Rooting Through the Past — Joan Donaldson
Today I’m happy to welcome author Joan Donaldson as she talks about researching for her books.
Tap, tap, and click. I study the image, checking the details of the 1850 gown, scooped neck line, rosettes on the skirt, wide sash. In the next chapter of my work-in-progress, my character will wear that dress in order to distract a man. While the couple dines at a lush Pittsburgh establish, abolitionists will whisk away the gentleman’s slaves. When I began that novel, I knew nothing about abolitionists in Pittsburgh.
Because I write historical fiction, research dominates my creative process. For my young adult novel, On Viney’s Mountain, I read through ten years of The Rugbian, the newspaper published by the Utopian community, Rugby, established in 1880 by an Englishman in the Cumberland Mountains of Tennessee. Scrolling through the microfilm, I absorbed facts about the English settlers, the rhythm of their language, and their daily struggles in the Appalachian wilderness. Along the way, a character I hadn’t planned on, hopped off a train and assumed a major role in the novel.
The beauty of rooting through the past is that in addition to meeting unexpected characters, I often discover an unknown conflict that turns into a major element in the plot. While sifting through the history of Wears Cove for my novel, Hearts of Mercy, my plot seemed pretty typical, with only minor interpersonal conflicts. Until I stumbled on the history of the White Caps, a vigilante group who disciplined “wayward women” and terrorized Sevier County, TN. They rode into the story with their torches blazing, and Viney proposed a plan to beat back the White Caps.
Research feeds my creativity, and reveals treasures hidden by time. Even if a writer is plotting a contemporary story, consider how the history of a location, a family, and culture might influence the present. Search the internet, pour over books, and talk to experts to discover details that will enhance your drama.
ABOUT THE BOOK:
When Viney Walker’s long, absent father arrives in the 19th century Utopian Community of Rugby, TN, he begs her to return with him to the Great Smoky Mountains. Viney’s sister, Lizzie urges her to go, because a new setting will help Viney heal from a broken engagement. Viney acquiesces and in her new home, she meets her Walker cousins, including handsome and brawny James. The couple’s romance angers the White Caps, a vigilante group that whips lewd women, and they warn Viney to mend her ways.
Seeking revenge and the freedom to love James, Viney joins a counter vigilante group. She plots a trap for the White Caps, but finds herself tied to a post, with a whip racing toward her.
Short section from Hearts of Mercy:
I strolled home, thinking about seeing James tomorrow, hoping we could kiss in the barn, remembering the feel of his fingers running down my ribs. As I stepped onto our cabin’s porch, my bare feet hit something. I looked down, and sucked in my breath.
A hazel switch with a white scrap of cloth knotted at the end, rested like a snake on the top step. I picked it up and saw writing on the muslin. Untying the knot, I spied a drawing of a man wearing a white hood and read: “Mend your ways or we will”.
Kirkus Review: “A captivating tale about father-daughter relationships, personal independence, and second chances.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Joan Donaldson
Joan Donaldson is the author of three picture books, two young adult novels, and a new adult novel, Hearts of Mercy. Her essay collection, Wedded to the Land, includes the selection, Saint George and the Dragon that won the 2007 Hearst Prize for Excellence in Literary Nonfiction. Her latest novel, On Viney’s Mountain won the 2010 Friends of American Writers Award, was a finalist for the 2011 Bronte Prize for Romantic Fiction, represented the State of Tennessee at the 2010 National Book Festival, and appeared on the Bank Street List of the Best Books of 2010. In 2017, she was awarded an honor prize by Jane Yolen as part of the Jane Yolen Midlist Author’s Grants. Her personal essays and articles have appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Mary Jane’s Farm, Victoria, Rosebud, and A Simple Life. Also, she writes and records features from her farm for the Kalamazoo NPR affiliate, WMUK. In 2008, she earned a MFA from Spalding University with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Donaldson and her husband, John Van Voorhees grow organic blueberries on their certified organic farm near Fennville. She is represented by Terrie Wolfe of AKA Literary Management.