MaryLou Driedger‘s curiosity and love of learning have taken her to some fifty destinations across the globe. As an educator, she has taught in three different countries and is the recipient of a Manitoba Teacher of the Year award. As a writer, has been a columnist for Winnipeg Free Press and The Carillon, and her freelance work has been published in numerous periodicals, anthologies, travel guides, institutional histories, and curriculums, and she has written the script and lyrics for a musical.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
The story idea for my best-selling novel Lost on the Prairie came from reading a memoir written by my Great Aunt Alma. She was describing their family’s migration journey by train across the midwest. Aunt Alma mentioned that the boxcar where my grandfather Peter was traveling with the family horses became uncoupled from the train at some point. When they arrived at their destination the boxcar, Peter and the horses were gone. That incident triggered the idea for my book. I decided to write a fictional account about what might have happened to my grandfather from the time his car became uncoupled from the train and the time he was reunited with his family.
My current work in progress 60’s Girl is very much about the main character, a girl named Mary, who we follow through the entire 60s decade. Much of the inspiration for the book comes from my own personal experience of living through the 60s. The era was important though, in my choice of topic, because I’d noticed there weren’t many novels for kids set in the 60s, so I thought my book could fill a gap.
How long do you research before you begin to write the first draft?
Honestly, not at all. I just start writing the story and then I research as I go, checking details, figuring out who I need to talk to and where I need to go to look for information. Doing the research helps determine the direction my book will take, and that’s just fine because I don’t plot the whole thing out before I begin.
How do you conduct your research?
For my novel Lost on the Prairie, I went to visit the area in Sisseton, South Dakota which is the location for a major portion of the story. I took lots of photos. I visited places that might serve as possible settings for events in my novel and made detailed notes. The Sisseton Library provided me with copies of the local newspaper in 1907, which is the year my novel takes place. I discovered some interesting events and details about businesses and social happenings in 1907 that I was able to include in my novel. Since my hero Peter spends time in the home of a family from the Sisseton Wahpeton First Nation, I visited their tribal headquarters and interviewed an elder. I also interviewed several long-time Sisseton residents who were very familiar with the area’s past. I stayed in a local bed and breakfast, and my hostess was so excited about my novel project she set up meetings with local folks for me and found history books that had information I could use.
The internet proved helpful in researching popular words and phrases, games, books, political events, music and clothing styles in 1907. I also read a biography of Mark Twain since he makes an appearance in my book.
After my first draft of the Lost on the Prairie manuscript was finished, I was able to contact Dr. Sherry Johnson who is the Director of Education for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate. She appointed a cultural reader for me, Winona Starrlight Burley, who went through my book offering me advice and historical background so I would be sure to portray my hero’s time on the Sisseton Wahpeton First Nation accurately and in an historically correct way.
For my novel 60s Girl old movies, magazines and television series provided great background material. Family photos from that era also enriched my writing. My family didn’t have the resources or time to take lots of family photos, but luckily, I had an aunt who was a teacher. She didn’t have a family of her own, and she bought a camera and loved to experiment with it. She kept all the family photos she took and documented what was happening in them in albums. What a resource!
What is your favorite thing about research?
Since My Lost on the Prairie novel was inspired by an incident in my grandfather’s life, I reached out to dozens of extended family members to find out more about him. My grandfather died when I was only seven years old and lived quite far away, so I didn’t get to spend very much time with him. My favorite thing about researching Lost on the Prairie was that I learned so much about my grandfather and was able to incorporate many details about his life into the novel.
My favorite thing about the research for 60’s Girl was that I went back and visited all the old houses I’d lived in during the 60s. My family moved around quite a bit. I’d lived in nine different homes by the time I graduated from high school. It was fascinating to see how our former homes had changed. I wrote about each house on my blog and used details from my visits in the novel.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
It is frankly lots of work. I have writing friends who say that after they write an historical novel, they have to write one set in modern times just to take a break from the intensity of the research process. Another thing that can prove tedious is documenting everything. I learned that the hard way. I need to keep track of every single source I use for historical details and keep good notes about what I discover because later I might need to reference those notes for editorial purposes or for questions my readers might ask.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
One of the things I struggled with in both novels was how to write accurately but maintain respect and care when it came to issues that are treated very differently today than they would have been treated in 1907 or the 1960s. Our attitudes for example towards women, racial minorities, religion and science have changed a great deal over time. I wanted to reflect those older attitudes accurately but also with modern sensibilities and an attitude of respect. This was tough and an area where I relied on editorial expertise.
If you want to learn more about MaryLou Driedger’s book Lost on the Prairie, visit maryloudriedger.com.