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Writing about Reading and Writing

The Long Road to Publication - Part III - Travel for research

Katie at Joanna Vassa Bromley's grave in Abney Park Cemetery, London, England

 I love research! My students question my sanity, but honestly, one of the parts of writing historical fiction I love the best is the research--so much so that I need to forcibly stop myself from continuing to research and start writing my novel. In the process of research for my historical novel about the daughter (Joanna Vassa) and sister (name unknown) of Olaudah Equiano, I came across four scholars/historians and Equiano aficionados. 


It was my first trip to England in June 2011, and Prince William and Princess Kate had recently married. My husband, William, and I (Catherine) claim we were the first William and Kate! On our second trip to England in 2013 we arrived on the day Prince George was born! 


My travels started in London. Arthur Torrington, the President of the Equiano Society in London, took a whole day to guide me around London to the spots where Equiano lived and wrote his memoir, and he took me to Joanna's grave, which was discovered a few years earlier by Dr. Vincent Carretta, buried under vines in Abney Park Cemetery.  Standing with Arthur and looking at Joanna's gravestone the reality hit me—this is a real person I'm writing about. She lived, and breathed, and died—and is buried right here. The grounds of Abney Park Cemetery are beautiful, wild, overgrown with weeds, and traversed with dirt paths, abundant trees overlook the graves. Joanna (and her husband) are buried close to Isaac Watts' towering memorial (famous hymn writer).  

I had very much wanted to meet Angelina Osborne, and I had the privilege the next day.  She has done the most extensive research on Joanna Vassa Bromley, and she answered all my questions over a delicious Indian lunch. Next stop, Hull! While it's not a tourist destination, it is the birthplace of William Wilberforce and houses a museum in his honor. Vanessa Salter, at the Wilberforce Museum, shared my passion for William Wilberforce and gave me much-needed advice. 


Stephen Wombwell was an unexpected gift!  My husband and I took the train to Clavering, to visit the church where Joanna's husband (Henry Bromley) served as pastor, and see the countryside, and Stephen, the organist at Clavering Christian Centre, was very gracious. He showed us the church where Joanna and Henry ministered, treated us to lunch at a nearby pub, and tea and cake at his home, sharing with us his knowledge of the church and of the Bromleys. He also gave me a copy of Henry Bromley's history of the church. The church building Rev. Henry Bromley and Joanna ministered at is no longer there, but the current church was built in 1872, and Rev. Bromley preached there when it opened, though Joanna had died several years earlier.


My final stop was Cambridge. I took the train to Cambridge and a bus to Chesterton to visit St. Andrew's Church, which features a plaque with a poem commemorating Joanna's sister Anna Maria, who died at the age of four.  


Visiting England had a monumental impact on Remnant. I'm thankful I had the opportunity to visit the places where Joanna lived and died and to meet amazing people who also care about Equiano and his family. These newfound friends deepened my knowledge of Joanna and her life in England.  


What kinds of wonderful people have come into your life through your research?

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The Long Road to Publication - Part II - Begin researching

In the last post, I covered the initial idea for my book. Every book starts with an idea--writers get ideas from myriad sources. Other books, news articles, personal experiences, and one's own imagination all serve as sources for novels. For historical fiction, after the novelist has a person, place, or portion of history to work with, research begins. Twenty-five or thirty years ago that onerous research would involve going to libraries and archives. Fifteen years ago, when I began my research, a computer with an internet connection went a long way. However, as I will explain in my next blog, the historical novelist cannot rely solely on Internet research. There is great value in visiting places, getting a sense of the landscape, the ethos and pathos of the region, and meeting people who inhabit that region of the earth.


My initial foray into research included finding online sources and books. Notice the image above. These are some of the books I read in my initial research to understand more about . . .

  • Equiano's life
  • The slave trade 
  • The abolition of the slave trade 
  • The abolition of slavery in the United Kingdom and its colonies
  • Slavery in the United States
  • The American Revolution
  • Lord Dunmore and his call to slaves to join the British during the American Revolution
  • Rice plantations in South Carolina
  • The Middle Passage
  • Joanna Vassa.

