Children's Literature Reviews for Teaching History

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Friday, February 11, 2011

Interview with Liza Ketchum

Today, I have the pleasure of interviewing author Liza Ketchum about the process of writing historical fiction.  Among other things, Ms. Ketchum discusses the wide variety of primary sources she used in her research for Newsgirl.  It is clear that she dove into the research process determined to accurately recreate San Francisco during the Gold Rush, and her persistence paid off.  To me, reading Newsgirl was like taking a time machine into the past, just as she intended.

***The review of Newsgirl is here.***

In regards to Newsgirl, what was your favorite part of the writing process?

"I love doing research for my historical novels. When readers open my book, I want them to feel they are traveling in a time machine. When they step out into the past, I hope they enter a world that is historically accurate. For this reason, I think of myself as a “research detective” as I track down old diaries, letters, newspapers, and images to help me create this historical world. When I wrote Newsgirl, I had already written three other books set during that era, so I had a lot of information at hand. But I decided that the city of San Francisco would be like a character itself, in the story. Finding out more about that city’s past was the most exciting part of my journey with the novel. I had the chance to visit San Francisco during the research phase, and I met a wonderful librarian there, at the Society for California Pioneers, who gathered incredible primary source material for me. I felt that I had “struck gold,” like a California 49-er, when she unearthed documents, old photographs, city directories, maps, and diaries that helped me bring the past to life." 

What was the most difficult part of the writing process?

"The most difficult part of the writing process, for me, is usually the first draft. Newsgirl was a little easier than some books, because I’d had the idea for the story for years, ever since I learned that newsboys, in Gold Rush California, could make more money than their parents when they sold East coast newspapers on the street. But figuring out the plot is always a challenge, and it takes me many, many drafts—and many plot changes—before a book is ready to send to my agent."

What are some of your favorite children's books?

"I read so widely that it’s hard for me to name a few favorite books. I’m lucky to teach in a graduate program, at Hamline University, with a number of wonderful colleagues who also write for young readers, and I always read their work with pleasure. When I was a young reader myself, I loved The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, The Back of the North Wind, Stuart Little, and The Witch of Blackbird Pond, which my mother read to me when I had the measles—and had to stay in a darkened room for days. My mom sat in my closet and read to me through a crack in the door. The book seemed magical to me for that reason."

Can you tell us a little about what you've been working on recently?

"I have just finished a draft of a new, contemporary YA that takes place in Boston and Nova Scotia in 2004. The narrator is a 17-year-old boy whose father dies suddenly; a mystery in the story leads him to search for a missing half brother he learns about after his dad’s death. The book also has a strong baseball theme (I’m a Red Sox fan!). Next I need to finish revising a book about vaudeville. The novel begins in Brattleboro, VT, in 1913, and moves around the country as the narrator follows her dream to go onstage and become a singer. Stay tuned!"


I'd also like to share a few of the FAQ's Ms. Ketchum includes on her website because they provide even more insight into the research process.

FAQ: How much of your story is true? How much is invented?

"While Amelia and her family are fictional characters, the story’s setting and many events are based on facts. When I write about the past, I imagine that I am taking my readers for a ride in a time machine. As they step out onto San Francisco’s streets in 1851, I want them to smell the city’s gritty smells, to feel the bustle of activity, hear the sounds, and taste the food. I want my story to help a time traveler experience the touch of the wind, the swirling dust, and the cold fog. And I hope my readers will see the city’s landscape and its buildings as they walk in the shoes of the people who came from all over the world in search of gold."

"I have based San Francisco’s layout— with its shops, wharves, and meeting places— on the maps, directories, newspaper stories, and first person accounts from that period. The stories that Amelia sells to the papers are invented, but the Alta California was a real paper, as was the Sonora Herald, the first newspaper in the southern mines. Dr. Gunn, who appears in the novel, was a real person and the editor of the Herald. The Boston headlines that Amelia calls out are actual headlines from Eastern papers of that time.

FAQ: Where do you find the historical details for your books?

"I do much of my research in libraries and historical societies. I am lucky to live in the Boston area, home to many wonderful research libraries. As I wrote Newsgirl, I searched for letters, diaries, and journals written by people who went out to California during the Gold Rush, and I looked for information about native California Indians and Mexican Californios who lived there before the rush began. I also studied maps and drawings and—of course—I read newspapers from that time period."

"Old newspapers are usually available on microfilm, which is difficult to read and hard on the eyes. Once in a while, I’m lucky enough to read an original paper from that time. If the paper is old and fragile, I might wear plastic gloves. I have to be careful not to tear the pages as I turn them. I study the news stories so that I know about the daily events that were happening as my story unfolded. Sometimes I can use those events—as I did with the fire—to help with my plot. And I also read the ads. The ads help me understand how people dressed, what foods they ate, where they shopped, and what was for sale in the stores. The ads gave me important information about the city’s restaurants, hotels, and businesses, and about the wharves where ships came in from around the world. When I wrote about Amelia and Patrick’s balloon ride, I wanted to describe that part of California as they saw it from the air—but I couldn’t take a balloon ride myself! Instead, I logged onto Google Earth, and I was able to zoom in on San Francisco and plot a path the balloon might take as the wind blew it to Sonora. I then “flew” that route, using the mouse on my computer to take me from west to east. I could imagine what Amelia and Patrick might have seen as I soared over the hills, valleys, and rivers, flying lower than an airplane, but higher than a bird. Try it yourself! It’s a great ride."

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