This article, written by Vanessa Riley, is from the February 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Although often attributed to Winston Churchill, the origin of the phrase “history is written by the victors” is unknown. Nonetheless, the sentiment is true and something to consider when writing about diversity, past and present. It is a fundamental tenant of the mindset one should have when diving into the scholarly record. I wish to take you into my philosophy of how I approach history, people, and research. I hope you’ll glean a way to enhance your writing methodology to bring more diverse characters and settings to the page.
While I don’t prescribe that DNA should dictate the story an author crafts, I believe in putting in the work and being sensitive to culture and race to deliver the best storytelling. For me, I don’t wish to do harm. Unfortunately, that’s what shortcutting the process does. Guessing or assuming every experience is the same as yours instead of doing research will allow biases to win.
For Sister Mother Warrior, the story of two very different women, a healer and a warrior, whose efforts led to Haitian independence, I translated French narratives written 10 years post-war. Then I procured books by Haitian poets, read the nonfiction histories of leading Caribbean and African historians, and spent hours on YouTube’s geography videos to get the story right. On launch day, a woman came to me in tears. She said we always learn about the men, never the women. She moved me, made my eyes wet. She was Haitian-born and educated in Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. This lady was thankful for the respectful narrative I’d written about people of her blood.
Research to prevent bias
Everyone, including myself, comes to the table with biases. We are told things in childhood that frame our world. As we grow from infancy to adulthood, we experience more moments—trauma, joy, fears. Each shape and reshape our perceptions. Researchers, archaeologists, teachers, professors, and anyone we utilize for fact-finding may bring their own cultural notions to the research. If one doesn’t use a critical mindset when analyzing these sources, those biases combined with our own will invade the texts we write, ruining or corrupting the reader’s experience.
I’ve written 20-plus books showcasing the diversity of the Georgian and Regency world, focusing on Caribbean migration to all levels of society. Even though I’m of West Indie descent with a father from Trinidad and Tobago, I’ve welcomed sensitivity readers of Haitian, Jamaican, and British heritage to review my pre-publication work. I want to ensure I’m honoring cultures that aren’t natively mine. I need to ensure every word I draft adds to the world narrative and does no harm.
How do we do no harm?
You’re ahead of the game if you recognize that you have biases and that fact-finders may have them. The keys to doing this analysis are three simple steps to improve your approach to crafting a diverse story:
- Examine your world.
- Examine your bookshelf.
- Examine your resources.
Your world is a reflection of you. The friends you have, the places you frequent, and the television and news you consume are all you. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to write beyond the confines of your life. Yet this effort requires possessing the vulnerability to learn and the bravery to do the work.
Am I telling you to become woke? Maybe. Awaking to the joy of lived experiences beyond your own is essential. Committing to the humanity of all individuals in a narrative is the attitude you must inhabit.
Look at your bookshelves. When I look at mine, I see a world of wonderment. A picture of my books was included in a July 2022 article in The Washington Post which shows all my favorite genres and authors. This wall allows me to dive into a diverse, delightful place. Scouring it, I can reach for Project 1619, tomes by Caribbean sisters, and the classics—William Shakespeare, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, etc. These novels span hundreds of years and many locations. If I look at my research bookcases, I can grab 200-year-old books, books in various dialects, period cookbooks, and poets through the ages. My bookshelf reflects what I am, what I’m trying to research, and my hunger to truly engage the topics I’m writing. I’ve written books about people who don’t look like me, live like me, or have nuclear families like mine because I’ve read thousands of books by people who don’t look like me, about places I can’t experience or, in some cases, it would be safer for me not to visit.
If you’re thinking of writing a narrative about a culture or situation that’s not your lived experience or that of your ancestors, please honor these people by being curious. See how these people write or talk about themselves (oral histories). A few research books on a subject, for the most part, is not sufficient. Typically, you will miss the sensitivities that make your words feel like theirs. If you haven’t done the work or feel it’s unnecessary, I’d ask you to review your motives for telling this story.
Examine your resources
There’s nothing wrong with starting with Google. Getting your feet wet, you should be looking for clues not only to who these people are but also:
- How they lived.
- How they made money.
- Their socioeconomic status and hierarchy.
- What they valued.
Wikipedia pages are a great second stop. These abstracts can give you a quick analysis and highlights. Even so, only trust what you find if you confirm it in at least two to three additional sources. I’ve found Wikis with wrong birth dates, death dates, children’s names, spouses’ names, and chronology of events.
At the bottom of the page, the reference section is pure gold. Often one will discover bibliographies of firsthand accounts. These are documents to order from a library. Sometimes JSTAR citations are there, which are articles from leading academics on the topic. Authors who have done research in this area may also be listed. Pay attention to any charts. Family trees, lines of succession, and more will yield names of interest. I often spend weeks researching each one, getting the source, and deciding whether it is helpful or skewed.
