Debra McArthur grew up in Springfield, Missouri, where her high school experience included church activities, choir, drum and bugle corps, and the kind of drama and angst that make a person really glad to grow up. She earned B.A. and M.A. degrees in English from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and an M.F.A. in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Hamline University.
These days, Debra lives with her husband in Kansas City, Missouri. She teaches college along the bluffs of the Missouri River, and she is still collecting nouns that describe her: student, teacher, wife, mother, reader, writer, Irish dancer, marathon runner. Debra is the author of the novel A Voice for Kanzas. She also writes literary biographies and historical non-fiction.
What kinds of sources do you use?
I really like to use actual information from the era—primary sources such as newspapers and personal journals. Those kinds of sources give me more than factual data; they give me personal viewpoints and the speech patterns of people of the era, as well as their attitudes about the events that were happening.
I also like to use sources that lead me closer to the life of my characters, and those are often not print sources. In A Voice for Kanzas, my character’s father runs a general store in Lawrence, Kansas in 1855. I loved exploring the Steamboat Arabia Museum in Kansas City. The items there were salvaged from the wreck of a boat that sank in 1856 that carried merchandise for general stores in the Territory. It not only helped me see what kinds of items they would have in their store, but also what kinds of household items were in daily use by the settlers.
For my current work-in-progress, the main character becomes the blacksmith’s apprentice in Lawrence in 1856. I went to a local historical park and did workshops with the blacksmith there to find out more about the craft, and to find out what parts of my body would hurt after pumping the bellows for a few hours! And the side benefit was some nifty new fireplace tools I made.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
I’ve studied Kansas Territorial history for over many years, so I knew the era and the factual background of it pretty well before I decided to write a fictional story set there. But I can’t begin a story until I know my character. Once that character begins to whisper in my ear and tell me his or her story, I can begin. That’s when I know the character’s own voice and what he or she wants. The details will develop once I begin, but I have to hear the voice first.
When I’ve begun to draft the story, the research continues. I not only have to continue researching historical events, but also looking up specific details like weather, politics, clothing details, and more. In my current book, the character spends some time in church, and I needed to know what hymns might have been sung there.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
I have to be careful not to let my 21st-century thinking interfere with my 19th century characters. Sometimes it’s hard because people of that era would not think in the same ways we do. Our modern-day ideas about gender roles and racial attitudes are very different. And some things I find in my historical research are certainly not “politically correct” in terms of words we would use now. It’s sometimes hard to be historically accurate and still be “appropriate” for young readers of today.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
The Emigrant Aid Society settlers who founded the town of Lawrence were mostly Easterners who came to the Territory with lofty ideals about their role in making Kansas a free state. They were unprepared for the resistance of the Missourians who had a vested interest in making Kansas a slave state. During the first election, thousands of Missouri “border ruffians” came across the border and threatened the settlers with guns and knives in order to prevent them from voting. After this event, the Lawrence settlers wrote to their sponsors in Boston, asking for guns with which to defend themselves. Because all shipments by land and by river were watched by the ruffians, the rifles were sent in boxes marked “books” or even “bibles.” I had fun writing that into the plot of A Voice for Kanzas.
Because life isn’t always clear cut, the motives behind our actions don’t always make sense. But stories need to follow a logical path. What sorts of decisions have you had to make about “muddy” historical figures or events in order for your book to work?
It’s sometimes hard to know the truth of some historical events, because newspaper accounts of the day varied according to the political viewpoints of the varied individuals and newspapers of the time, especially in regards to their stance on the slavery issue. In my current book, the historical events include a murder and also conflicts between the citizens of Lawrence and the local sheriff. It isn’t always easy to determine the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” since both sides believed they were being unfairly characterized. I have to take the point of view of my main character and tell it through his eyes, so it may not be THE truth, but it is HIS truth.
Why is historical fiction important?
I never liked history much as a school subject because so much of the emphasis was on memorization of dates, names, battles, and such. Although it was factual, it never felt real. Historical fiction is like a time machine. It can take a reader to that time and place and let her live there for a while. I want my readers to love my stories and my characters, but also get a better understanding of the events and the emotions behind them. I want them to close the book and feel like they need to wipe the grit off their teeth because they’ve been walking the dusty Kansas roads along with my characters.