Monday, February 23, 2015

Book 'Em North Carolina


I, along with four other writers on the “History Behind the Fiction” panel at Book ‘Em North Carolina, will discuss the question of what true events inspired us to write our novels. 
My almost-antebellum outfit

Without a doubt, I was intrigued by Thomas Chaplin’s diary as edited by Theodore Rosengarten (Tombee, Portrait of a Cotton Planter). The events Chaplin wrote about were those of everyday life on a typical plantation in South Carolina. Nothing spectacular here, just a record of his countless daily activities. Chaplin wrote of his slaves and the problems he had getting them to work. He described when and where he had them list the land (dig it up with a hoe), plow, drop seed, and hoe cotton while cultivating other crops at the same time. During the 16 years when Chaplin was a gentleman farmer, the seasons came and went, and he gave an account of what he did to care for his family and grow cotton.

Why Chaplin wrote and protected his diary is something of a mystery, for he seemed to have no literary or archival ambition for it. His writings reveal a spirit and mind shaped by the time. Had this been the inner musings of a Christian devotee (many diaries of the period are) or a successful manager and politician (like J. Mott Alston), the perspective might well have been affected. But Chaplin wasn’t preoccupied with a religion, political view, or legacy.

He had little insight into the effect he had on his family and slaves. He used them both, but so did other plantation owners. He was jealous of more successful neighbors, angry with an uncle who wouldn’t lend him money, desolate at the loss of a little daughter and his young wife. He craved respect and social standing and drank too much. In a word he was thoroughly human. I could identify with him.

While Chaplin’s diary gave me insights into the workings of a plantation from the owner’s perspective, there were only intimations as to what kind of life the slaves lived. As often happens when scrolling through sources, I bumped into exciting historical documents—the Slave Narratives collected in 1936-38 by the Federal Writers Project, a Roosevelt program that put writers to work. The memories of former slaves were recorded phonetically giving us a good idea of the lowcountry slave dialect. In their original form, you almost need a translator to figure them out. I made notes of some of the expressions and used them for slave dialogue. My view of life in the quarters came in large measure from these stories.

The book fair is this Saturday, Feb. 28, at Lumberton. It’s free and open to the public, with over 70 authors and independent publishers. There are presentations about books, authors, and publishing throughout the day. The link is below.

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