Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

A forum specifically for the visual and literary arts.

Moderator: Deepfake

Post Reply
User avatar
ScottyMcGee
Posts: 5673
Joined: Thu Jun 22, 2006 10:28 pm
Location: New Jersey
Has thanked: 261 times
Been thanked: 192 times
Contact:

Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#1

Post by ScottyMcGee » Sat Jun 20, 2020 9:24 pm

I wanted to get a wide range of opinions on this. I already got opinions before the recent current events since George Floyd, and people were fine with the idea. But after these events, I got someone advising me not to write this. So now I'm wondering if this is a bad idea because now perceptions and opinions have shifted.


Back in 2014-2015, I wanted to write an urban fantasy story involving the Jersey Devil, the most notorious cryptid of my home state. I wasn't sure what the actual plot was going to be, so I researched everything Weird NJ, took trips to many sites, and in my research I came across the history of the KKK in New Jersey. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_o ... New_Jersey

It really opened my eyes that my own hometown harbored such atrocities. My girlfriend even had a friend whose grandfather was a member of the KKK. This family lived the next town over where I grew up. Her friend still harbors some of those prejudices and she had to cut ties with him. In retrospect, this research explains A LOT of the Blue Lives Matter sentiment in my area.

In one of the urban legends of NJ, the Devil's Tree was said to be a tree where the KKK performed lynchings. A separate urban legend states how a nearby boulder was always hot no matter the weather outside. So they said it was a portal to hell.

I put all these urban legends together, and found a plot I wanted to write about that would mingle fantasy and history.

The story centers around these middle schoolers in a Catholic school. Long story short, they become a ragtag team who run into a Satanic cult, the KKK, and their plot to call back the Jersey Devil. It turns out that back in the '20's, the Jersey Devil (a creature from a parallel world) revisited NJ and would watch the KKK lynch people at the Devil's Tree. The Jersey Devil is revealed to be a creature who makes pacts. He offered this specific group of the KKK more people to lynch in exchange for their eternal souls and worship. They made this deal, but sometime later a young heir refused to renew the pact and locked the Jersey Devil away, hence why nobody has seen it in years.

It's important that the main characters are in a Catholic school not just because I grew up in a Catholic school and know what it's like, but because their understanding is idealistic versus what the world is actually like, because that's how I felt when I grew up and started knowing the world more. For example, I remember when I was a kid I was very confused why the KKK used a crucifix if they were bad. One of the main characters asks the same thing when they go searching for clues in a former KKK member's house. One of the older kids explains it to them, how complicated these things really are than just "Christianity is good and everything else is bad".

I talked about this today to someone in a writing group I'm in. Their reaction surprised me and also worried me. They said

"Obviously atrocities need to be faced, but I'm not sure a fictional account by a non-black author would be the way to go with that. I guarantee there will be black authors out there who are better placed to write non-fictional books about the actual stuff that went down. Plus it's really iffy to be like ... yeah the devil was behind this, rather than holding the racists to account. Which you could do, but it would be an extremely sensitive topic to approach. I certainly wouldn't touch it."


My intention isn't to say though that "the devil was behind everything" - the KKK is already written in my story as being established and doing their thing in history. The kids realize that systemic racism persists in their area because of the culture that the KKK spread in these small towns. The fantasy twist is that this specific group of KKK tried to resort to the occult to further establish their gain.

But I don't know now if this is a bad idea. I'm not trying to write from a black experience, rather reveal a forgotten, little-known history here. I think it's important because I believe people in this specific region are indeed still racist, from what I have witnessed, and the implication is that there are old family ties to the KKK, and even though one may denounce the KKK they still harbor some subconscious racist attitudes. The main character is Hispanic like me because I know what it's like to run into people in this area who are prejudiced against Hispanics. The main character therefore can relate on some level to the history he and his friends uncover about the KKK. It all fits like a puzzle piece to him where he's like "Oh, this makes sense now, because X person said Y thing to me/my family."

User avatar
Deku Tree
Moderator
Posts: 12462
Joined: Tue Jun 13, 2000 1:00 am
Location: Texas
Has thanked: 120 times
Been thanked: 82 times

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#2

Post by Deku Tree » Sat Jun 20, 2020 10:40 pm

I wouldn't look to me for guidance about the tact of writing about the KKK, but I would say the feedback from your writing group sounds valid.

