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Historical Fiction in the Making, a guest post by Rita Williams-Garcia

If you told me thirty years ago I’d be writing historical novels, I would have said you were crazy or mistaken.  Back in the 70s and 80s, you could count the number of YA novels on one hand with an African-American female lead.   I found myself in a jam when I needed a book to work with a group of high school girls I was mentoring for my sorority’s literacy program. I ended up using my homework for my master class with author/screenwriter Richard Price.

My mentees’ engagement with my pages told me I was sitting on a gold mine.  Don’t write about the past.  Keep it current. Keep it real.  Imagine my surprise and utter frustration after college when my gold mine of a manuscript didn’t pan out right away.  But at last, some seven years later, I sold the manuscript, titled BLUE TIGHTS.  I had soon after, met with a cluster of teenage girls at a public library in Long Island. They were eager to give their testimonies of being objectified by boys or men old enough to be their fathers and how important it was for them to read a novel about another girl navigating their world.  The girls made me promise to never write about what happened way back in time.  They didn’t have to make me promise.  I was there.

Who knew I’d break my word?  Fast forward some twenty years, and ONE CRAZY SUMMER, my most successful novel, is set in 1968.  Leap forward another ten years and I’m anticipating the release of A SITTING IN ST. JAMES, my historical—what? Yes, my historical novel set mainly in 1860, predicated upon what happened in the 17th century, and then the French and Haitian Revolutions. If I was going to break my resolve, I might as well go for broke.  But did I really break my word to my readers?  I’ve always known that I couldn’t talk about the issues of today without understanding how we got here.  There’s no better way to connect the dots between the past and the present than through historical fiction.

Every novel relies on some research.  A historical novel isn’t reliable without research and A SITTING IN ST. JAMES, demanded total immersion.  I came to this story as a complete outsider.  I was neither white, nor of French descent, nor Louisiana Creole.  To gain the confidence of my readers, I took a year off from writing to do nothing but research: dig, read, uncover, and lastly, vet!  Instead of researching while I wrote, I used the writing hiatus to hunker down in specific subjects: French Revolution, Haitian Revolution, Louisiana history, Louisiana Creole culture and language, sugar cane planting and production, West Point history and culture, mid-19th century portrait painting, among other subjects.

I filled up on mid-nineteenth century literature, to include French, Louisiana Creole and American readings.  I combed through archives of narratives of survivors of slavery for testimonies of freed people from Louisiana.  One gem I found helpful was a collection of Caribbean and Louisiana Creole proverbs from LacFadio Hearn’s GOMBO ZH’BES (green gumbo).  I could see the smirks, the humor, and attitudes of the people. I got a taste of their lives and daily concerns. 

That deep dive into the particulars not only gave my storytelling foundation, it showed me how my plotting could work with the details that I collected.  Here’s a small but important example:  Byron’s West Point lover would travel down to St. James from New York to spend summer furlough with him.  With the open architecture of a typical Creole styled plantation house, the two would never be quite alone.  Enters, research!  On a well-to-do Creole plantation, boys in their teens moved into their own separate apartment near the main house.   This solved the privacy issue. 

Visits to the plantations were invaluable.  At times I had to split myself into two: the empirical fact-gatherer on a mission to know how things worked; and the descendant of enslaved people who witnessed the cruel treatment of her ancestors.  I needed both to write the story, but at some point, the descendant had to step back and let the fact-gatherer get the details that she would later string into meaningful prose.

I spent hours pouring over photographs from the Internet and in books.  One of my favorites was of a woman’s salon—the room where she not only slept, and did her toilette (clean, groom& dress) , but also entertained company.  This one photograph practically painted Madame and laid out how she spent her days.  I mentally collected pieces to place in the salon for the novel.  A footstool near the bed, mosquito netting, a vanity, religious iconography, a hand carved trundle bed, and the rose Queen Anne chair.  One look at a prie dieu (a personal prayer bench) told me instantly that Thisbe, Madame’s personal servant would always knelt in Madame’s stead.

I’m not going to lie.  It was a lot!  When I needed a break from the words, I’d switch media and get crafty.  Scrapbooking a novel or making character sketches as collages can be therapeutic.  Collages let me see vital threads and themes through images when I step away from the writing.  Fun fact: Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong—a scrapbooking collage artist.  

Although the story follows the life of Madame Sylvie, the story’s timeline begins way before her birth, and extends beyond her lifetime.  I drafted historical and personal timelines to keep things in order and to help me avoid anachronism.  Timelines are neat!  They gave me insights into what my characters were aware of, and they kept me factually honest. 

Who would have thought a “keep it current” and a never “way back in time” writer would be seduced by the lure of history? You know you’re in deep when you continue to dig, long after you’ve answered your research questions.

Meet the author

Photo credit: Ferdinand Leyro

Rita Williams-Garcia’s Newbery Honor Book, One Crazy Summer, was a winner of the Coretta Scott King Author Award, a National Book Award finalist, the recipient of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and a New York Times bestseller. The two sequels, P.S. Be Eleven and Gone Crazy in Alabama, were both Coretta Scott King Author Award winners and ALA Notable Children’s Books. Her novel Clayton Byrd Goes Underground was a National Book Award finalist and winner of the NAACP Image Award for Youth/Teen Literature. Rita is also the author of five other distinguished novels for young adults: Jumped, a National Book Award finalist; No Laughter HereEvery Time a Rainbow Dies (a Publishers Weekly Best Children’s Book), Fast Talk on a Slow Track (all ALA Best Books for Young Adults); and Blue Tights. Her latest book is A Sitting in St. James. Rita Williams-Garcia lives in Jamaica, New York, with her husband and has two adult daughters. You can visit her online at www.ritawg.com.

About A Sitting in St. James

A tour-de-force from three-time National Book Award finalist Rita Williams-Garcia, this story of an antebellum plantation—and the enduring legacies of slavery upon every person who lives there—is essential reading for both teens and adults grappling with the long history of American racism.

1860, Louisiana. After serving as mistress of Le Petit Cottage for more than six decades, Madame Sylvie Guilbert has decided, in spite of her family’s objections, to sit for a portrait.

While Madame plots her last hurrah, stories that span generations—from the big house to out in the fields—of routine horrors, secrets buried as deep as the family fortune, and the tangled bonds of descendants and enslaved.

This astonishing novel from award-winning author Rita Williams-Garcia about the interwoven lives of those bound to a plantation in antebellum America is an epic masterwork—empathetic, brutal, and entirely human.

ISBN-13: 9780062367297
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 05/25/2021
Age Range: 16+

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