Rules for Researching (learned on the fly) -The Long March, part 2

Here are some of the rules I worked out about writing a book set in another time, place or culture when I was working on The Long March:

Ask every question at least twice; you may get different answers.

As described in my last blog I arrived in Oklahoma to research The Long March with a very rough first dummy under my oxter. The main character in that early version was a Choctaw boy but he spoke English; he was called Tobias, he wore European clothes and lived in a typical American log cabin. ‘Tobias’ was a result of the small amount of research I’d managed to do from Dublin via letter and fax (it was 1995) with a Choctaw contact I’d been given. When I was told the Choctaw would have had American/European names, clothes, houses in the 1840s I was startled, but accepted that if my contact said that’s how things were, then that’s how I had to portray them in my book.

After a week in Oklahoma everything changed. Now I knew my main character would have had two names: a Choctaw name plus a European name for the missionaries who lived amongst the tribe. I knew he and his family dressed in traditional Choctaw dress, with some European influences. I knew he lived in a log cabin but one without windows, as the Choctaw only used them for sleeping and storing. I knew Choctaw was his first language, and he had a maternal uncle, a moshi, who took the lead in disciplining and teaching him. I discovered all these things through conversations with Choctaw artist, writer and historian Gary White Deer, and other historians and archaeologists I met through him.

So why had my first contact told me that the Choctaw were fully europeanised in 1847? Were they mistaken? No. They were simply describing the past as it had been for their family.

The Choctaw lived side by side with Europeans for a century or so before being removed to Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma). Some intermarried and many did business with the French and the English, and the Choctaw occasionally fought alongside the French in their disputes. A few Choctaw even owned land and slaves, but these were a tiny minority. In 1847 most of the people who had endured the removal from Mississippi and Alabama to Indian Territory were still living in the traditional Choctaw way.

Mind the Gap.

We all carry preconceptions. In 1995 I was full of them – things which had to do with my being Irish, European, white, female, a twentieth century human. No doubt I’m still full of them but I wasn’t aware enough then to know how they might blind me into adding erroneous details to the story and images. Some were glaring mistakes: in that first dummy I built a fence around the boy’s cabin. Fences are part of European culture, not Native American. Some errors were more nuanced: I had the Choctaw argue vehemently back and forth about sending money to Ireland, as if they were Irish folk relishing a good old barney. The Choctaw would have seen such arguing as rude. They’d have spoken politely at the meeting but ultimately acted however they saw fit. Luckily for me Choctaw historian, Gary White Deer, generously gave me his time and knowledge, picking up my mistakes and misconceptions. He showed them clearly to me as I wrote, rewrote, and sketched, sketched again, doing so much editing work that he is credited as such in the book. I couldn’t have made it without him.

Original, historic research is only as reliable as the source.

There is always a distinct possibility (probability, even) of bias with original recorders of events and culture (primary sources), but sometimes people are just sloppy. In the 19th century, several artists travelled across America drawing and painting the First Nations and Gary and Marshall Gettys suggested their work as a great resource. They both particularly recommended the paintings of George Catlin but warned me that he had a habit of adding details to images, such as random tepees and feathers because his clients in New York and Europe liked them (the Choctaw never used tepees and wore few feathers). He also tended to redraw images, occasionally flipping them. So, in the drawings below, the baldric (beaded sash) is shown worn correctly in the left image and incorrectly in the flipped image.


‘Never fall in love with your research’.

I’d heard Morgan Llywelyn say this a few years before at a conference and I came to understand exactly what she meant while working on this book. As I researched I found lots of little details and stories, some of which nestled nicely into my story, adding to it. However, I also caught myself trying to shoehorn in favourite facts just because, well, I wanted to. In the end I saw that they were pointless padding, cluttering up the narrative, and I duly ‘killed my darlings’. But ultimately I think none of the research goes to waste. With The Long March and also my novels Timecatcher, Dark Warning and Hagwitch, I’ve noticed that it all seems to be there, invisible but present, sitting between the lines.

Cultural appropriation.

Would I attempt The Long March if the idea presented itself today instead of in 1994 when I had only two books to my name? Simple answer: no.

It was only naiveté that let me think writing and illustrating a book about another culture would be difficult but do-able. Even though The Long March tells of an actual event which connects the Choctaw culture to mine I think the answer is still no; I might approach it from an Irish perspective instead, write it as an Irish immigrant observing from the outside perhaps. Today I’m too aware of the potential pitfalls and of the wholly valid arguments against attempting to write from inside another culture. At the time, as the enormity of what I’d taken on finally dawned on me, there came a point when I’d have given up on the book if Gary hadn’t been there to stop me making a mess of it. At the time I wrote and illustrated it I thought it would only be published in Ireland. It would have been tempting (but inexcusable) to think that the story of the gift was the important thing and the details of Choctaw culture didn’t matter so much in a book only available here. Ultimately the book was published in the USA and has had a long life there; longer than in Ireland. It was also published in Korea.