I do have questions about the Jersey Devil in the story. What's it want with souls if it isn't a traditional demon or devil, but a creature from a parallel world? That souls are confirmed real, parallel worlds are confirmed real, and creatures from parallel worlds can be given and want the souls of others is an involved combination of ideas. How's that all work? Is there some whole Dark Tower mythology in the background?

User avatar
ScottyMcGee
Posts: 5673
Joined: Thu Jun 22, 2006 10:28 pm
Location: New Jersey
Has thanked: 261 times
Been thanked: 192 times
Contact:

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#3

Post by ScottyMcGee » Sat Jun 20, 2020 10:51 pm

I could go on and on into the fictional background I created for this story, since I want it to be the first story in a series about uncovering urban legends. But that would be really derailing from the main topic at hand. But long story short, the Jersey Devil feeds off souls. That sort of thing. I don't know how much else I want to get into the fantasy aspect without spoiling some reveals. But the historical aspect is what I'm more interested in treating effectively.

User avatar
RinkuTheFirst
Posts: 6067
Joined: Tue Jun 24, 2003 1:00 am
Location: Bamamama
Has thanked: 107 times
Been thanked: 127 times

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#4

Post by RinkuTheFirst » Sun Jun 21, 2020 12:04 am

I'm not sure how I would approach this either. Fear of being told that "you can't tell a story about being [x] because you aren't [x]" has stopped a lot of my writing dead in its tracks. I do think there is valid concern that the moral of the story could come off as "the devil did it, not systemic racism" by some readers though.

User avatar
I REALLY HATE POKEMON!
Posts: 30712
Joined: Thu Jun 08, 2000 1:00 am
Location: California, U.S.A
Has thanked: 2658 times
Been thanked: 184 times

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#5

Post by I REALLY HATE POKEMON! » Sun Jun 21, 2020 2:25 am

Who the writer is shouldn't matter, either the content is objectionable or it is not. Your only concern should be telling a good story, not babysitting the feelings of other adults. If it were up to some people there'd be nothing straight white men could write about. You meet 2/3 of those and are therefore relatively low on the victimhood totem pole so be prepared to write pretty dry and safe in this "current year" climate if you're not willing to ruffle some feathers.

For what it's worth, I think the story sounds fairly good overall. I get a bit of a Stephen King vibe from it.

User avatar
ScottyMcGee
Posts: 5673
Joined: Thu Jun 22, 2006 10:28 pm
Location: New Jersey
Has thanked: 261 times
Been thanked: 192 times
Contact:

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#6

Post by ScottyMcGee » Wed Jul 01, 2020 12:20 am

So.

Not sure what to do.


By now I have spoken with black friends and acquaintances from my college community and they are totally fine with the idea. They don't think it's offensive and said to go for it.

I went back to the writing group that I'm a part of (where the first person expressed their concern that brought this whole up). A few more people continued expressing uneasiness, but they were all white and on one hand someone told me that what matters most is the opinion of the black community. Well, a black member of the writing group did finally chime in and was not happy about it at all. They said the story is sensationalizing lynching, and they don't find the purpose in the Jersey Devil if all he's doing is feeding off the racist hatred of the KKK. Sensationalizing is indeed a pitfall I was worried about. I don't intend to write any of the lynchings as a scene or through the eyes of a black character. The characters find out about this whole backstory somewhere in the middle of the story through their research and conversations with the antagonist.

The same black member of the group also brought up the point that the KKK wouldn't need "more power" by making a deal with the Jersey Devil; they were already in power and continue to be so through the systemic racism they created. But I guess the route I wanted to go with was "People in power literally only want more power; it doesn't matter how powerful they are already."

I had an entire story set in my head about racism and growing up in a racist town that you don't realize is racist at first until you learn about its forgotten atrocities and current modern-day attitudes. I want the main characters to learn that even though they eventually defeat the Jersey Devil and the KKK, they didn't "defeat racism". It would end on a sour note as the MC fully realizes systemic racism that is much harder to fight. For example, throughout the story he has a crush on a black girl but his parents (without being outwardly stating why) suggest a white girl (this literally happened to me in grade school too by the way). The school police officer they try to seek help from doesn't do much and claims "the KKK doesn't exist anymore". There are these attitudes I want to sprinkle that the MC and his friends notice and question, and don't realize the answers until they get wrapped up in the cult surrounding the Jersey Devil and how racist the town was. That racism still exists albeit in a different form. Like I said, I also intend the MC to be Hispanic like me and realize racist attitudes that are thrown towards him too.

