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The cover for the award winning novel

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD, published in 2016, is a historical fiction novel by Colson Whitehead. Amazon Studios is planning a limited drama series based on the novel.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction.

“It’s bad now,” Cora said. “Ever has been.” She left him there.


Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.

In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.


The Underground Railroad is used as an example in the following posts. Check them out!

Past vs Present TenseA comparison of past vs present tense including modern fiction examples. Which is right for your novel?
Past TenseWriting a story in past tense is most common in genre fiction. Learn about 5 times to choose past tense.
Comparison of Point of ViewA comparison of point of view in literature (first, third limited, and omniscient) including modern fiction examples. Which is right for your novel?
Omniscient Point of ViewOmniscient point of view is all knowing. Learn 5 times to use it in your story.
the HookThe hook is the opening of your story. Learn the four elements of a hook.
the Inciting IncidentMaster the inciting incident with these 4 essential elements.
Falling ActionThe falling action is an important part of your novel. Get it right with these 4 must-have elements.
the AntagonistLearn the 4 types of antagonists, get 5 tips for writing an antagonist, and see modern fiction examples.
the MentorLearn the 8 mentor qualities & see modern fiction examples.
Secondary CharactersEvery novel needs more secondary characters than just the essential ones. Learn the six roles of secondary characters with modern examples.


I was disappointed in this book. I really thought it was going to be about the railroad itself (because a physical secret underground railroad sounds cool), but it wasn’t. The railroad itself was barely noted.

When the railroad was mentioned, it would be things like, ‘Wow! someone built this.’ Which did not satisfy my curiosity.

Otherwise, the book was interesting but it just never lived up to my pre-conceived idea of what it should have been about.

That’s just my opinion, what do others think?

As it is, though, an unsuspecting reader may be lead to believe the novel is based on fact, and therein lies the problem with the book.

– Marcus McDowell

It’s so beautifully and vividly described I almost wondered if I didn’t actually know what the real Underground Railroad was.

– Your Impossible Voice

From a prose perspective, The Underground Railroad is serviceable;

 – Speculiction
a typewriter

Writing Practice

Check out these writing exercises and prompts inspired by THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD.

Prompt: The Opening Paragraph(s)

This is the opening paragraph of the novel. Ignore everything you know about the story and use it as a writing prompt.

Your Task: Using as much detail as possible, write another 300+ words.

Ajarry (Chapter 1)

THE first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

This was her grandmother talking. Cora’s grandmother had never seen the ocean before that bright afternoon in the port of Ouidah and the water dazzled after her time in the fort’s dungeon. The dungeon stored them until the ships arrived. Dahomeyan raiders kidnapped the men first, then returned to her village the next moon for the women and children, marching them in chains to the sea two by two. As she stared into the black doorway, Ajarry thought she’d be reunited with her father, down there in the dark. The survivors from her village told her that when her father couldn’t keep the pace of the long march, the slavers stove in his head and left his body by the trail. Her mother had died years before.

Exercise: Rewrite

Choose any scene/chapter – an action scene or any scene you felt strongly about would be best.

Your Task: Rewrite the scene in the present tense.

Your Options: You can alter the scene in any way you want (including changing the point of view); Or, you can leave the scene as is, except the tense.

Think about it:

  • Which did you make the choices you did?
    • Did you change the POV? Why or why not?
    • Did you make any changes to the scene? Why or why not?
  • How does changing the tense alter the feel of the work?
  • Would you have preferred this novel be written in present tense? Entirely? Parts? None? Consider why.
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages to the choice of present tense?

Need an idea?

This is a basic exercise – it’s purpose is work on improving understanding of past and present tense.

If you have no idea where to start, do a part you felt strongly about. I would do anything involving the railroad since those were the parts I enjoyed most.

Here’s a part of the Georgia chapter (page 67 in my version)

Lumbly was not as sentimental. He lit a lantern and gave it to Caesar while he kicked some hay and pulled up a trapdoor in the floor. At their trepidation he said, “I’ll go first, if you wish.” The stairwell was lined with stones and a sour smell emanated from below. It did not open into a cellar but continued down. Cora appreciated the labor that had gone into its construction. The steps were steep, but the stones aligned in even planes and provided an easy descent. Then they reached the tunnel, and appreciation became too mealy a word to contain what lay before her.Lumbly is not as sentimental. He lights a lantern and gives it to Caesar while he kicks some hay and pulls up a trapdoor in the floor. At their trepidation he says, “I’ll go first, if you wish.” The stairwell is lined with stones and a sour smell emanates from below. It does not open into a cellar but continues down. Cora appreciates the labor that has gone into its construction. The steps are steep, but the stones align in even planes and provide an easy descent. They reach the tunnel, and appreciation becomes too mealy a word to contain what lays before her.

Exercise: Prove It

This is going to be a tedious drill. Sorry, not sorry.

Your Task: Go through the novel and find (at least) 5 examples that prove this novel has an omniscient narrator.

Need an idea?

Open the book. Read carefully. Think about every piece of information given – could the POV character have known that?

hands in chains that are broken


First Published
Aug 02, 2016
Print Length
(according to amazon)
300 pages
File Size
(according to amazon)
5,007 KB
Goodreads Rating
(As of Feb 2019)
Goodreads rating for the novel The Underground Railroad
Amazon Rating
(As of Feb 2019)
Amazon customer rating for the novel The Underground Railroad
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