Children’s author Kate Hannigan writes fiction and nonfiction from her home in Chicago. Her middle-grade history-mystery The Detective’s Assistant received the Golden Kite Award from SCBWI for best middle-grade novel and was a California Young Reader Medal nominee. Her nonfiction picture book biography A Lady Has the Floor: Belva Lockwood Speaks Out for Women’s Rights (Boyds Mills) received a Society of Midland Authors honor and earned four starred reviews. Kate has a nonfiction graphic novel about the Chicago Fire coming out in June 2020 with First Second’s History Comics series, and five more picture book biographies about fascinating people from history. Visit her online at KateHannigan.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
I typically start with an interesting person. For my new historical fantasy, Cape: Book 1 in The League of Secret Heroes (Simon & Schuster/Aladdin), I was thinking about Wonder Woman! I asked myself whether she was the only female superhero of early comic books or whether there were others. I couldn’t really name too many — beyond our mighty Amazonian, I had to pause when trying to come up with anyone else!
I’m happy to report that there were lots of women wearing capes back in the day! So I read as much as I could about them, and they inspired the superhero “mentors” who help guide my young superheroines in Cape.
What I learned when poking around in the history of Wonder Woman was that she made her debut in December 1941, which was the same time as Pearl Harbor’s bombing and the United States’ entry in World War II. So immediately we have these two great threads: women comic book heroes and WWII. The war brought out tremendous action across as aspects of society. But what I found fascinating was learning about some unsung women who were doing remarkable, even heroic things during the war.
How do you conduct your research?
I am a library junkie, so I’m dashing in and out of our local branch on a weekly basis. I get stack and stacks of books to learn about historical moments and figures. I also try to read letters to get a sense of the language used at the time, what people ate, what music they listened to, what their apartments might have looked like. I rely heavily on books to help me imagine what the era might have been like.
I also like documentaries. If left alone with the TV remote, I’ll burrow into the sofa and get lost in black and white footage. Even through the long Chicago winter, as I exercised indoors, I trudged along on my elliptical machine watching WW II battle documentaries!
But my favorite form of research is talking to people. I think it stems from when I was a little kid and sat at the dinner table listening to my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins sharing stories and laughing late into the night. So when I researched aspects of Cape and the other two books in this series — Mask and Boots, publishing in 2020 and 2021 — I talked to people. I got on a plane and went to meet real people who either had been involved in WWII or who were close to people who had.
Of anything I’ve done related to this project, what I cherish most is having been able to interview a former WASP pilot. Jane Doyle loved to fly, and when WWII broke out, she answered the call for women fliers to gather at Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Jane was 97 when I met her at a reunion for WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) in May 2018. She passed away in early 2019. While there are some survivors of WWII still living, we’re losing many. It’s important that we hear as many of their stories as we can, before it’s too late and we lose that physical connection to storyteller and listener.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
I could get lost in research all day. In fact, some days I really DO get lost for the entire day and into the night. For history nerds, there is ridiculous fun to be found in digging through old newspapers, black and white photos, tracking down menus and recipes for old-fashioned meals, examining the hats or shoes of a bygone era.
I spend about a year or more just immersing myself in an era. With a previous historical fiction novel, The Detective’s Assistant (Little, Brown, 2015), I needed to nail down Civil War history, know a good bit about Abraham Lincoln, and understand the role the Pinkertons played in Chicago history. I was writing about America’s first woman detective, Kate Warne, so I read Allan Pinkerton’s accounts of the cases that involved her. It was so much fun, and if I could, I’d still be researching that book, or perhaps a sequel or two!
With Cape, again I spent a year or so trying to learn all I could about WWII history and the women of the era who broke barriers as computer programmers, code-crackers, spies, and pilots. And on top of that, I needed to learn all I could about superhero history, like powers, costumes, and backstories. For that, I read some of the books by Trina Robbins, easily the foremost authority on women superheroes. And when she came through Chicago for a lecture, she generously met me for coffee to talk about women superheroes and their history. It was an incredibly exciting experience!
What is your favorite thing about research?
The short answer: knowing stuff. Frankly, it feels bad when someone asks you something, and you don’t know the answer, right? I’ve had that happen all too many times in my life! So I love research because I build layers of knowledge and, over time, feel like I start to know a few things. I’ll never, ever know enough! But at least I’ll walk through life able to make connections from past to present, which hopefully has bearing on the future.
Research is like a Zumba class for your brain. You’re working that muscle, processing facts, making sense of dates and eras and societies and individuals, pushing yourself to find more. So it feels good to do it, and you’re all the better for it. Once you’re done, you want to get back at it again and devour more. And it doesn’t hurt that every now and then, my parents will call me after an episode of Jeopardy and ask me if I’d gotten a certain question right!
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
My least-favorite thing about research is having to leave things out. I might have to cut entire sections of a chapter full of fascinating details because I have too much material, or perhaps because what I find interesting might bore the socks off a classroom of kids! Some things that I can’t put into a book for one reason or another I will share with students on school visits or at book events.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love writing historical fiction because I love thinking about how the past impacts us. I’ve always been fascinated by the connection between generations and what might carry on from one family member down the line to another. I want kids to take a little time and think about that, too. I am keenly aware that one of my grandmothers was an immigrant who cleaned houses and worked as a nanny. She had dreams for her kids and, I imagine, her grandkids. That impacts how I treat others. I want kids to think about their place on the continuum — about who fought for the rights we enjoy, who sacrificed for our benefit, who was present at significant touchpoints in history. Maybe by reading historical fiction they’ll think about how they themselves fit in and how they will make their own mark on history, too.