The Bad Death is my historic paranormal novel with interracial romance. The protagonist is Anika, a slave woman. She’s attracted to her master’s brother, Julian. She becomes attracted to Marcus, an enslaved man who is a slave driver. A modern woman’s spirit takes refuge in Anika’s body and influences her mind. In adventure stories the hero prevails through gumption and daring. But how does The Bad Death align with historic reality? As Americans attend and react to 12 Years a Slave, a a new film based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery, it seems a good time to examine the treatment of slavery in genre fiction and literature, particularly as it relates to autobiographies written by slaves.
Consider the critically acclaimed novel, Kindred by Octavia Butler. The heroine, Dana, is a modern African-American. She is repeatedly pulled through time to the antebellum south in order to protect the white boy destined to father the Caucasian side of her family. There (and then) Dana’s treated as a slave. Kindred is a good book. I’m glad I read it. I can’t say I enjoyed it. Why not? It’s grueling. She’s victimized relentlessly. She and her fellow slaves endure terrible conditions. The antebellum interracial liaisons are exploitative and cruel. Kindred isn’t an adventure story. It is a historically accurate novel in the literary tradition.
Because the slave woman was chattel, she had no power to resist her master’s advances. Even relationships based on affection and mutual attraction exploited her. Also, the environment of slavery varied from benign to brutal. Two autobiographies from that period recount the harshest conditions explicitly: The History of Mary Prince and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Mary Prince and Linda Brent worked on West Indies’ plantations in conditions that injured and sickened them. When this affected their productivity, they were beaten and whipped till they couldn’t stand and then made to somehow continue working. They were hounded sexually by their masters. They were unable to live healthy married lives to the free black men who courted them. Both women learned to read and write. Both escaped and became outspoken abolitionists. Both autobiographies are in The Classic Slave Narratives, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Slaves on South Carolina Lowcountry rice plantations worked under better conditions, as described in Charles Joyner’s history Down by the Riverside: a South Carolina Slave Community. Anika’s story is set in a South Carolina slave community like that documented by Joyner.
I wanted to write a paranormal historical with sexy romance and a crossbow-wielding adventuress. I could have written The Bad Death more realistically, but then it would be a book in a different genre. Due to the novel’s setting, even the most benevolent white characters have racist viewpoints. I hope readers understand that these views belong to the characters – not to me. And I hope readers are moved to explore libraries and bookstores. There’s great literature out there and inspiring nonfiction accounts of history’s real heroes and heroines.
I guest posted at M.R. Gott’s Cutis Anserina blog as part of his month long Halloween Bash of guest posts. You can read about the great monsters of Gullah folklore here. See you back at my blog soon!
By the time a writer has polished the manuscript, he’s lived inside the story so long he’s lost objectivity. It’s time for someone with fresh eyes. An editor will examine your work from a production perspective, but it saves a lot of time if you’ve first identified and fixed your story’s weaknesses. That’s where beta readers can help.
To paraphrase Wikipedia’s definition, a beta reader is a person who reads a novel manuscript with a critical eye. A beta reader may highlight plot holes or problems with continuity, characterization or believability; and assist the author with fact-checking.
Many writers request fellow writers to be beta readers. I chose readers who weren’t writers because I wanted the customer’s reaction. I focused on readers interested in elements present in my novel, such as paranormal romance, the Gullah culture, or ballet. A few curious friends volunteered. I emailed nine potential beta readers. Here’s an excerpt:
I’m contacting you because your interests and experiences give you the unique view I’m looking for in a beta reader for The Bad Death. Essentially, The Bad Death is a vampire slayer novel with a Gullah heroine and is slated for publication in summer/fall 2013. The details below give the cover art and synopsis; an explanation of a beta reader’s contribution; my novel’s characteristics such as length and similarity to its genre sisters; and particulars of the beta-reading period. I also attached the first few chapters. If you say “yes”, I’ll contact you again May 1.
I made a similar appeal on a Goodreads discussion thread, with the moderator’s blessing.
I wound up with eight readers (three from Goodreads) who had a month to read and review. Five gave feedback. The most valuable input was constructive criticism. For instance, some said my heroine was too passive, too much of a victim. Her identity was revealed way too late, and a couple of readers just gave up on her. Ouch – but thanks! I thought of a way to reveal her identity much earlier. I gave her a mission from the start and made her active instead of reactive. This required changing other characters’ interactions with her. It really strengthened the first 3rd of the book. Other input affected how many Gullah words I used in dialogue, chapter length, and the additions of a Gullah dictionary and a list of characters. My revisions per beta feedback resulted in my editor getting a much better manuscript. And readers got a much better book! Though it isn’t for everyone, The Bad Death is getting good reviews.
In addition to my heartfelt gratitude, I gave each beta reader an autographed copy of the published version, in the format of her choice.