We are asked to step into a time machine—to fiddle with bright dials, to tinker with metal gearshifts, to set the clock backward to the period that most inspires us. Hanna Pylväinen guides us through the steps of entering the past, a world we’ll attempt to pin down by means of recording new sights, sounds and smells.
Guest author Zetta Elliott, a vibrant and engaging speaker and the author of A Wish After Midnight, reads an excerpt from her work. Times have changed for women and minorities in this country, but her protagonist fears “ghetto” is stamped onto her skin just as boldly as “slave” might have been 150 years ago. Elliott speaks passionately of sankofa, the notion of “go back and fetch it”; we learn there is no shame in going back to retrieve something of value you left in a darker time.
Jennifer Epstein, author of The Painter from Shanghai, describes world-building as a sensory experience, not a march of dry historical facts. Next in the process comes character, followed by conflict, which propels the story forward. Human beings don’t differ significantly today from our ancestors, and ultimately the tale we want to tell is about struggles that resonate in the present day.
We choose a point of conflict—money, poisoned water, a baby, a murder, any charged incident will do—and use it to introduce chaos into our orderly historical world. Whether we use meticulous research or create wild alternate histories, whether our books are based on vintage news articles or on the imagined history of Grandma’s favorite hat pin, we are stirring the pot, adding drama to our already foreign and fascinating scene.
As I leave the workshop, inspired by the company of so many female writers of all ages and backgrounds, I find myself dwelling on Elliott’s talk of magic doors. The Door of No Return is both a real historical aspect of the slave trade and an imagined rabbit hole, a tunnel through which our characters plummet, leaving the present behind to explore the wonders of the past.
- Check out the history another mentor chose to explore!