I’m a big fan of getting my hands on old books. Novels, biographies, or histories written in the time frame I’m researching are essential. Getting ahold of Thomas Clarkson’s letters to King Henry Christophe and his wife, and Queen Louise’s to Mrs. Clarkson, added new depth to the relationship and politics of the time from the relevance of a leading British abolitionist and the Haitian monarchy. Queen of Exiles, which follows Queen Louise’s journey from Caribbean royalty to aristocracy in Europe, is enhanced and nuanced because of these letters.
Period books will source words and phrases used by the people at the time and will highlight beliefs and values directly from people living this experience. However, a caution: The victors who wrote many of these books in the 1700s and 1800s have made marginalized people dolls. They typically are not concerned with giving agency or value to individuals who do not look like them.
While researching Island Queen, a historical fiction about a Montserratian woman who buys her freedom from enslavement, builds business across the West Indies, and even has an affair with a future king of England, I found documentation from the legislative body of Montserrat. The council, when discussing increasing the fees for manumissions—the monies paid to free an enslaved person—from 40 pounds to 100 pounds, the landowners, the massas, objected. These men said the increase would hamper their enslaved women, whom they must reward for their love, loyalty, and service.
In this context, these Irish and British white males wish to reward their female African or Caribbean enslaved for their love (rape) and loyalty (chattel property) and service (forced servitude). This author crafted the account to imply a touching sentiment, but this is coercion. The victors are trying to manipulate laws to continue to abuse the conquered and then cheaply right the situation in their wills. If you encounter something like this that threatens your sense of humanity, I give you license to throw any hundred-year-old plus books (you own) across the room regardless of the spine’s condition. This is a Vanessa Riley guilt-free pass. You’ll feel good afterward. I know I have.
Art of the time, what people painted, created on baskets, and carved into wood and walls, speaks to what was valued. The Aktá Lakota Museum & Cultural Center is one of the best places to see Native art. It has over 14,000 square feet of displays, clothing, canvases, and more. Medicine Man Gallery possesses one of the largest collections of American Indian art, both antiques and contemporary forms, in the United States. The Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, housed in New Mexico, offers virtual tours. Onsite tours provide the opportunity to see artifacts from digs. It will help you better understand ways of life and hierarchical structures within communities.
Partnership with Native Americans is another resource to begin your search into tribal history. Like Wiki, it has important names and legislation that have affected tribes across the U.S. For indigenous populations around the globe like the First Nations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Elders of Australia, begin with Australians Together. Look for organizations like The Jamii Asilia Centre (JAC), a Swahili name for Indigenous Peoples Centre. JAC works on preserving the oral histories of the people of Kenya. Still, other organizations focus on the Tainos of the Caribbean and other indigenous populations of South America and beyond.
Museums that feature well-researched resources into African American History:
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
- The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) — [Online Exhibit: African]
- Archives of African American Music & Culture (Bloomington, Indiana)
- The Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles
- Dance Theater of Harlem
- Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
- Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
- Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site at Moton Field
Many of these museums have virtual components. Some offer questions and answers via their contact forms. Once you’ve done your basic research, utilize the Ask a Librarian feature. This can help you get in contact with genealogy departments and provide access to maps, including international ones from the 1700s and earlier.
As with the museum, use the Ask a Librarian feature after you’ve Googled and done enough research to ask specific questions. This will honor the librarian’s time.
For social anthropological research about cultures, I’ve begun to incorporate YouTube and TikTok. Both platforms showcase full or partial documentaries. Today’s gig historians and tour guides visit sites, record videos of hikes of ruins, trek into harbors, and show the views from the top of the Citadel and other wonders of the world while also including the locals’ view of what they value. Protests and sentiments of all types of all demographics are being uploaded daily.
When doing these types of cultural investigations, I try to answer the following:
- Who has the power?
- Who doesn’t have the power?
- What is gained by swapping positions of the powerful and the powerless?
- What is lost by switching positions of the powerful and the powerless?
- What is the goal for happiness for each person in the power play?
- What needs to change for each people to have meaningful agency?
They seem like elementary questions, but they’ll move a writer beyond the surface discovery with paper-thin, one-dimensional characterizations to a more authentic, meaningful, albeit diverse work.
If this sounds too much, if you’re asking where the fiction part of the novel writing process is, then I suggest writing fantasy. If you make up people and culture, no one can be disappointed when your novel diverges from lived experiences or cultural practices that someone holds dear. I want to win hearts and minds, transporting readers to the most authentic places. It’s one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve ever had when grateful readers offer thanks for showcasing their culture or people in your novels.
Vanessa Riley is the award-winning author of Island Queen, A Good Morning America Buzz Pick, and the forthcoming Queen of Exiles. Riley’s historical novels showcase the hidden histories of Black women and women of color, emphasizing strong sisterhoods and dazzling multicultural communities. Her works encompass historical fiction, historical romance, and historical mystery and have been reviewed by The Washington Post, Entertainment Weekly, NPR, Publisher Weekly, and the New York Times.