Though I wouldn’t attempt it now I loved making The Long March. I learned so much, about the Choctaw, about the Irish Famine, about myself, my cultural blindness and misconceptions; I developed my writing craft, I stretched myself artistically, I got to grips with the joys and hazards of research. In the end I wanted to get it right and serve the story of this amazing connection between the Choctaw and Ireland. And in the end I think that’s all any storyteller can do when they create a story set in another place or time.

This blog is written especially for the students of MIE where I am currently writer-in-residence. It refers to researching The Long March, a book about the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the aid they sent to Ireland during the Great Famine, when a million Irish people died and a million emigrated. The Long March is currently out of print but may be available in libraries.

Researching The Long March – part 1

The Dallas gas station was deserted. It was dark and I was too tired from travelling to register anything unusual. Gary filled up the tank and walked inside the shop to pay, but almost immediately hurried back to the car. ‘There’s been a hold up,’ he said. ‘The teller is hiding behind the counter and she screamed at me to get out. I asked her if she wanted me to stay till the cops arrive but she kept yelling at me to go away.’ He turned the key and pulled out onto the street.

I had come to the US to research a picturebook called The Long March. It would tell the story of the aid the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma had sent to Ireland during the worst year of the Great Famine. Gary Whitedeer and his wife Sarah had kindly driven to Dallas airport to pick me up and bring me to my hotel in Oklahoma. As we crossed the vast state of Texas I nodded off in the back seat. An hour later, I woke with a start. The car had pulled over; through the side window I made out a pair of hips, a gun in a holster. Gary had been stopped for speeding. It was 1995; I was only a few hours into my first ever trip to the USA and so far the USA was doing its damnedest to live up to my Irish preconceptions. But in the following week, as I gathered the information for my book, I would see an America most Irish tourists never see.

The spark for The Long March began with hearing Don Mullan on the radio speaking about the money the Choctaw sent to Ireland in 1847. I’d never heard the story before but I immediately figured it would make a great picturebook, and contacted Don. He gave me all the information he had and some names and addresses in Oklahoma. The World Wide Web was in its infancy then so my first attempts at research were by fax, letter and phone. After a year or so of trying to gather information from a distance I came to realise I needed to travel to Oklahoma and do some proper research on the ground. At the time Aer Lingus offered free flights to writers and artists who could show they had an artistic need to fly. (I know! Imagine! That was actually a thing!) With Don’s help I put out feelers and the office of the Chief of the Choctaw Nation extended me an invitation to stay in their hotel at Arrowhead. Gary and Sarah dropped me there in the wee hours. I was shown to a suite(!) and fell exhausted onto my first ever king-sized bed. Next morning I woke up to find myself in a huge space with gigantic glass windows, looking out over Lake Eufaula.

I had a week to find out everything I could about the Choctaw – what they wore, how they lived back in 1847. I intended to illustrate this book in a realistic style so I also needed to find models for the main characters and take photos of them. I had no idea how was I going to do any of this. As an Irish person used to being near bus and train stops, I hadn’t understood how isolated things in the US can be. Without a car I was basically marooned in a big hotel. I was still an L driver in 1995 but even if I’d been able to hire a car I hadn’t the first clue where I needed to go or who I needed to see. I really hadn’t thought this through…

Gary and Sarah (who is Kiowa) came to my rescue. One or both arrived every day and drove me to meet people they thought could help me: Marshall Gettys, historian and collector, showed me around his own personal collection of First Nation baskets, tools and implements, pointing out the Choctaw items; an archaeologist called Butch talked me through the type of houses the Choctaw lived in, mid 19th century. Both men agreed to send me photocopies of photos, drawings and articles.

Sarah brought me to an old meeting-house one day and Gary brought me to meet his aunts and cousins, folk who had grown up using Choctaw as their first language. Gary’s aunt, Lena Noah, had an incredibly beautiful face and I instantly knew that I would replace the old man character of my first draft with a grandmother figure, just as I knew when I met Gary and Sarah’s son Quanah that I would change my main character from a ten-year-old to an early teen.

On long car journeys I asked questions and listened carefully to the answers. In the evening back in my suite I wrote copious notes while stunning electrical storms flashed over the lake outside. The more I learned, the more obvious it was how little I knew and what a daft, naïve and downright arrogant idea doing this book about another culture was. But it seemed too late to pull out now when the Choctaw Nation offices and so many people – Gary and Sarah in particular – were giving so generously of their time, knowledge and energy.

I only spent a week in Oklahoma but it felt like a month because it was packed with new experiences. With the help of the Choctaw Nation offices I met a gang of Choctaw teenagers at their youth club and I went to a craft show in the Choctaw Community Centre. I spent time hanging out at Gary and Sarah’s, taking photos of their kids and of the traditional arbour Gary had built in their yard. I saw some lovely scenery and miles and miles of highway as people drove me long distances across Oklahoma. There was a sign near the state penitentiary which I particularly liked; it said: Motorists, Beware! Hitchhikers May Be Escaping Convicts.  One night I stayed in a motel right out of film noir – The Indian Hillside.

