September 10, 2020

When Research Becomes a Novel: Under the Tulip Tree – Part 2

Michelle Shocklee

After I wrote my Texas novels, I continued to keep that little research book close by. It sat on my desk or my nightstand, and it even went on vacation with me. About five years after I’d purchased it, I was tossing around ideas for my next writing project. I didn’t want to write another plantation novel, yet I felt so strongly about the importance of the slave narratives that I didn’t want to venture too far away from the topic. What to do, what to do? My eyes drifted to that little orange book on my nightstand. Sam Jones Washington’s familiar smiling face met my gaze . . . and suddenly I knew. I would write that story! The story of an FWP writer going to interview a former slave and the unlikely friendship that develops between them.

Writing Under the Tulip Tree was a labor of love. In many ways, this is the book I’ve waited my entire life to write. The characters became real people in my heart and mind, especially Frankie. I can never know what it was truly like to live in bondage or to be a black person in the world today, but writing Frankie’s story opened my eyes to the struggles, the prejudices, and the oppression people of color have been forced to deal with for generations. Like the slave narratives, Frankie’s story doesn’t wallow in the difficulties, but simply tells the tale of her life as a slave and as a free woman.

Research trips are a must when writing historical fiction. Thankfully, my husband of thirty-three years is a willing field trip buddy, so we set out to visit many of the places around Nashville where Frankie and Rena would have gone. The neighborhood of Hell’s Half Acre was demolished in the 1950s, but as I stood on Capitol Hill, I could envision what it might have looked like in 1936. When we visited the ruins of Fort Negley, I stood in reverent silence, looking down to the area where the contraband camp was once located. To the north is downtown Nashville, with the Cumberland River barely visible these days because of high-rise buildings. When I closed my eyes, I could almost hear the roar of Union gunships. How frightening that must have been for former slaves like Frankie as they awaited the outcome of the Battle of Nashville. Our last stop was City Cemetery where many former slaves are buried. There, I sat under a tulip tree, its yellow blossoms bright in the afternoon sunshine, and I wondered if any of the people buried there had once told their story to a Federal Writers’ Project employee.

Frankie and Rena are products of my imagination, but my hope is that they bring honor to the real people whose lives they represent.

Michelle Shocklee is the author of several historical novels. Her work has been included in numerous Chicken Soup for the Soul books, magazines, and blogs.

 Married to her college sweetheart and the mother of two grown sons, she makes her home in Tennessee, not far from the historical sites she writes about.

 Visit her online at

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