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.
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.