Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s love of history and family is reflected in many of her award-winning books. She received the 2010 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal. No Crystal Stair: A Documentary Novel of the Life and Work of Lewis Michaux, Harlem Bookseller won the 2012 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and a 2013 Coretta Scott King Author Honor. The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth & Harlem’s Greatest Bookstore won a 2016 Jane Addams Children’s Book Honor and a 2016 Coretta Scott King Illustrator Honor for R. Gregory Christie’s illustrations. Her latest book, Let ‘Er Buck: George Fletcher, the People’s Champion, is the true story of an African American rodeo legend.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Most of my work is character driven. When I discover someone who has done something so remarkable that I want to know more, I start digging. If my research proves my instincts correct — that this individual’s story is one that everyone should know — I set out to tell it. I tend to gravitate toward unsung achievers, like Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves, my great uncle, Lewis Michaux, and the subject of my new book, Let ‘Er Buck! George Fletcher, the People’s Champion.
It’s looking at the whole person, or attempting to. The process makes me dig deep and see more. It’s one of the things I admire about Marilyn Nelson’s Carver: A Life in Poems. She not only informs readers about Carver’s brilliance and accomplishments, she leaves us with the essence of the man, the nature of his spirit. That’s what I attempt to do.
How do you conduct your research? Do you have a specific system for collecting data? What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I collect as much information as I can through books, articles, census reports, birth and death records, interviews and whatever else I can uncover. I obtain many materials through interlibrary loan, an invaluable library service. I also seek out legitimate internet sources. (Internet articles often contain useful bibliographies that lead me to additional sources.) If possible, I travel to the location of my subject to access archival materials and conduct in-person interviews. For my new book, I went to Pendleton, Oregon, in search of more information about George Fletcher and his compelling performance at the 1911 Pendleton Round-Up. I usually end up with much more information than I will ever need, but it helps to know the backstory to feel confident with what you ultimately share with readers.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I try to saturate myself with the material, reading through as much as my brain will hold. Then I start trying to put something on the page.
Often, at the outset, I’m not sure of the shape a piece will take. I begin with a format that I think might work, but sometimes it changes. My middle-grade novel, Mayfield Crossing, for example, began as a picture book. No Crystal Stair started as straight biography and evolved into a “documentary novel.”
My first attempts at writing reveal more of what I don’t know. I inevitably uncover new questions, so I put my research hat back on. I alternate between composing and research with the research tapering off as the work progresses.
What is your favorite thing about research?
This is easy — the discovery —when I stumble on to some exciting bit of information. I write for my readers, of course, but I write for myself first. My journey through a book is a growth process that can’t be compared to any other experience. It is exciting, awe inspiring, wonderful.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
It’s beyond frustrating when I have questions I can’t resolve. Either the sources aren’t available, don’t exist, or are so conflicting that it’s difficult to determine what the facts truly are.
Why is historical fiction important?
There are still so many amazing untold stories from our past. Fiction can offer wonderful ways to take readers there. Also, by placing relatable characters in an historical context, readers can gain an understanding that history is not only about battles, significant dates, and big events. That it doesn’t just involve famous people but is also based in the lives and activities of everyday people — people like them. Readers might perhaps make the connection that they themselves are living through current events that become history.