The Power of Obscure Events in Fiction

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“Claude Neal was an African American farmhand living in Jackson County, Florida who was accused of raping and murdering Lola Cannady, a nineteen year old white female, just outside the town of Greenwood on October 18, 1934.” — Wikipedia

Outside of Jackson County in the Florida Panhandle, I doubt many current Florida residents are aware of the lynching of Claude Neal by a mob after he was accused of raping and killing Lola Cannady.

Find a local historian, and you're well on your way to uncovering the good, the bad and the ugly about the location where you're setting your short story or novel.

Find a local historian, and you’re on your way to finding the good, the bad and the ugly of the place where your short story or novel is set.

It was a brutal incident and became a yet another notorious example of why the country needed anti-lynching laws.

I grew up in Florida during a time when local history was taught in the schools, so I’m aware of many of the panhandle’s legends, crimes, folklore, things to do and places to see.

The old story came to light again in 2011 when the FBI said it couldn’t close the case. (There’s a link in the graphic below.) So people knew or  re-remembered the case for a while. But time passes and that knowledge fades quickly.

Needless to say, I hope my recently published novella Conjure Woman’s Cat will have a wider appeal than readers who live between Tallahassee and Pensacola. So why did I mention–just in passing–an obscure event when I could have just as easily made something up?

For better or worse, here’s how a writer’s mind works when it comes to creating a fictional town in the real world:

  1. The description of historian Dale Cox’s book notes that this event has been called the “last public spectacle” lynching in U.S. history.  Consequently, the African American characters in my 1950s-era story set in a town a few miles from where the lynching occurred would certainly know about it even though it happened 20 years earlier. To my characters, there’s not only a precedent for such violence but a chance it could happen again since the “climate” and the attitudes haven’t changed much.*
  2. Picture and cutline from Explore Southern History.

    Picture and cutline from Explore Southern History.

    Places are understood by many as not only their geography but as defined in part by what has happened there. It’s hard to mention Gettysburg without thinking about the Civil War battle there. Gettysburg is shaped partly by that battle, the intervening response to that battle, and–if you like magical realism and/or the paranormal–by the psychic strength of that event. Jackson County and nearby Liberty County, Florida were what they were in the Jim Crow 1950s partly because of the violence created an nurtured by a lot of KKK activity.

  3. Sometimes those obscure events come back into our consciousness again.

    Sometimes those obscure events come back into our consciousness again.

    When the characters in my fictional town fear mob violence after the rape of a local black girl by whites, it’s natural for them to think of what’s happened before. I strongly believe that authors who write about places should try to preserve the real stories–myths, legends, real events–of those places in their fiction. Even the casual mention of a real event, as opposed to a fictional event I could have easily made up, not only keeps history alive, but offers stories stronger foundations than one can get out of fabricated folklore and history.

  4. Mention a real event–or an existing myth–and you can enlarge your story’s impact by keying off of things readers believe–as they read your fiction–they might have heard about before; or perhaps they’ll wonder about it and Google it or otherwise read further. If you dumped all this history into your story, your research “would show,” as people say. In my case, I wasn’t writing historical fiction, much less a dramatization of the Claude Neal lynching. But, if I can tempt you to consider the very real environment in which my story was set, then the story potentially has a larger meaning than its fictional plot, theme and characters can convey.

Basically, the power of obscure events in fiction is context. The story doesn’t unfold in a vacuum but in a real place with real rivers (the Apalachicola), real foods (catfish and hush puppies), real forests (longleaf pines), real industries (turpentine) and real history.

All of those things fit hand-in-glove with the stuff the author is making up. As far as I know, the town I created (Torreya) never existed. Neither did a hoodoo woman (Eulalie), her cat (Lena) or her good friend (Willie Tate). But they are who they are in the story because of the kinds of things that happen in the place where they live.

Storytelling advice often focuses on plots and characters, and that’s not a bad part of the craft from which to begin. Writers have learned over time than modern readers won’t tolerate pages and pages of description. But readers find resonance in fully developed context: that is to say, the real in the story makes the fictional in the story seem real.

–Malcolm

* The reality of a lynching in Florida in the early 1950s was punctuated by the fact that when Ruby McCollum was accused of killing a white doctor in Live Oak, Florida in 1952, she was held in a state prison to protect her from a potential lynching had she been confined prior to trial in a local jail.

The “Conjure Woman’s Cat” giveaway continues on GoodReads until April 15th. Enter for a chance to win one of three paperback copies.

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2 responses

  1. When I read fiction I suspend disbelief and “pretend” that the story is real, that it actually happened. If the local background and history are well researched or are a part of the author’s experience, I can remain suspended in my bubble and thoroughly enjoy the book, especially If I happen to know something about the history or background of the book and what I read compliments and enlarges that knowledge. But if I find an inexcusable mistake, my bubble bursts and I lose my faith in the author. And I don’t read any more of his/her books.

    That’s another reason why context is so important.

  2. I also tend to pretend that the story is real. Right now, I’m reading the Orchardist and it’s clear that the author either researched orchards and horses or grew up with them in her experience, for she talks about these things as though they’ve always been part of her. This furthers the illusion of the story’s reality.