Online sources included listserves (group email discussion groups based on a common interest--in this case Victorian Literature), which were helpful as I could ask specific questions and scholars would respond if they had helpful information. Archival research is best done in person, but a lot can also be done online, and I found helpful archivists in Cambridge and Clavering to aid in my research. As I began to research, I was an adjunct professor and had access to library databases with numerous helpful scholarly articles. Librarians were immensely helpful. I also found ancestry.com/uk to be helpful, finding census records listing Joanna Vassa and her husband Henry Bromley.


I enjoyed the long, circuitous process of research, spending a few years digesting all the sources I could find, keeping notes, and organizing the material so I could find what I needed when I began to write. The research itself took 2-3 years. I had the basic idea of a plot but didn't begin writing until I had done a significant amount of research. But I didn't finish the research and then begin writing. Research has been ongoing throughout the whole process.


In my next post I'll write about some of the many people who helped on this journey to publication, both in the U.S. and the U.K. Without their guidance and mentoring, I could not have written Remnant


Let me know if you have any questions about the process in the comments.

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The Long Road to Publication - Part I - Impetus for the Idea

Frontispiece for The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano

I recently received an offer of publication from Wipf and Stock Publishers in Oregon. This is the beginning of the end of the long road to publication. It's been quite a journey. Walk along with me as I retrace my steps from the original idea to a published book. Whether you are a writer, like to read, or are just interested in how a book gets written and published, these blog posts are for you.


In 2005 I was finishing up my Master of Arts in English at Queens College CUNY. Choosing a topic for my masters' thesis proved to be challenging. I wanted to write on Africans in Victorian literature, but there were not enough African characters to make that a viable option. I finally decided to write my thesis on how African and British writers depict Africans in their writing, choosing six texts over three centuries: Aphra Behn's Oroonoko and Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative in the 18th century; Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim's Point," and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs in the 19th century; and Nada the Lily by H. Rider Haggard and Chaka by Thomas Mofolo in the 20th century.


After working on my thesis for about a year, the end product was just shy of 100 pages and 100 sources. Whew! I was finished, and with my degree in hand I applied to teach at two community colleges and both hired me as an adjunct professor--Middlesex County College and Hudson County Community College. Just this year I earned my final promotion at HCCC, full Professor.


Equiano's narrative fascinated me. After reading it a few times and studying his life, I learned he had married a white English woman, Susannah Cullen, and they had two daughters. His wife died, he died, and his oldest daughter died all within the span of a few years. That left his youngest daughter Joanna a biracial orphan in England in 1797. What happened to Joanna, I wondered. That question sparked my historical novel, Remnant. I tried to find out anything and everything I could about Joanna Vassa. After fruitless, dead-end online searches, I discovered an Afro-British historian and scholar had written a book about Joanna Vassa. Dr. Angelina Osborne had done the research, so I just had to find her and also buy her book. Buying the book was the easy part, and eventually I was able to make contact with Angie.


This first part of the journey took a few years! Research, especially into people who died a few centuries ago and are not well known, is very challenging. Not to mention I had a full-time job, and three sons, in addition to all my responsibilities in my church and community. I forged on. Armed with basic information about Joanna, and a desire to bring her back to life, I began to write. 


It didn't take long for me to realize that Joanna's story might not be enough to sustain a longish novel. I faced a dilemma. I remembered the other big question in my mind after reading Equiano's narrative. What happened to Equiano's sister? They were kidnapped together, and separated before they reached the coast of Africa. What happened to her? Well, the short answer is, no one knows. But the longer, fictional answer, can be found in my novel Remnant! I created a second storyline about Equiano's sister, whom I named "Oluchukwu," or "Olu" for short. 


Writers receive inspiration from many sources. Jeffrey Archer often finds inspiration for his short stories from news items. Family history can be a rich source of inspiration. For me, The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano inspired me to find out more, and to invent some, about the two girls in Equiano's early and adult life, his daughter Joanna and his sister, Olu. 


In my next blog, I'll go into depth about the research process and mentors who helped me on the journey of discovery.

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