Monthly Archives: May 2015

Announcing: My Academic Article on the Delany Sisters

Five years ago I was asked to write a lengthy, peer-reviewed essay on the centenarian Delany Sisters for inclusion in a book to be called, North Carolina Women: Their Lives and Times Vol. II, part of a state-by-state academic series called Southern Women: Their Lives and Times.

That book has just been published by the University of Georgia Press.

Edited volume published by Univ. of Georgia Press

I am thrilled.

And maybe – just maybe – a little relieved that it’s done. I’ve written nine books and hundreds of newspaper articles but this was the first time I wrote an essay that necessitated 93 footnotes.

You read that right – 93 footnotes.

Mercy!

And I think I have a gray hair for each one of them.

But I’m proud of the result, and I’m thankful to the two editors, Michele Gillespie, Professor of Southern History at Wake Forest University, and Sally G. McMillen, Professor of History at Davidson College, for encouraging me to participate, even though I am not an academician.

My training is in journalism. That’s how I came to meet the Delany Sisters back in 1991. I wrote a feature story about them for The New York Times. After my story was published, the sisters and I collaborated on our 1993 oral history, Having Our Say: The Delany Sisters’ First 100 Years.

The book made its mark, for it tells the story of race in America in a way that hadn’t been done before – through the eyes of two centenarian sisters. The daughters of a man born into slavery and a woman who could have passed for white but chose not to, the Delany Sisters had a very unusual childhood. They were raised on the campus of St. Augustine’s School (now College) in Raleigh, where their parents were employed. The sisters (and all but one of their eight brothers and sisters) moved to New York City as young adults to pursue opportunities not available to them in the South. Sadie Delany became a groundbreaking teacher in the New York Public Schools while her little sister, Bessie, became only the second black woman dentist licensed in New York.

North Carolina, however, would always be “home.” They are buried there, alongside Mama and Papa, just a short distance from the campus of “St. Aug’s.”

The sisters would have been greatly honored to be included in an academic book about North Carolina women. I’m so delighted that I had the opportunity to help make it happen. I felt their presence, every step of the way.

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Advice for Aspiring Novelists: Where Great Characters Come From

The most frequent question I’m asked when I’m on book tour or lecturing at a university is––Where do the ideas for your fictional characters come from?

Often, the person asking the question is an aspiring writer who is struggling to create a main character who is believable and consistent.

Here is what I advise: Why not start by looking around you?

We have all encountered people in our lives that are memorable, intriguing, and flawed but likeable. Think of all the people you’ve known who had a “larger than life” personality – a teacher, neighbor, or maybe a member of your church when you were growing up. (One caveat: When writing about a real person, depending on a variety of circumstances, you may need permission. It’s always wise to check with an attorney.)

Many authors of fiction discover that their best work is drawn from either real life experiences, their own or someone else’s. For my novel, Miss Dreamsville and the Collier County Women’s Literary Society, I had only to look as far as my own mother-in-law, Jackie, who was the type of person wryly referred to as “a piece of work.”

Jackie was a beautiful, opinionated, infuriating, and utterly charming woman. In 1962, long before I met her, she’d had a difficult time adjusting when her husband relocated the family from Boston to a small, sleepy Southern backwater in Florida. She managed to upset the status quo almost the moment they arrived.

Having spent the formative years of my childhood in South Carolina and my young adulthood in Florida, I had no difficulty picturing Jackie’s unfortunate (and at times hilarious) missteps, when told about them years later.  Before she passed away in 2004, she told me some of these stories. A few of them I learned from my husband (her son). My favorite – which I used as a launching point for my novel – was how in real life she started a late night radio show, which she called “Miss Dreamsville,” and scandalized the town (although by today’s standards it was G-rated).

Of course, there are many fictional events and characters in my novel as well. I invented the idea that Jackie started a book club; as far as I know, she never did. The book club was necessary, however, because it gave me a sphere in which to have Jackie interact with others in the community.

As much as I love all of my characters, Jackie-the-real-person gave me a great place to start. It was she who sparked my imagination and led me to tell a much larger story.

Sometimes, inspiration is closer at hand than one might think.

(This essay was written by Amy for Southern Writers Magazine. It appeared on May 15, 2015.)

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