Friday, September 18, 2020

Frankie: The woman who inspired my all-time favorite character

When I began writing Under the Tulip Tree in the summer of 2018, I thought I knew where the story was headed. I'd discovered the slave narratives several years earlier while researching slavery in Texas for my plantation novels, so I was very familiar with the word-for-word first-person stories told to employees of the Federal Writers' Project by former slaves in 1936. My goal in writing Under the Tulip Tree was to capture the raw realness of the narratives by creating a character that would bring them to life for readers in the same way they'd come to life for me. The problem was, as I began writing Frankie's story, something was wrong. She was flat. A cardboard cutout of a woman who'd endured one of the most shameful practices known to man. I could have kept writing and hoped for the best, but ultimately I knew something major needed to change. I just didn't know what. 

Getting the character of Frankie right was vital. Not just for the sake of the story, but for the sake of the history behind the story. For the real people whom my characters would represent. The former slaves who shared their stories with strangers back in 1936 deserved my very best in 2018. To accomplish that, I needed to dig deeper. Deeper into Frankie, and deeper into myself.  

I returned to the narratives. While I prefer to read them in their unedited state, with the storytellers' own pronunciation and wording, the little research book I'd purchased about slavery in Tennessee is edited for clarity.  I picked it up, as I'd done dozens of times, and thumbed through the pages, wondering what I was missing in Frankie's story. Because it would be impossible for me to understand what life was like for a person kept in bondage, I relied heavily on the narratives themselves to guide me. 

After searching the pages without success,  I closed it, frustrated. I couldn't keep working on my book until I figured this out.

That's when my eyes fell on the woman gracing the cover of the research book. Of course I'd seen her picture many times before, but this was the first time I truly looked at it. What I saw was an elderly black woman sitting on the porch of a simple dwelling, deep in thought. There are other details to notice--her braids, her ring, the hole in her blouse--but it was her hand in her lap that captured my attention. 

In the photo, it appears it doesn't seem quite right. The knuckles look too big and there may be two fingers missing.

"What happened to her hand?" I gasped.

That question---and the answer I eventually imagined---completely changed Under the Tulip Tree and Frankie's story. I won't give any spoilers, but for those of you who have read the book, you know what I mean. Frankie's story poured out from that picture. I did some investigating and discovered that the woman pictured was a sharecropper in Mississippi.  Her name, however, was unfortunately not recorded. (Note: I eventually found a second photograph of her from a different angle, and although her hand is hidden, it does appear that all her fingers are intact.) 

Cotton sharecropper;

Cotton sharecropper. Library of Congress.

For me, she has become Frankie. I hope one day I get to hug her and tell her about Frankie and how her picture and her life changed me. 

I hope you'll choose to read Under the Tulip Tree and get to know Frankie and Rena. Order links are on the top right of the blog home page or at my website,  

If you're interested in learning more about the slave narratives and the Federal Writers' Project,  visit my website. I've posted links to some of the sites and books I used in my research. 

Every blessing,

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