One of my goals for early 2010 was to read Alex Haley's Roots. Since I am writing a multigenerational saga, based on my real ancestors, I may use "like Roots" in my pitch. So I figured I'd better read it. I was also looking for ideas to help me write my book. Here's what I discovered.
- Haley's first generation takes up half the book. I'm going to try to make mine more balanced between my three-plus generations/main characters.
- Over the course of 100 years, main characters are going to die. I was tempted to gloss over that, simply moving to the next MC's story. Haley tells about their deaths (except for the cases where family is separated and doesn't know about it), but doesn't linger. He spends about a page on Chicken George's old age and death.
- I have to use "thee" and "thou" because they're important words in Quaker history. Haley is a master at vernacular. He keeps up the old slang for an entire book. He must have edited over and over! I've been using some other old words, like gaol and plough. But frankly, I don't think I can be consistent with that language through an entire book. Martha Grimes' attempt to write English in one of her mysteries, frequently falling back into American, was an annoying distraction. Now I'm reading The Peaceable Kingdom, which intersperses "thou" into modern American. That may be the best course for me, too.
- Historical families tend to have lots of children, and too many characters can confuse the reader. They also tend to have a lot of the same names! Haley uses summary paragraphs to give the background/genealogical information without confusing the reader. On page 568, he writes, "The eight children grew up, took mates, and had their own children. The fourth son, Tom..." and goes into more detail for the MC. He separates people with the same name with "Little Kizzy" and "Aunt Matilda." I use "Annie" to separate a cousin from my MC, Ann. I keep the names for different generations of MCs, when the older person has died and is not in the picture.
- Haley uses dialogue to tell about historical events; "I heard that - ." If I weren't doing the same thing, I probably wouldn't have noticed. But after a while that method seemed too obvious. I will probably intersperse dialogue history with summary history. Hmm...
Alex Haley is such an inspiration - he changed the world, not only for people of African descent, but for genealogy for everybody.