‘Don’t know why they call it that,’ Gary said. ‘No Indians; no hillside.’ As he dropped me at the office, he laughed. ‘Oh look,’ he said. ‘Real Indians.’ The guys in the office were from Delhi.

The rain poured down and an old man in flowery boxer shorts stood in the doorway of his room shouting, Hello! Hello! Hello! as I struggled to unlock my door. The motel room was brown, grimy and 100% nylon. Thunder and lightning raged all night while I wondered about the dark stains on the carpet and walls. I was glad to return to my pristine suite! I had by now realised that Arrowhead Hotel was a casino specialising in high stakes bingo, which explained why there were so many old folks staying there.

By the end of the week I’d shot a couple of hundred photos (rolls of film), catching faces and places I thought I might use in my book. When I left Oklahoma I travelled on to stay with friends in Philly and New York and took a Greyhound bus to visit the Smithsonian museums in Washington – The Long March would be named a Smithsonian Notable Book in 1998 – but my best memories, my strongest memories, come from that first week with the Choctaw. And my favourite memory of all is of the night Gary and Sarah and their kids brought me to a dance at the Kulli Homa dance grounds.

A small number of Choctaw and Chickasaw families gathered in a clearing in the woods. We ate cornbread and chicken, and dumplings in grape juice. A fire cackled in the middle of the circle and the women and girls sat to the right of it, men and boys to the left. Gary, drumming on an Irish bodhrán, walked into the centre to call the dances. The men formed a line behind him. As they approached our side of the circle the women rose and threaded themselves between the men.

I didn’t join in right away; I waited to be invited. I danced Duck Dance and Snake Dance and Friendship Dance. I tried to stay towards the back of the line and watch and learn. I noticed that when a dance ended, the dancers made sure to finish the anti-clockwise revolution of the fire, never backtracking to return to their seats. I did the same. Some of the Chickasaw girls were wearing shell-shakers on their legs which made noise as they stomped. The modern ones were cylinders formed from cans filled with dried beans but one girl was wearing an old pair made of many turtle shells. She put them on my legs so I could feel how heavy they were.

The racket of the cicadas in the woods was incredible. The sky was full of stars. I heard my first whippoorwill that night, saw my first fireflies. A child caught some of the little insects in a jar so I could see them up close. I remember thinking to myself, ‘be here now. Don’t think forwards or backwards; be in this moment,’ and today I can still conjure that far-off hot July evening, if I close my eyes.

This is the first of three blogs on making of my picture book, The Long March. It was published in 1998. The Long March tells the story of the gift of money which the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma sent to Ireland as aid during the worst year of the Great Famine –1847. The next blog will be about the pitfalls, mistakes and discoveries which may occur when researching a book set in another time and place. The third will look at the visual sources needed to create a single image.

This blog is written especially for the students in MIE. I am writer-in-residence at Marino Institute of Education. (MIE) is an associated college of Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Dublin. 

Same Old Story?

The spark for my new picturebook Owl Bat Bat Owl came from this Christmas card Michael made for me:


One day as I looked at it I thought, ‘bet it would really horrify those owls if another creature moved in on their branch,’ and the idea was born.

As soon as I began sketching my little owls and bats I realised I was riffing on a familiar theme, one I’d explored before in The Long March (1998) and also in I am I (2006), and I was directly referencing this Native American symbol I had come across when making The Long March:


For the Choctaw this is a river symbol*. Gary Whitedeer explained to me that the Choctaw say that just as you cannot stand on both banks of a river at once, you cannot belong to two cultures, but sometimes the river narrows, the banks come closer together and you can reach across and touch someone on the other side.

This idea really resonated with the story I was writing in The Long March.The Choctaw had been through the awful trauma of displacement, which had resulted in huge loss of life through hunger and disease. In 1847, the worst year of the Great Famine, they sent aid to Ireland, reaching across an ocean to help another people going through what they had experienced.


When I came up with the idea for I am I (2006) I quickly realised that I was referencing that river symbol again. The two boys in the story are divided by a river, each yelling about who owns their valley, each full of ego and pride and hate, but when they see the damage their words have done they ‘reach across’ to each other in empathy.


In Owl Bat Bat Owl the river is replaced by a branch. The resident owls are horrified when a family of homeless bats turn up seeking refuge in their tree, but then the wind blows up a storm and the two families experience near catastrophe…

I told the story of The Long March with several thousand words and detailed realistic illustrations. I only used a few hundred words in I am I but those words morphed and twisted into barbed wire, a dragon, birds, making it very much a story told visually. With Owl Bat Bat Owl I have dispensed with words completely and the whole story unfolds through images alone.

It is my first wordless book, my first all-animal book and the first time I’ve illustrated a book entirely with digital art, but for all its difference and newness it is indeed ‘the same old story’. I am writing again about displacement, difference, empathy, friendship. The river symbol which Gary Whitedeer showed me in 1996 has run through my work, gifting me story after story, or the same story reimagined. The three books look very different but that river runs through them all.

Owl Bat Bat Owl (Walker Books) will be available on October 6th.

*some Native American tribes see this as a snake symbol.