Nancy J. Cavanaugh is the acclaimed author of Always, Abigail, a Texas Bluebonnet Award nominee, and This Journal Belongs to Ratchet, a Florida State Library Book Award winner, an NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts Award winner, and a nominee for numerous state awards, including Florida Sunshine State Young Reader’s Award and Illinois Rebecca Caudill Young Reader’s Award. School Library Journal calls her third novel, Just Like Me, “A charming and refreshingly wholesome coming-of-age story . . . Filled with slapstick humor and fast-paced action.”
Cavanaugh’s newest book, Elsie Mae Has Something to Say, tells the story of a young girl’s endeavor to save the Okefenokee Swamp. This historical fiction, full of adventure and mystery, takes place in the 1930’s and gives readers a chance to experience a unique and unusual time and place in history.
Nancy and her husband and daughter enjoy winters in sunny Florida and eat pizza in Chicago the rest of the year. Find her online at www.nancyjcavanaugh.com.
What typically comes first for you: a character? An era? A story idea? How do you proceed from there?
Typically for me, character always comes first, but with this project, it was the setting. I first discovered the Okefenokee Swamp about 20 years ago while watching a program on television. I know parents and teachers don’t like to hear that, but that’s how I heard about this very unique place with a name that was fun to say. Over the years since first hearing about the Okefenokee, I have written many drafts. In my very first attempts at this story, my main character was a boy. Something about that wasn’t working so I changed my main character to a girl. Even then, the story just didn’t work, so I ended up putting the story away for a LONG time. Every once in a while I’d take it out and begin work on it again. Finally, during one of those many times I revisited the manuscript, I added a secondary boy character, Elsie Mae’s cousin. Doing that seemed to breathe new life into the story, and I finally felt like I was on to something.
How do you conduct your research?
For me with this project it has been a cycle of – read, visit, write. Read, visit, write. I read a lot about the Okefenokee when I first became interested in it. Then I visited the swamp for the first time, and finally I began writing about it. With the birth of that secondary character who breathed life into my story again, I went back to many of my research books and notes and did more reading. Then I visited the swamp again, and finally I got back to work writing the story.
You do have a specific system for collecting data?
When working on any book, I always use spiral notebooks to write down story ideas. With this project, I also used spiral notebooks to record things I had read in different books and things I had heard and seen when I visited the swamp. I use LOTS of post-it notes to mark pages of books that had information I want to refer back to, and I used pencil to make notes and mark things in the books I used for research.
I’m not nearly as organized as I should be.
What kinds of sources do you use? The more specifics here, the better!
I mostly use books. One book in particular, which contained a lot of original photographs of people who lived in the swamp long ago, actually inspired my story, not only my story’s characters, but also the thread of historic truth the story is based on. I also gained a lot of wonderful information when I visited the Okefenokee, especially when I spoke with the volunteers who worked at the parks I visited. I also had the added blessing of working with two experts who, by reading my finished manuscript, helped me make sure all my historic and setting details were accurate.
How long do you typically research before beginning to draft?
This is my first historical fiction, and as I mentioned earlier, I first started studying the swamp about 20 years ago. At this rate, I’ll have to hurry up and get interested in another topic if I want to write more historical fiction.
At what point do you feel comfortable beginning to draft? How does your research continue once you begin writing?
During the writing process, I often went back to my research either to verify details or to help me get ideas for what could and should come next in the plot.
What is your favorite thing about research?
I like finding out about people’s lives and imagining what it was like to be them. This is the same thing I enjoy about reading historical fiction.
What’s your least favorite thing about research?
The responsibility to be accurate can be daunting. I also struggle with the fear that I might offend someone with my portrayal of people, places, and events.
What’s your favorite thing about writing historical fiction?
I love the idea of being able to take a kernel of truth from history, put it together with authentic details of a time and place, add characters I’ve created to tell a story that allows readers to go back in time to a different place and walk in the shoes of a person who could have been real. It’s one step beyond learning history – readers actually get to feel as if they’ve lived history.
What are some obstacles writing historical fiction brings?
Details, details, details.
What’s one of the most interesting things you’ve learned while researching?
I learned from one of my swamp experts that there are no rocks in the Okefenokee. I had one of my characters standing on a big boulder in several scenes, and we had to change that boulder to a big tree stump. This is something I could have never known without the help of my research experts.
Why is historical fiction important?
I believe it creates a love of history by making history real, meaningful, and relatable. I think all of this causes readers, especially young readers, to have more empathy toward people and allows them to develop the kind of perspective that helps them realize the importance of learning from the past.