On Writing – and Rewriting – History

Credit Imagine Studios

Credit Imagine Studios

Vanessa Lafaye is a Florida native, now living in the UK.  She has worked for nearly 30 years in academic publishing, for Oxford University Press, Blackwell Publishing, and Wiley.  She has published numerous articles in British broadsheets, and several short stories.  She lives in Wiltshire. Under a Dark Summer Sky (published as Summertime in the UK) is her first novel.

Under a Dark Summer Skyhttps://vanessalafaye.wordpress.com/

My first work of historical fiction has just been published and I’m still in that shiny, breathless, everything-is-magical stage of being a debut author. Under a Dark Summer Sky is the book that almost wasn’t. I previously wrote two books of women’s fiction which were not published, although they did get me signed by a good agent. Discouraged, and then debilitated by cancer treatment, I had pretty much resolved to find another creative outlet. Clearly the universe didn’t intend for me to be a writer.

All this changed on a visit to my family in Florida in 2010, when I opened the morning paper. There I found a long feature about an horrific lynching which took place in Greenwood in 1935. It carried a striking photograph of an African-American man standing beneath the legs of a corpse hanging from a tree. The observer’s face was blank of all emotion. I wondered who he was, why he was there… what he was thinking. These wonderings led me to discover the real events of the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 which destroyed Islamorada in the Florida Keys. I decided to dramatize the already impossibly dramatic story of the locals and a group of desperate, destitute World War I veterans who were caught up in the storm. In doing so, I would take my first steps into the unknown world of historical fiction, which was totally unlike any previous writing experience.

Islamorada cemetery marker, thrown 150ft by the hurricane

Islamorada cemetery marker, thrown 150ft by the hurricane

But I made a deal with myself: this book would be my last attempt to get published. If it didn’t work, I resolved to listen to the universe and give up.

I decided to set my story during the days leading up to the arrival of the storm. The real events became a framework, a scaffold, which I would populate with my fictional characters. I have heard other authors complain about the constraints of writing about historical events, but I actually found it very liberating to have history impose itself on my story. When we watch the ‘Titanic’ movie, we can be gripped all the way through, even though we already know how it ends. The thing that keeps us watching is not just the visual spectacle of the sinking ship, impressive though it is, but wanting to know the fates of the characters. I had to give the reader a reason to keep turning the pages, although the hurricane’s arrival was signalled in chapter one. For me the hurricane became a character in its own right, a psychotic, destructive, irresistible force that would reveal to the humans what really mattered to each of them.

Hurricane memorial, Islamorada

Hurricane memorial, Islamorada

I took several liberties with the facts, to make my story flow and give myself certain freedoms. I moved the date to the 4th of July to make the callous neglect of the veterans even more profound. I invented the town of Heron Key to create settings and geography not found in Islamorada. Such is the license of fiction…or is it? Although my characters were entirely imaginary, as were all of the events depicted leading up to the storm, the hurricane sequences were based on factual accounts. The responsibility weighed heavily. It made for a very different writing experience. My motivation was different too. Yes, I was telling a story, but it meant something more because it really happened.

Another native Floridian

Another native Floridian

Writing this book also made me examine my personal history. I was born and raised in Florida but have not lived there for 25 years, having settled in the UK in 1989. I never expected to write a novel set in Florida, but once I started, it opened up a vast store of childhood memories. The tastes, smells, sights, and sounds of Florida came flooding back, straight from my brain and onto the page. Writing the book was like a two-year nostalgia trip, like discovering a huge time capsule in a dusty attic. In many ways, the book has turned out to be a love letter to my home state. Writing it made me examine my feelings about the place that I left so long ago, made me appreciate what I love about it…reminded me of why I left.

It also made me realise that it is still, on some level, home.