A lot of people are curious about how I came up with the dialect the slaves speak in The Planter's Daughter. Well, let me tell you a little story.
As I set out to write The Planter’s Daughter, an antebellum novel set on a Texas cotton plantation in 1859, I took great care in researching the setting, the time period, and the events that unfold throughout the story. Even though I’ve lived in Texas for more than thirty years, there was much I didn’t know about the Lone Star State’s history after the Alamo and prior to the Civil War. For instance, I was surprised to learn how many plantations existed during that time period, with some like Liendo Plantation still standing today. Although cotton wasn’t king in Texas just yet, it was a money-making crop for many planters. And as we all know, slave labor was key.
With that in mind, I was especially concerned with accuracy when it came to telling the slaves’ accounts. Their stories, I felt, needed special attention in order for readers to truly see slavery on a Texas plantation. I didn’t want to simply use generalities about slavery in the south. That’s when I discovered a book titled I Was Born in Slavery: Personal Accounts of Slavery in Texas.
In 1936, with the Great Depression raging, the government established the Federal Writers’ Project, with one notable project being the Slave Narrative Collection. Out-of-work writers were dispatched across the South to interview former slaves, all of whom were by then in their 80s, 90s, and 100s. Over 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 black-and-white photographs were documented and are now archived in the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Some of the stories have found their way into print, like those in I Was Born in Slavery.
The writers/interviewers took great care to preserve the former slaves’ idiom, feeling it was as important to preserve the subject’s manner of speech as it was to preserve what they said. I used that dialect when writing dialog. Some of the former slaves' speech was especially heavy with the dialect, and others weren't. I chose to find a balance between the two, because the dialect can make for hard reading, as in Uncle Tom's Cabin, the 1852 book that is credited as being one of the catalysts of the Civil War.
While writing my book, I chose two slaves in particular to speak with a heavier dialect: Moses and Mammy. Their usage of words like "dem" and "dat" is NOT to poke fun at their lack of education or in any way to degrade them as people, but rather to remain true to the language spoken on an 1859 Texas cotton plantation. The other slaves in the book use a less heavy dialect, but still stay within the speech used by the former slaves in I Was Born in Slavery. Like the interviewers, I felt it was important to portray slavery and the slaves as they were, not as we would like them to be.
The former slaves' testimonies in I Was Born in Slavery changed my book. They changed me as a writer and as a person. Long after The Planter’s Daughter is gathering dust on the shelves, a little orange book with a smiling old gentleman on the cover will, I am certain, continue to draw me to it, almost as though I can hear one of the former slaves say, “I was born in slavery. Let me tell you about it.”
I hope you'll grab a copy of The Planter's Daughter (click here to order). I'm getting great feedback from readers who say they can't put the book down once they start reading. One early reader said it was "one of the best books" she's read all year!
Have a blessed day!