I learned early on that a story needs some unifying characteristics that help emphasize the meaning of the story. My teacher was Carl Sandburg. I suspect most people think of Sandburg as a poet, but he also wrote one giant novel, over 1000 pages in fact, called Remembrance Rock. It is an epic journey through American history, one that begins with the first settlers and continues into the 20th century. Its theme -- the whole sense of what this story means -- is the unity, or perhaps the resilience, of the American experience.
But Sandburg does not hit us over the head with that message. Instead, it permeates the story in subtle ways. The setting of each chapter contains a specific rock on the New England coastline -- Remembrance Rock, of course. Every generation has its own war to fight. One child in each chapter is born with flaming red hair. And every chapter has its own yellow cat, usually named Mesopotamia, or Tamia for short. The reader comes to look for those markers as as a way to connect one episode with the next, and as reassurance of the continuation of the spirit that holds the country together. The device is simple. It exists without disrupting the flow of the story. And it is the vital element that holds the book together.
In Beyond All Price, I borrowed shamefully from Sandburg by turning Nellie Chase into a cat lover and introducing a cat into each crisis point in the story. For Nellie, the cats represented her need to have something or someone to love. And readers did catch on. One was even inspired to take Nellie's photograph and photoshop several cats into it.
In my current novel, The Road to Frogmore, the continuing theme is the persistence of Gullah culture among the newly-freed slaves of St. Helena Island. Its spokesperson is the narrator, the slave woman Rina. In order for my heroine, Laura Towne, to be successful in her own personal quest, she must come to understand and appreciate that culture.
The readers will have to undergo the same learning process. So to help matters along, I'm introducing a new feature in this blog -- Gullah Wednesdays. I'll be bringing you all sorts of snippets of Gullah culture as we progress, but for today, let's start with this video Introduction to "The Roots of Gullah Culture on St. Helena Island: