Friday Speak Out!: From Protest to Plague and Back Again: Researching Memory, Living the Past

Friday, June 26, 2020
by Sarah Relyea

Can we ever know the past? Sure, we have research—records, documents, and archaeological sites—but long-ago words and stones leave huge gaps. Sensory memory rushes to fill those gaps, dangling its low-hanging fruit, coloring today's pandemic and protest with our forgotten fears and longings.

Through the strange brew of research and memory, novels can bring the past to life. Novels make the past come alive in much the same way they make anything else come alive—by creating assumptions and then breaking them. By creating a seemingly stable world and then setting loose an orphan, a killer cop—or maybe a plague. Once you’ve opened the barn door and overturned your readers’ safe assumptions—the assumptions you set up—you can let the horses run pretty far before you start rounding them up. Your readers will follow, because they’re looking for resolution. They’ll want your character’s ordeal to end—by death, if necessary, as long as that ushers in a new world order.

World-Building

Consider fairy tales. They begin by sketching a world and its usual cause-and-effect. When Hansel and Gretel’s father abandons them in the forest, for example, Hansel saves them by leaving a trail of pebbles. As the scene begins to repeat, the reader assumes it will follow the same pattern. But seemingly minor changes—this time Hansel has bread rather than pebbles—end up overturning the reader’s expectations.

Fairy tales are sketches. By contrast, world-building in a novel demands more than bare-bones narrative. It calls for dense description of outer and inner worlds, and for that reason novels are research-based. In writing your novel, you will need to engage in lengthy world-building, laying down patterns and assumptions—developing your readers’ expectations. Then, just as your reader is getting comfortable in your fictional world, go ahead and do something slightly freaky. Change the pebbles to bread. If you’re subtle, the reader may not even notice. Now you can lead them deep in the primeval forest—where you’ve planned on taking them all along.

If you’re taking your reader through the forest, you’ll need to know all about trees and wildflowers. Dig out your nature guides, pack a notebook, and head for a redwood canyon. By the way, make sure you know how to spot mountain lion tracks. Bear tracks, too. Research can save your life!

1969 Protests

Along with research on everything from clothing styles to historical events to bear tracks, you’ll need to delve into memory. In my novel Playground Zero, I stayed close to home. As a very young person, I’d spent several years in 1960s Berkeley, a place of fantasy and anarchy where fences were for jumping, boys and girls on LSD roamed the streets, and tear gas was as common as patchouli. Places and events from those years appear in Playground Zero—including the 1969 confrontations over People’s Park, when cops and protesters fought over a park, tear-gas-spewing helicopters choked the skies, and Governor Reagan called in the National Guard. I searched through newspaper databases and historical works; and I dredged my own deeply-buried memories.

Novels set in the past are more suspenseful when the author does not always know where the story is going. Remember that research seeks enlightenment. Focus on unresolved problems from the past that reverberate today.

Not Pebbles, Not Bread

Tonight, as the pandemic fades and protesters and looters rage through the streets of Brooklyn after the blatant police killing of a black man, George Floyd, I hear the drone of choppers overhead. The People’s Park riot was years ago and thousands of miles away, yet for me the sounds convey a whole world. They carry the seeds of a new scene. Research and memory together could bring it to life on the page, but for now there’s no need. The tragedy is already much too real.

I close my eyes and wonder what people are throwing. Not pebbles, and certainly not bread.

A sudden explosion rocks my desk. I pray it’s not another Princeton-educated lawyer tossing a Molotov cocktail into a police car.

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Harvard grad Sarah Relyea is author of the upcoming novel, Playground Zero, a coming-of-age story set in Berkeley in the late 1960s. Her first book was the nonfiction Outsider Citizens: The Remaking of Postwar Identity in Wright, Beauvoir, and Baldwin. Follow Sarah on Facebook and Goodreads.
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Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!
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