A great example of local history for authors

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I like history and folklore and frequently mention them in my books as part of what makes up the place where my story is set. Since history and folklore are tied to real people and what those people believe, the interesting tidbits we use need to be treated with respect.

We paint the reality of a place in part with old stories.

We paint the reality of a place in part with old stories.

I’m currently reading Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse, a folkloric study of Jamaica and Haiti based on her trip there in the 1930s. Early on, she talks to a man whom she refers to as Brother Levi. What Brother Levi has to say about the meaning of the word “Christmas”might sound sacrilegious to some people. That’s fine, because if an author were to mention this story in a book, s/he would be doing so not as gospel or a religious tract, but to establish a strong ambiance for the location.

The writer doesn’t necessarily paraphrase a story like this. S/he has a character mention it or mention the days when Brother Levi was a strong influence on local culture and beliefs, or perhaps includes it in a narrative overview of the country’s beliefs that newcomers are unaware of and might come across over time.

Hurston’s Story

Brother Levi: “We hold a candle march after Joseph. Joseph came from the cave where Christ was born in the manger with a candle. He was walking before Mary and her baby. You know Christ was not born in the manger. Mary and Joseph were too afraid for that. He was born in a cave and He never came out until He was six months old. The three wise men see the star but they can’t find him because He is hid in the cave. When they can’t find him after six months, they make a magic ceremony and the angel come tell Joseph the men wanted to see him. That day was called ‘Christ must day’ because it means ‘Christ must find today,’ so we have Christ-mas day, but the majority of people are ignorant. They think him born that day.”

I have no plans to write about Voodoo in Jamaica. But if I were setting a novel there, I would find this snippet a delightful way of setting the stage, of showing an alternative point of view. I love reading folklore for what it is, but I take note of things that might one day become part of the depth of place I’m always trying to establish when I write.

–Malcolm

Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of the award-winning “Conjure Woman’s Cat” and its sequel “Eulalie and Washerwoman,” magical realism novels about a north Florida conjure woman’s battle against racism and the Klan.

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