I was in Kansas City for a visit to Briarcliff Elementary School where my fifth grade friend, Jamison Sherman and his class hosted an author visit. It was especially ineresting to talk with kids who have grown up near the Santa Fe Trail, where some of my books are located. Some of them didn’t even realize it. They had some really great questions about writing process, character development, and history. There were some personal questions, too: “How old are you?” I think that with all my white hair there was the serious thought that I might have set out on the Santa Fe Trail with Grace Willis in the late 1800s.
The “Mad Artist” isn’t Angry, She’s Thinking
Some days I feel like that! My daughter calls the picture above, “The Mad Artist.” I’m working at the dining room table. I’m not mad as in angry; I’m thinking of mad as an adverb as in “totally mad, extremely cool.” (We all have our fantasies.) I’m thinking. Thinking is totally cool.
The thing about historical fiction, even fantasy that situates itself within an historical era, is that it is easy to miss important details when you are doing research. Illustrating the chapters, as I did in The Last Crystal Trilogy, often reveals some new bit of history that I’ve overlooked. Take Big Red, for example, in The Red Abalone Shell.
What I Learned from Big Red
Big Red is the White-Faced Hereford calf that James Matthias’ gets ready for exhibit at the county fair. Finding images to create a sketch that was satisfying to me was not such a struggle. Getting him right was a challenge. BUT later in the book, Big Red is kidnapped–I suppose one could say rustled. He’s hauled away to the Oklahoma National Stockyards to be sold for World War I Bonds. Choosing an image to draw on in creating the illustration sent me double-checking my facts. The images I found showed a change in how the entranced looked over time. My first question was, ‘When was the Oklahoma National Stockyards opened?’ It turns out that it opened in 1910–whew, that worked. The book is set in about 1917. Finding a satisfying image of a 1917 truck for Big Red’s kidnappers to use was a search in itself. But an image of the backside of a prize-winning Hereford Bull riding in the back of a 1917 truck?–that wasn’t so easy. I finally managed to make a sketch that felt right. Sketches of Big Red the calf and Big Red in the truck are below. I ended up altering the one in the truck just a bit. You can compare it with the illustration that appears in chapter 26.
One sketch of the stockyard later, I asked myself, “When did the stockyards get that fancy entrance?” I discovered that my completed sketch didn’t work because the entrance was there, but it first read “Oklahoma National Stockyard Co.” So, I had to start over with a new sketch. All part of trying to keep the history as right as I can and part of the mad artist in me that isn’t content until I have it right.
Our Understanding of History Changes Things
The thing is, after all the work and the books are out, I realize that our understanding of history may change with new research. So maybe I will have it wrong in places where I thought I had it right. That’s okay. A reader needs to understand that knowledge changes with new discoveries. The old ideas show us how we got to new ones over time. I’m good with that.