964, I struggled with setting this novel in 1964 -- I had done so much research into 1966 and so loved that story. But I knew, in the way that you know when you meet your true love, that Freedom Summer was the perfect setting for book two. So, in service of my story, I traveled once again to Greenwood in August, this time for research, and walked the town, gathered what I could.

It took me four months to find a beginning I was happy with. I was on retreat, with other writers, upstairs, alone in my room with this story, when it came to me, like a gift. I worked all day and read out loud that evening -- I had two sketchy chapters -- and knew I was on to something. I had found my way in. What a relief.

What have I done since October? I have continued to research Freedom Summer and Greenwood in 1964. I have tried various ways forward with book two, but have met with dead ends. Still, I have saved everything I wrote because I know it may be useful later -- thousands of words, several different chapters.

I have put together an outline for the story. It follows the events of Freedom Summer. I have gathered to me the details that crop up in my everyday life (and that may seem totally unrelated) that I know will inform the story -- little acts of grace I stumble upon. These are so important -- a song, an overheard snippet, some conversation, the structure of a movie I watch, and more.

I ventured back to Greenwood, armed with questions, friends who knew more than I did, and much more knowledge about Freedom Summer and my main characters. There are three. Sunny, her older brother Gilette, and a boy I do not know yet, but have met. I'm not sure of his name yet. Raymond, I think. I'm trying it on and playing with the sound of it, the feel of it. I am anxious for Ray to talk to me. I am waiting. Every day I ask him if he's ready, and I coax him toward the page.
 And while I wait, I try putting my people in place. The trip to Greenwood helped so much with seeing how Sunny would get from home to the pool. Where would she live? What neighborhood? How would she get around? What streets would she use?

I needed to know that about Raymond as well. I visited possible neighborhoods for Ray -- and now I can see how he would get from home to downtown Greenwood. Now I need to know who his parents are, who is in his family? What does his father do? His mother? I want him to have a mother and father who live together and are raising their family together.
Because I'm writing historical fiction that centers around a real event -- Freedom Summer -- in a real town, Greenwood, Mississippi, I need an authentic place for Ray's father to work, for his mother to work, if she has a job... so much is unknown.

I think baseball plays a part in this book. I needed to see the ball fields and figure out how kids got around. Where were the churches, the drug stores, the places of employment, the courthouse (where so much action took place)... I need to place my characters in their day-to-day lives.

So that's what I've been up to while the snow has fallen and the ice has crusted on top of the snow so that all of Atlanta looks like it's coated with seven-minute frosting.

This morning I am laying down my pen and paper, though, and going to sunnier climes. We managed to get out of our neighborhood in the dark this morning, are sitting at the airport, and waiting to board a plane to Los Angeles.

No work at all... this trip is all play. My son Zach lives in Trabuco Canyon these days, and we are going to see him there. Three days of 70-degree weather and the good company of Zach and his friends. I've got my camera. We're staying here tonight. And here the next two days. It's a new adventure for us, and for Zach.

While I'm gone, I'll let Sunny and Gillette roam over Greenwood, and I'll let Ray alone so he can feel safe enough to peer around the corner of this story and begin to whisper to me. I hope he does.


  1. I have to confess I've written (and sold) a mid-grade historical fiction without ever visiting my location. I'm fascinated by your process here! Thank you for this glimpse.

  2. Caroline, I believe I suffer from the affliction of writing out of my life and not trusting that I can write from a place I don't know like the back of my hand. All my books are fiction but come from personal experience. This one will be different, so it's a first for me.I'm wading into unknown territory, and the way I'm doing that is by visiting... sort of making it mine as I go along. :> We'll see how it works!

    Congrats on your book!

  3. Hey, you're headed to my neck of the woods!

    That monastary is lovely, I'm told. It's high on my places to visit this fall/winter. Maybe now that the skies have cleared and the muddy earth is getting dry...

    Wishing you a sunny, love-soaked trip!

  4. It *is* lovely, Melodye. We had a wonderful time. Watch for photos in my next post! I loved that temps were in the 70s, and there was lots of sun -- I could see how the rain had wreaked havoc, though...

  5. I'm backtracking on your blog a little bit, but just wanted to say, I love how you share your writing process. Thanks for taking the time to unpack it; I just might have to share this post with my basic writers as we talk about forming their narratives.

  6. We have a snow day in Memphis, so I had a chance to read Countdown last night and all day today. I'm a middle and high school librarian who reads around 3 books a week in order to keep up with the latest in children's and YA fiction. Your Documentary Novel is fascinating and so well done. Last night, as I was starting it and perusing the opening photographs and primary source documents, I stopped and said to my husband, "Hey, this one's different. Take a look." He took the book and like me, stared at each page and caption, pausing and lingering as neither of us is wont to do over each one. Like me, he was immediately drawn into the time and place.
    I'd like to tell you more, if you'd like to hear, about what I thought about this novel, and how I journeyed carefully and slowly through it. 11-year old Franny seems so familiar--with her squareness, her need to be recognized and rewarded, her hand shooting upwards each time a teacher asks a question. I was born in 1961, so Franny is around 11 years older than me, but she's the real thing. You've done a beautiful job of evoking a time and place and people.
    Still looking for a place for your character in the next novel to work? Have you considered Sunflower Grocery in Greenwood or a nearby Delta town? Did you know that Sunflower Foods was (maybe still is) owned by a Jewish family, the Millers? Scott Miller is a dear friend of ours. I noticed Fannie, from Countdown was from Sunflower County, Mississippi, and wondered if the original plantation owners were Jewish. That would be a fascinating element to add to a novel about Freedom Summer, and one that doesn't get told much, I think.
    Anyway, I've never written an author about her work. I liked your book enormously. I'm going to recommend it to my book club--are you selling to adults much? I can't quite place my finger on your young audience: fifth grade? 8th grade? high school? It's almost like Richard Peck's The River Between Us or Laurie Anderson's Chains in that it's so intelligent and layered that it might struggle to find an age group.


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