Kathleen Wilford was born in Panama and has lived in four different countries and three different states—but never in Kansas. She studied literature at Cornell University and at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she now teaches writing. When she’s not teaching or writing, Kathleen can be found outdoors, chasing her disobedient dog.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I’ve always been fascinated by pioneer literature and the homesteading era. I’m a fan of Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I admire the strong women who endured life on lonely prairies, living in sod houses and struggling to keep themselves and their families alive.
But the specific spark for Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt came from learning something that surprised me: in the 1870’s, the British aristocracy founded several settlements on the plains of Kansas. These were “communities of culture and refinement,” where, in theory, “the arts and graces of life” could be imported straight from London.
What if, I wondered, an outdoorsy young homesteader went to work in a grand house in one of these settlements? And the character of Cabby Potts was born. In my story, Cabby is desperate to escape a job she hates but equally desperate to save her family’s struggling homestead. So, she plays matchmaker between her pretty, romantic sister Emmeline and the rich young lord of the manor—and, as you can imagine, complications ensue!
How do you conduct your research?
I like to begin with books that situate the time period I’m studying in a larger historical context. For Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, I began with Prairie Fever: British Aristocrats in the American West 1830-1890 by Peter Pagnamenta. After that, I consulted The American West: A New Interpretive History, by Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher; A Shovel of Stars: the Making of the American West 1800 to the Present, by Ted Morgan; and Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier, by Joanna Stratton.
I followed these foundational sources with more specific books and then with primary sources. I consulted homesteader journals, 1870’s editions of the Dodge City Times, an 1841 book by Dr. Samuel Sheldon Fitch called Diseases of the Chest (fascinating, trust me), Mrs. Beeton’s book on the duties of a housemaid . . . etc.!
Since I work for Rutgers University, I’m lucky enough to have access to the rich depth of primary materials owned by the university. I think primary sources are key not only to authentic details but to the language of the times.
The Kansas Historical Society was also a great source of information, photographs, maps, historical records, etc. Several experts also helped me with questions, and of course, Google is great for filling in details.
Do you have a specific system for collecting data?
I just take notes—maybe a system would help! I write down things that seem relevant or interesting. Here’s an example from a homesteader’s journal:
“Ox hides himself in deep, stiff, wiry prairie grass in morning, stays still so bell won’t ring.”
This detail made it into Cabby Potts, when Cabby boasts that she’s good at finding the milk cow when she hides in the grass.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
With Cabby Potts, Duchess of Dirt, I made sure I had the basic facts before writing: the history of Kansas and homesteading laws, history of the Victoria settlement, history of the Native American tribes that were displaced by homesteaders, etc. But I kept returning to research to fill in details (how exactly was wheat harvested in the 1870’s? what kinds of hats did women wear? etc.) The danger is going down so many rabbit-holes that you don’t get back to writing!
Researching is a lot of fun, but it’s important to remember that historical fiction is fiction. All details must be subservient to the story, so a lot of my fun facts got left out.
Has your research affected the overall thrust of your book? How so?
I was sobered to learn that fully half of all homesteaders never made it—they never “proved up” on their claims, and they lost their land. We tend to romanticize the homesteading era, but in truth many people who started off poor also ended up poor. I hope my book helps show how the system was often stacked against homesteaders, especially when unscrupulous land agents helped rich speculators.
Also, the more I learned about the history of the Plains tribes of Native Americans, the more I wanted to communicate the truth about the injustices faced by dispossessed Native people.
Why is historical fiction important?
I love the way historical fiction immerses readers into a different world. All good fiction is immersive, but with historical fiction, the past comes alive in fresh ways. I think many kids—adults too, maybe—learn best through story. Non-fiction helps readers learn too, but fiction adds an important layer of empathy.
Thinking about American historical fiction in particular, I believe that to understand where we ARE in this country, we need to understand where we’ve BEEN. If we only see what’s happening now, it’s like watching only the second half of the movie.
And in my opinion, historical fiction is just fun to read!