When I originally conceived the story, I actually didn't have the lynching or KKK involved. It was just about a cult making a deal with the Jersey Devil creature to worship him in exchange for sacrificing people. Since the story deals with the state's most infamous urban legends, I ran into the history of the KKK through the Devil's Tree, and that's how it all started with me wanting to incorporate the KKK into it as antagonists. The climax occurs in the "Gates of Hell", which is an abandoned sewer system in the state that is rumored to have no end, and people have claimed to have seen the KKK congregate there in real life, and the graffiti on the walls refer to all sorts of white supremacy. So, in short, it seemed unavoidable to me to have a tale about these urban legends and not mention the KKK as some kind of antagonists. When I discovered how these local urban legends intertwined with the KKK I thought "Aha! I can write a fantasy story AND have it mingle with social commentary!"

But now. Eh. I really don't know what to do. I'm quite frankly embarrassed and feel like I want to dig a hole and never come out again after the vehemently negative response from this specific community of writers I grew up with. But then other writers say it's okay. The black community from my college seem totally fine with it, but this one black person in the writing group is completely against it. A part of me will just keep asking, but then I got a negative response from that too in that particular writing group. Someone said, "Tbh if your solution is to write a draft and then ask black friends “hey, does sensationalise your community trauma?”, it’s not a solution."

User avatar
RinkuTheFirst
Posts: 6067
Joined: Tue Jun 24, 2003 1:00 am
Location: Bamamama
Has thanked: 107 times
Been thanked: 127 times

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#7

Post by RinkuTheFirst » Wed Jul 01, 2020 1:45 am

I think that, even with input from the specific communities, someone is going to take issue with it by virtue of the community not being a monolith. Continuing to seek that input and research seems like the best way to go to me.

User avatar
I REALLY HATE POKEMON!
Posts: 30712
Joined: Thu Jun 08, 2000 1:00 am
Location: California, U.S.A
Has thanked: 2658 times
Been thanked: 184 times

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#8

Post by I REALLY HATE POKEMON! » Wed Jul 01, 2020 2:53 am

There's nothing to really be embarrassed about, you're making a good faith effort to do what you think is right by black people, so of that much you can be proud. I still think it's an unnecessary endeavor but just do your best. It's worth considering that you'll get different responses from different groups of people. Try asking black conservatives, I think you'll find their responses interesting.

User avatar
ScottyMcGee
Posts: 5673
Joined: Thu Jun 22, 2006 10:28 pm
Location: New Jersey
Has thanked: 261 times
Been thanked: 192 times
Contact:

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#9

Post by ScottyMcGee » Mon Jul 27, 2020 4:11 pm

^Mostly embarrassed in the sense of "Did I just make a scene?" kind of thing. You know like when you get in trouble at school and everyone is looking at you argue with the teacher and getting scolded by the teacher, and in the moment it's a big deal, but then it cools down and people move on, but you still have this lingering anxiety of "I got in trouble and it's now forever embedded into everyone's memory." I guess what I'm getting at is that their attitude made me feel ashamed to even think about the story in the first place.

User avatar
Booyakasha
Supermod
Posts: 19388
Joined: Tue Nov 07, 2000 2:00 am
Location: Wisconsinland
Has thanked: 170 times
Been thanked: 424 times

Re: Handling a sensitive subject matter in one of my WIP novels

#10

Post by Booyakasha » Sat Aug 01, 2020 11:07 am

If it's a passion project for you and you just want to tell a really good story, I say go for it. People might criticise you for this or that, but, well, as an author, you were gonna face criticism anyway.

Nobody truly knows your heart or mind but you. If people who don't know you presume to judge you based on rumours of a story they likely won't even ever read, well, they're being small-minded. If they were all as worldly and wonderful as they pretend to be, they'd give you the bennie of the doubt. Your story sounds cool and it's pretty clear you've thought long and hard about this all.
boo--------------yeah, he eats bugs and worms, and you can all shut the heck up about it already

Post Reply

Return to “Arts and Literature - Second and Better PPR Forum”