Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Researching for Time Travel in Jamaican books

Researching for Time Travel in books for older children: the 1907 Earthquake and Hurricane Charlie, 1951.

When I read adult novels I trust that my author has done the research needed. All is true except what he/she has made up. ‘Aha!’ you say, ‘But isn’t it all their imagination?’ Yes, but some of it is based on facts! Haven’t you noticed that some authors have a section in the book indicating the facts upon which the story may be based? For children’s books we need to be even more careful that we bring to writing the integrity of accuracy.

Everything is set in a time and place and we have to be true to that time and place. Even outright fantasy is set in a fantasy time and place different from a known time and place, so that whenever things deviate from what they ought to be, the child notices and is filled with wonder. For example, children know that they cannot get onto a giant bird’s back and fly across great distances, but they enjoy the fantasy of it. Children are quite clever really.

Research for my Time Travel books is often a combination of interviews ( even asking just that one essential question) and resource material in print, including photos. Some of the research may never be used in the story but it is in my head, allowing me to see my characters in their environment and figure out what they would/could do.

When I am preparing for my book, I do not read any other children’s books on the event about which I’m writing, because I want it to be my voice, not someone else’s, creeping in inadvertently. I may do so after I’ve finished, and then I may say, “Oh he/she did that really well.”

Researching A Tumbling World… A Time of Fire: My main source for material is the newspaper, in this case, The Gleaner here in Jamaica. I love researching in newspapers. They so represent ‘the now’ of a time. They give a true picture of how people lived. The Gleaner told me not only what people were saying, thinking and doing in the time before the earthquake, but what happened during the earthquake, and what happened after. The 1907 earthquake was really well documented.

Seeing how the people lived: I get my information from articles in the newspaper, but also from the advertisements. The advertisements are a delightfully interesting part of the research process: I uncover a life-style; consumer habits; (tonics for every ailment real or imaginary), and so on; so that by the time I begin to write the story I am fairly well steeped in that Past Time life. Photos are important; what sort of transportation was used? (tramcars, carriages); what sort of clothes and hair styles women and girls wore? There was also a great book, mentioned in my acknowledgements, which had picture postcards, including those of the damage in Kingston. So photos give me visual images that complement the writing process, and are essential for the illustrator.

And even with all this research, sometimes you have to search for particular things which are, or become integral to the story. Here is an example: While the protagonists, Vanessa and Kerry, are just trying to see if they can find the house in which their grandmother lived as a child, (a dangerous thing to do in Past Time; suppose you actually met her?) they find themselves invited into a neighbour’s house, a ‘respectable family’, because ‘decent girls’ cannot be just wandering around the streets.

The question arises: The motor car was already invented, but were there any in Jamaica? And this is important because…? In describing how the girls feel when they first find themselves in Kingston Past Time, I have to decide what they see, what their first impressions are, apart from fright. From The Gleaners printed before the earthquake I discovered that there were only 20 motor cars in the island at that time. This makes a car a prized possession, so it is unlikely that the girls will see cars. However, here’s the link. I’m sure that the father of this family, an arrogant and unpleasant man, no doubt owns one, and so we are not surprised that he boasts about being one of the few people on the island to have a motor car. The car then weaves itself into the story: if it weren’t for the car the family would not have been planning a special outing, which the mother of the family decides not to attend because she cannot leave ‘decent girls’ alone while waiting for their family to come to pick them up. She, therefore, gets caught up in the earthquake with the girls, and they become responsible for her, thus endangering themselves in the fire which follows, postponing their attempt to return to their own time, and consequently getting them into much more trouble …

The setting in Kingston where the girls experience the earthquake is actually based on the house where my grandmother’s family lived when I was a little girl. So I can see my characters moving around the house and garden. When, in the earthquake, they are in danger from the furniture flying across the room (research) I can see and describe the piano skating towards them, because it is probably a similar piano to the one which I remember.

At the end of each book I have a ‘Dear Reader’ section, where I am able to give a ‘real-life memory', that is, the event experienced by someone whom I know and talked to, as different from the sources in the newspapers or other accounts of the time. In the case of A Tumbling World… A Time of Fire, it is from a piece written by my grandmother. It starts out: “I was five years old…”. Finding this was almost like serendipity. (By the time I was writing this book my grandmother had passed on.) When I had finished writing the book I was going through old folders and found this brief report in my grandmother’s own handwriting! I must have asked her to write what she remembered and then forgotten about it, but there it was waiting… waiting to be included as a ‘real-life memory'.

In The Ring and the Roaring Water, again The Gleaner was the corner stone of my research. However, it could not answer one of my integral questions; nor could other sources. In fact, eye witness reports often differed as to what took place where. The question had arisen: Did the eye of the hurricane pass over the island? So I had to work around that aspect in the story, and in fact, at that time the characters would not have known. And the question is important because…? It affects the decisions made both by myself and the characters. When Vanessa and Kerry, along with the family of children with whom they are forced to take shelter, leave the house to flee the ‘roaring waters’, is it in a calm caused by the eye of the hurricane? It is essential for me to know as it affects how long the characters can be outside safely.

The setting for this story is the house in which I lived and the neighbourhood and surrounding areas. Again I could follow my characters through their physical environment. Consequently, in one of my many rewrites, I realised that the escape route I had planned for them held its own dangers and so I had to chose another.

Unfortunately, no one I knew could provide me with a ‘real-life memory', as they all seemed to have been outside of Kingston at the time, and by the time I was writing my mother had passed on. So I had to use myself, even though I was too young to remember anything besides pots and pans all over the place catching water from the leaking roof, and the sight, when lightning flashed, of wild trees swirling ferociously outside the windows, and of course, absolute fright.

My reason for using the ‘real-life memory’ is that I hope my readers will be excited to see the comments of real people who experienced these events. I hope that they will see their own older family members as persons who have lived through various events in our island’s ‘near history’; that they have stories to tell which may lead some of our young readers to become writers. No, I don’t actually say that! But I know some of my readers will work it out for themselves.

And as I plan my third book in this series, I am trying to decide between two different events. I start going through some folders and find newspaper reports of one; already it seems the research had begun. Serendipity?

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