Following on from my newfound interest in historical fiction I decided to have a chat with Minnette Coleman, renowned historical author about how she creates such engaging novels that transport the reader back to times long past.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style.
I’m a story teller, not sure if that is considered a real ‘style’, but it is how I envision my writing. I like to feel that I am looking at you as I tell my story. My desire is to talk to the reader, not at the reader, and make them feel that I am with them when they take a journey with my words. I purposely try not to copy other writers, other styles, although one can’t help it if, from time to time, a little bit of substance from an influential author seeps in. With my first book The Blacksmith’s Daughter someone tried to peg my style as akin to the writers of the 19th century. Not sure where that came from, unless it had to do with the calm and purposeful way I wrote the tale.
What is your background and how did you get in to writing professionally? How do you draw on your past when writing fiction?
Writing is in my blood. My parents met at a poetry club. My father went on to becoming an award- winning journalist and City Editor for The Atlanta Daily World, the second oldest African-American daily newspaper in the United States. His mother was a poet and my mother continues to write poetry to this day. I started creating my stories as soon as I learned how to form letters with a pencil. After that I wrote everything I could just to keep in practice. And I mean everything. I kept diaries about events that I deemed important in my life and looked at them from time to time when I needed a reference for an idea.
Of course my past included family, and family was the source of my first two novels. My first professional writing job was covering The Atlanta Jazz Festival years ago. I didn’t care that much for doing that. I preferred fiction sweetened with a little bit of fact, and that’s when I started drawing on my past to create historical fiction.
Please tell me about your books. Are they all historical fiction? How do you work to entice the reader to read them?
To entice readers I give them a picture, which I paint with my words. I have to see everything as if no words were spoken. If I can’t see it, I have to start over again. And since my books are all historical fiction, I have to make sure the picture I paint lifts the reader to that time or era. From hairstyles to clothing, my readers have to see it as I do, as if they were with me on this journey. In my latest novel The Tree: A Journey to Freedom, I go back to history of the Underground Railroad and the Quakers and abolitionists to build the tale of Epsie as she decides to become a ‘running away’ and find the mythical tree in the North Carolina woods that, once reached, almost certainly guarantees freedom.
In No Death by Unknown Hands, I followed the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement in the southern United States and let my story unfold in a community setting as my young protagonist lived through the changes of the times– change I created from my dad’s articles, my family background and from a vivid imagination that allowed me to dwell in my research on the early 1950s.
For The Blacksmith’s Daughter, I led the reader to the blacksmith’s shop. But only after you got to hear the cock crow in the early mornings, see the fine table setting that was presented with the blacksmith’s breakfast and allow the reader to fall in love with his loving wife, five beautiful single daughters and a cripple son.
In each story I gave the reader the fear I felt while running from the dogs bred to hunt slaves or while hiding in the trees, the smell of the greasy bacon and the fresh biscuits first thing in the morning, the feel of the water flowing through your hair while someone else washed it. As a story teller, you take your hand and fill it with these magical pictures and pull the reader in. When you close your hand and they want more, you know you have a great story. I get excited thinking about what story I will tell next.
Where do you find your inspiration? Are there any particular places or incidents you draw on when you find yourself with writer’s block?
My first two novels were based on characters and events in the past. My paternal grandfather was one of the last blacksmiths in Atlanta, Georgia, so I created a story around what it would have been like had he become extremely wealthy in land dealings in the early 20th century. And of course I wanted to be a journalist like my dad when I was younger, so No Death by Unknown Hands was an ode to that desire.
With The Tree I looked back to when I lived in one of the original buildings of Guilford College, my alma mater, and the deep and extremely scary cellar where we stored our trunks and suitcases. I thought this would make a great place to hide run-away slaves. Historically this space wasn’t used for that purpose, but combine it with the 300-year-old tulip poplar tree on campus that is now part of the National Parks Services ‘Network to Freedom’ and you have a setting for a journey to freedom.
As for writer’s block-don’t you hate that? You get a good idea going and then it falls off a cliff. Lots of time I sleep on it. When that doesn’t work, when I don’t wake up in the middle of the night or the next morning with an answer, I wait. That could take forever in the general sense, but when I say wait I mean I start telling myself the story of the scene I am working on again and again and usually the muse makes a return. Guess it’s tired of the replay and wants me to move along.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
Oh, I’m so glad you asked that. I have two so give me a moment to explain. They are both deceased but they both stay with me. The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez, that’s the first one. I thought about him when I wrote The Tree. I would have him teach me how to tap into the style of magical realism. Then we could collaborate on a tale of our cultures crossing for the good of the current world.
Octavia Butler is my other choice. At one time I wanted to write science fiction. I got to meet her once and we had a conversation about the value of getting people to read more. Perhaps she could have kept me on the path to science fiction.
Do you have any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
Wow! Where do I start? I am pleased to be working on a child’s version of The Tree. The cover of the current novel was done by my very talented nephew, Ricky Townsley. He also is working on the illustrations for the children’s version.
Recently I did an article for the Friends Association of Higher Education on the connections between Black and Quaker history. It should be out and online this month. And there are other tales that I am working on. So many stories to tell, so little time. It is hard to pick one, but I am sure it will have an historical nature even if it is about today.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to coming up?
Last summer I read The Fifth Season by N. K. Jemison. Extremely interesting and exciting sci-fi. I am going to finish the series. I am also looking forward to the May 2018 release of a book by Zora Neale Hurston never published before. The title is Barracon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo. My understanding is Ms. Hurston got a first hand interview with someone who was stolen from an African village. So exciting!
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I used to teach workshops for teen journalists on how to get a good
interview. I always told them to have the interviewee talk about themselves. People love that. I have to admit, I am no different: I have thoroughly enjoyed talking with you about my work. Thanks so much for this opportunity!
Thanks for taking the time, it has been truly awesome to hear your thoughts.