Several years ago, for some reason, I — a white woman in my 40s at the time — had this completely off-the-wall (for me) idea for a story:
When their grandmother and sole caretaker dies, two young African American boys must travel by foot to Memphis to find the father who abandoned them.
Why Memphis? I don’t know. I’ve never even been there, but it was clearly Memphis in my mind, and the working title was On the Road to Memphis. Why two little black boys? I don’t know. It was just important to me, and I couldn’t shake the idea.
The original time frame for my story was the Great Depression of the 1930s. However, as I began researching Memphis I ran into a much more intriguing possibility: the sanitation workers’ strike of 1968. I found an article about two men — Robert Walker and Echol Cole — who were killed by faulty, old machinery in a city garbage truck. This event sparked a revolution in the black community and attracted national attention when union organizers descended upon Memphis and the civil rights movement grew like wildfire in the streets of the city, literally. The series of events culminated in the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
1968 it is!
And the story in my mind became much less about a lonely and dangerous roadtrip and more about the boys’ arrival during the chaos of the strike. The more I began researching the events of those first few months of 1968, the more excited I got about using them as the backdrop for my story, and the more ideas I began to have for a colorful cast of fictional characters’ involvement in the unfolding real-life story.
So I dug my heels in, found/bought/rented various resources, and took a dive. And MAN, am I learning so much!