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Writing Harlem with Louise Hare

  • Submitted: 17th April 2024

Writing Harlem with Louise Hare

Off to Harlem today with Harlem After Midnight with Louise Hare

Harlem After Midnight - Louise Hare

Map of locations in Harlem After Midnight

Location is always so important to my writing. It’s often a particular place or setting that sparks an idea. For example, it was a guided tour to the deep level shelter at Clapham South in London that gave me the beginning of Lawrie’s journey in my debut novel, This Lovely City. For Miss Aldridge Regrets, the first of my 1930s mysteries starring Lena Aldridge, it was the attraction of the Queen Mary ocean liner that was the catalyst for Lena’s adventures at sea. And of course, when she ends up in New York at the end of that novel, that city had to be the focus of the sequel, Harlem After Midnight.

Louise Hare

Louise Hare

Map of locations in Harlem After Midnight

Lena is mixed race – her father was African American – and so Harlem seemed the obvious place that she would be drawn to. Although it’s 1936 and the Harlem Renaissance is pretty much over, there’s still such rich history to explore. For example, the Apollo Theater and their famous weekly Amateur Night, where future stars such as Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday had their first big break (and later on greats such as Stevie Wonder, Jackson Five, Lauryn Hill… It still takes place every Wednesday).

Apollo Theater

Map of locations in Harlem After Midnight

I also relished the chance to pay homage to one of my favourite books, Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel Passing. One of the key characters of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen was herself mixed race and had an incredibly interesting life, causing controversy as well as being lauded for this novel in particular. Being half Danish, she travelled both to Denmark but also around Europe quite widely at a time when we often assume women, especially of her race, would have faced barriers.

I borrowed a little of her adventurous spirit for Lena, as well as giving her a complicated friendship with a woman, Bel, who she meets in Harlem. Like the two friends in Passing, both Lena and Bel are light skinned enough to pass as white. And like with those two friends, Lena isn’t always sure that Bel has the most honourable intentions when it comes to their relationship.

Map of locations in Harlem After Midnight

Because there are two timelines in the novel – the 1930s strand with Lena and another set in 1908 following the story of her father, Alfie – I set myself up for double research! New York changed a lot between those years. For example, Harlem was still a Jewish and Italian neighbourhood, with the African American population beginning to move up from downtown from the 1910s onwards. This was also the beginning of the Great Migration, as many African Americans decided they’d had enough of the Jim Crow laws of the southern states and headed up to the northern cities to find better paid work and less restrictions on their daily lives.

Macy’s

A lot has changed over the past hundred years or so. Did you know that New York had elevated trains back then? Even my US editor, based in New York, was surprised to find that out. The last part of the network was discontinued in the 1970s and much of the tracks have been completely dismantled. On the other hand, a lot has stayed the same. I was able to send Lena out on a day of shopping and sightseeing that would still be possible today: trying on dresses in Macy’s and having lunch at the Grand Central Oyster Bar. Lena is staying with friends in a brownstone in Harlem, so endemic to the city and the area.

Grand Central Oyster Bar.

It was such a joy to write about a neighbourhood that is so iconic, known the world over both for its past and present. I loved spending time writing 1930s Harlem and I hope readers enjoy their time there too.

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