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Writing historical fiction: Getting inside the head of your protagonist.

Writing historical fiction: Getting inside the head of your protagonist.

Since publishing Black Randall, I’ve had phone calls and emails from all over Australia, wanting to discuss the novel. It is something I had never expected. But I love it. There is something very special about having contact with my readers.

My correspondents might like John, they might hate him, but It’s extraordinarily gratifying when people say that I have created a character who feels real.

So, how did I get inside the head of John Randall, a male slave born over 250 years ago? Heavens, I find it difficult enough to understand my own husband.


Journals are your first step. Find the materials written by those who may have experienced the same life, in around the same historical period as your protagonist.

I found slave journals written by men who lived in Stonington, (where Black Randall was set,) and may even have known John, and mined them for everything I could:

· Routines of daily living

· Specific events he may have experienced.

· His values and those of the people around him

· The emotional tone

One of the most moving accounts was by a woman, Elizabeth Keckley, who grew up enslaved in Virginia.

Joe’s mother was ordered to dress him in his best Sunday clothes and send him to the house, where he was sold, like the hogs, at so much per pound. When her son started for Petersburgh, ... she pleaded piteously that her boy not be taken from her; but master quieted her by telling that he was going to town with the wagon, and would be back in the morning. Morning came, but little Joe did not return to his mother. Morning after morning passed, and the mother went down to the grave without ever seeing her child again. One day she was whipped for grieving for her lost boy.... Burwell never liked to see his slaves wear a sorrowful face, and those who offended in this way were always punished. Alas! the sunny face of the slave is not always an indication of sunshine in the heart.’

I’ve got to say, this did my head in a little. So much so that I used it to give John a smile in Black Randall; one he could put on and off at will, providing him with the tiniest degree of control in his life.

Excerpt from Black Randall

‘It was the Mistress Randall who found him. She detached herself from a group of chattering women wrapped in shawls and big bonnets and strolled over. Boy loved this daughter of the household with her pretty face and happy smile and her big embroidered bag which held a mystery of things. But now, he could only watch wordlessly as she crouched down.

‘My goodness, Boy, don’t take it so hard. You know how the master is. He could not live without his Laisa. He hasn’t sold her. Your mother will be back.’ She pulled a boiled lolly from her bag. ‘Now, give me a big smile and get yourself up.’ The words echoed as if down a funnel and did not lodge in his brain. But she pulled at his arm and he grasped what she wanted.

Each limb required a conscious effort to move. They weighed too heavy for his six-year-old body, but he dragged himself to his knees, arranged his face into the form she required and found himself clasping a lolly. He regarded it, before letting it fall from his hand.’

Social Commentaries:

Hunting through historical research for social commentary also provided a gold mine. My favorite was The Peculiar Institution, collated by historian Kenneth M. Stampp and which captured the reoccurring themes in slave masters’ efforts to produce the "ideal slave":

Apparently it went like this:

1. Maintain strict discipline and unconditional submission.

2. Create a sense of personal inferiority, so that slaves "know their place."

3. Instil fear.

4. Teach servants to take interest in their master's enterprise.

5. Prevent access to education and recreation, to ensure that slaves remain uneducated, helpless, and dependent.[10][11]

Some people have asked me why I portrayed Master John Randall, John’s owner, so harshly. Well. I didn’t. It just became clear that perfectly respectable, God fearing Christian men followed the doctrines of the day, with little sense of hypocrisy. Master John Randall was neither the best nor the worst of them.

But it certainly suited my needs to have him belittle John. It not only developed an angry, resentful adolescent with the motivation to escape but in many ways shaped the entire novel, as he fought to prove himself in a world of white men.

And I guess that’s the key: Use the information that meets your purposes.

Religious sermons provide insight into the attitudes of the day.

I have no idea what inspired me to go searching for sermons written in Connecticut at the time of John’s life. I did. And so glad I did.

The following excerpt was in fact excised from the final draft. Sad, because I liked it. But the inspiration came from a real sermon that I had found. ‘Peering between the bodies in front of him, he saw the preacher step forward into the light and stand with his arm raised, like an avenging angel come out of the darkness. His voice rang out.

‘There is talk abroad of the evils of slavery but this I say to you! I have,’ he struck his chest, ‘You have’, he pointed at the white masters and mistresses in the front seats, ‘We ALL have,’ he spread his arms wide, ‘a godly responsibility to bring these poor ignorant heathens out of the darkness of their pagan lands and into the light of Christianity. If we cannot bring these poor children into the light they will be damned to an eternity of the fires of hell. The fires of hell will lick their skin. They will scream in pain and beg for mercy, but it will be too late! There will be no one to hear them.’

Boy’s hand crept into Ol’ Ma’s.

‘Do you think they can be torn from the claws of the Devil with ease? They are wild animals and must be tamed. Do you think they will submit to leave their pagan ways? Do you?’ he whispered. ‘Do you?’ he thundered.

The congregation shook its head. Murmurs of ‘No Sir,’ and ‘Amen!’ rustled through the church. Boy screwed his eyes tight closed but could not force away the image. He hung over the flames of hell. They seared his skin. The devil pulled at his arms; its claws dug into his flesh. The Master tugged at his feet. Boy cried out.

The reverend raised his head and glared down the back where the wild animals sat. He pointed at Boy. The child wormed closer to Ma. She squeezed his hand.

‘You boy. You boy down there.’ Boy’s eyes rolled back in his head. A wild animal caught in a trap. His hands dug into Ol’ Ma. He would claw his way from that place. Her hands gripped his, tethering him.

John would have listened to sermons like this all his young life. They would have informed his attitudes, his way of thinking about himself, the attitudes of those around him.

Do you write Historical fiction? If you have any other ideas of how to get into the head of your protagonist, despite the massive gap between you in time, gender and circumstances, please let me know!

Slave narratives:

  • Olaudah Equiano "The Interesting Narrative of the Life of O. Equiano, or G. Vassa, the African," published in London in the 1780s.

  • Harriet Jacobs: (1813-1897) Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

  • Frederick Douglass: The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.

  • William W Brown: A narrative of William W Brown, a fugitive slave, written by himself. Published in 1847

  • Memoirs of Boyrereau Brinch, k/a Jeffrey Brace 1742-Born in West Africa, not captured until he was 16, he lived in New Haven, Connecticut. And although he may have been a generation older, he lived in the same times as John and fought in the War of Independence, although for the Rebels.

  • Venture Smith, born in Africa, with the name of Broteer Furro (c. 1729 – 1805) A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture, a Native of Africa: But Resident above Sixty Years in the United States of America, Related by Himself. Venture actually actually lived in Stonington, and although he was a generation older, he may have even known John.

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