Today’s guest post from Caroline Starr Rose is a behind-the-scenes look at the inspirations and research behind her novel May B.
I’ve always had an interest in the women of the frontier, stemming from my love for the Little House on the Prairie books. As a child, I’d talk about Laura Ingalls Wilder as if she were someone I personally knew and spent hours wondering about her world.
When I got older, I thought about pioneer life through the eyes of a teacher. In those days, the schoolhouse focus on recitation and memorization favored students able to do these things well. But what about the kids who found these in-front-of-the-class lessons difficult? How did they manage?
There’s a character in the Laura books named Willie Olsen, an ill-mannered boy who often sat in the corner during lesson time. As a kid, I labeled him a bad boy; as a teacher, I wondered if there was something more going on. Maybe Willie was a poor student and a goof-off because he had a learning disability. Maybe he couldn’t grasp his school work not because he wasn’t capable, but because no one had taught him how.
I actually began my frontier research without any clear idea where I was headed but trusted the story would come to me as I became familiar with the era. Originally, I thought my character would be a mail-order bride abandoned by her new husband. It’s interesting to note that I do make mention of mail-order brides in MAY B. and that much of the story hinges on May’s abandonment.
Two books that really spoke to me during the research phase were PIONEER WOMEN: VOICES OF THE KANSAS FRONTIER and READ THIS ONLY TO YOURSELF: THE PRIVATE WRITINGS OF MIDWESTERN WOMEN, 1880-1910. Journals and letters from this era were terse accounts of the mundane, literal and immediate. Recorded events followed a safe, predictable pattern. Once I noticed these things, I knew how to approach my story. I stopped writing prose and moved into a novel-in-verse format, where I felt I could get as close to the bone as possible with this character and her situation.
As for the survival aspect of the story, two books and one movie influenced my writing: THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO, HATCHET, and CASTAWAY. My seventh-grade English teacher introduced me to THE COUNT, a book that remains my favorite to this day. I was especially drawn to the prison scenes, where Edmund Dantes is left alone in a dark cell, presumably for the rest of his life. I didn’t discover HATCHET until my college adolescent literature course, but immediately fell in love with this survival story full of despair, self-discovery, and ultimately rescue. The movie CASTAWAY captured my imagination, especially the challenge of telling the story of a person all alone who didn’t talk much (unless it was to a volleyball).
Putting it all together
In many ways, May’s story started years ago, before I knew her, back before I even dreamed of writing. That’s the way it works for me — the blending of ideas, memories, questions, and impressions to make something new.