Writing Native American Characters

There’s an author interview I read every Sunday in the New York Times Book Review. It’s a pretty much set in stone list of questions. One question, about what these writers read, gives me glimpses into writing practices of wildly successful writers. All writers read widely in several genres. They have their quirky likes and dislikes. One thing mentioned often is if the Famous Writer reads in the genre they are writing in while working on a book.

Some do, some don’t. I will read mysteries when I write a mystery, so I was relieved to be in good company there. My problem has never been answered in these interviews, but that’s fine, I have a mind of my own and I can figure out that there is one book–There There by Tommy Orange– I should not read while writing the current WIP. At first I thought it was essential I read it, but now I’ve changed my mind.

In my WIP, I have a sprinkling of Native American characters. I don’t have any other reason for this decision other than I see urban Indians in the town I live in. They are lives off the reservation. They are just neighbors. Well, on the surface. Their lives, their grief, their heritage and the prejudices against them go deeper than that, as did the beyond my scope of experience black characters in Lily White in Detroit. With the characters in Lily White, at least I had some knowledge of black culture from my years as a white student at a black college.  

The only truly American Indian person I know is a good friend from my pre-college days. I never thought of Jesse as Indian and he never talked about it. He was just one of us, part of the gang of friends from high school. Then years later he began to embrace his heritage and it came out in subtle (and sometimes blunt) ways. The pow wow he was attending. The regalia he’d wear. His rage over the pipeline that was meant to be built over a sacred burial site. His mixing in Indian words from his tribe in Facebook posts. Reading Tommy Orange’s book right now would certainly give me a much wider perspective of how it feels to be Native in America today. But the question is–why do I need to know for my work in progress?

When I began this book, I was sure I wouldn’t have to deal with race. It’s a tightrope for a white woman to understand what life feels like to any other person, especially if they are from another segment of society, like black or Indian. I finally figured out as I was writing this brand new book that needs so much revising that this writing experience is not the same as writing about a black cop working with a white private detective. I had to know something about black culture just to make my black police detective live on the page. For the Native Americans, things are more removed.

At first I thought I’d do a lot more with the Indian community. I read up on the natives of Florida and the 100 year war fought in Florida over the territory. I still want to visit some of their museums. I have a scene set at a casino and on a reservation in Tampa, where the powerful Seminole tribe thrives to this day. And I can still do all that, do the research and field trips required. But I’m afraid to read Tommy Orange’s book until I finish my own because I don’t want to inadvertently use any of his characterizations. There are 12 Indians and each has his or her own story in Orange’s novel. It seems like I could, without knowing, easily take something from them.

And that would make me no better than my ancestors who took much more from a people who were here in America far longer than my white ancestors had been.


White Girl, Black City

My current WIP is set in Detroit. It’s a murder mystery but it’s also a fish-out-of-water story about a white girl who lands in a black city. I write from the pov of the white girl, and as a white writer who found herself in a black environment when I attended a small private college in Detroit in the 80s, I have direct experience with that fish-out-of-water theme.

I’ve written successfully about being white in a black city before. At school, I won a fiction competition for “Cherry Vanilla” a short story I wrote about a white college girl who dates a black college boy, and the repercussions it has on her family–and his.  I didn’t want to ignore the race issue, but I didn’t want to “write about race” either. So I just focused on what I knew about–being a fish-out-of-water. I didn’t insert racism as a theme, I just showed the way people in my  real world behaved.

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The judges for the competition were our professors. The cash prize was a fat check and other accolades (publication in the college’s literary journal, a personal meeting with the famous author on campus that semester, special guest status at the banquet in her honor) came with the prize. There were four judges: two white women, a white man, and a black woman. The majority of the prof/judges were white, which was a problem even then for a lot of people at the college, particularly the black profs. It wasn’t right, they said, to have a majority of black students and so few black educators.

After the story was published, some of my African-American classmates said I should not have won the competition. They liked the second place story better, also published in the college journal, and written by a black woman. I’d only won top prize because I was white, they said, even though the stories were all submitted anonymously. At the time, I put the black students’ rancor down to sour grapes.

But what if it wasn’t that simple? But what if my three white professors related more to my character because, like her, they were also white in a predominantly black milieu?  What if the lone black professor/judge felt a subtle pressure to agree with her white colleagues? Or what if she dissented, even then? I never considered these things at the time, but the truth is I need to consider these kinds of questions now.

And not about the past, which is gone, but about my current work-in-progress and its particular need to look past easy answers and stereotypes, both white and black.

 

 

Strawberry Moon

Full moons are always about the fullness of life, when something or everything has reached a peak. This full moon is special because it is happening at Solstice, the longest day of the year. Native Americans called this particular moon the Strawberry Moon because it signaled that the fruit had ripened to its fullest flavor.

My life has been pretty full-to-bursting in the last few weeks. Feels like I’ve been on roller skates half the time. Let’s see, bought a house, finished edits on my Christmas novel, designed and ordered promotional material for my series, wrote out the lecture for my workshop coming mid-July, joined Sisters in Crime, signed up for a workshop in police procedure in Wisconsin, revised WIP chapter for critique, started summer walking program…I am replete with this summer moon energy.

Now, it’s time to relax. Now it’s time to release. To let go. To spend some time quietly gathering strength for the work to come. To refill the well. To make strawberry crumble and serve it with vanilla ice cream. Because as much as I want and need to replenish my inner self, I also need to replenish those pantry and fridge shelves with healthy food. Grocery shopping waits for no woman.

I realize I slipped “bought a house” in there … the deal is not yet complete. It’s an awesome step of a lifetime, I’ll say that. Al and I are happy and amazed, and you’ll be hearing a lot about this decision in the weeks and months to come, as the impact is going to change my life in considerable ways. But not for awhile.

Other changes are coming sooner. Smaller but significant ones, like the turn my writing life is taking toward the darker parts of the human heart. I have written six novels loosely classified as “women’s fiction.” I wanted to write about the light. About love. About home and family. It’s what I knew, it’s what I struggled to make real for the first half of my actual (as opposed to fictional) life.

I’ve had a bit of resistance to this turn in my fiction writing toward the darker aspects of the human heart, but only a little. I know I need to follow where my creativity wants to take me. I’m gathering my courage, and my research, for this new direction, this new work-in-progress. Yet another something that is too new, too unfinished, to talk much about. Just to say that when I took one of my characters out of Blue Lake and put her in Detroit I really had no idea what I was in for. But it’s fine.

Character and setting are so aligned in my mind that I soon realized I would not be able to write this book without being honest about Detroit and that means I need to talk about race. Also guns, drugs, and corruption, but race, that’s a scary thing. The thing I resisted writing about the most. Racism is so far from love.

And yet, I am going there. I’m taking my writing, and in fact my life, to places that will require courage. Also knowledge, which is why I’m doing the police academy seminar, but mostly the new things in my life, the things just coming now, will require courage. I have never thought of myself as a particularly courageous person, in fact quite the opposite. I like feeling safe. But to grow into fullness, in writing and in life, I must gather my courage. Also strawberries.

 

Messy Manuscript Revision

Am in the middle of revising and things are chaotic. Actually had to buy a monitor because of all the cut and paste and rearranging going on. The little laptop screen was just not getting the job done.

This is normal for a novel drafted in a month with daily word counts. I shall not panic. I will, as Jennifer Cruise says, protect the work. Jenny is my go-to guide for revision, both the process and how to fit it into life when things feel a bit frayed. I’m at the point just now where I feel like one tug and the fabric might become a mess of threads that don’t make whole cloth.

Tortured metaphors aside, I have a few things I do in times like this (besides the unwise decision to buy new electronics during Mercury retrograde, but that’s another story). I cut back my schedule to bare bones. Make a commitment to show up at my desk every day. I don’t give up, take days off, or skip away to social media. Or if I do…I come right back.

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I protect the work. I make it primary. I also outline, create a calendar, and micro-manage my plot. This time the plot was lopsided. My original goal was not big enough to sustain my interest for the entire novel (and if it can’t sustain my interest it will not click with the critique group or those distant readers in the future) so late in the story I added a layer to the plot. This new layer greatly improved things but it made the structure wobble.

Paper clips and turning points (Jenny on turning points) are my friends as I read the entire manuscript, outline the way the scenes need to be realigned, consult my story calendar to keep sequence of events straight. I spread the entire book (in paper-clipped scene-sized chunks) all over the floor. Then I stack them up front to back. Every day I take the next paper-clipped scene and move it to its new position within the document. I’m not so much concerned with the loose threads that need to be edited to smooth things out at the end–I can catch those in the next read through, after the book is re-ordered in some semblance of how it appears in my head.

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The bonus for working daily and consistently on a story this way is that you’ll get little hints and helps. Last night I came up with a solution to a motivation problem. Why should my protagonist care about goal A when goal B is now compelling her action? The answer was elegant and simple and will be easy to incorporate at this point in revision.

When I show up for my work this way, the universe conspires in happy and surprising ways. If you’ve got a mess of a manuscript on your hands, it may help you, too.