Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Guest Author, Stephanie Reed

Today's Guest Author is Stephanie Reed. Slowly I've been changing my Wednesday format from all guest author interviews, to articles by editors, agents, and writers on writing. In my travels through the blogosphere, I came upon this article, and thought it would be perfect, so I emailed Stephanie and asked if I could post it. She graciously agreed, and here we are. Please welcome Stephanie, and learn about the challenges of writing historically accurate novels for children.
Hello, I'm Stephanie Reed, and I have the honor of writing historical novels for children, the most exacting readers. Children have a deep desire to know everything, but most loathe boring lists of facts. So how does a Christian novelist walk that fine line of providing an exciting, historically accurate story?

My second novel, The Light Across the River, is based on the true story of Johnny Rankin, middle of fourteen children of pastor and abolitionist John Rankin, and Eliza, the slave woman who escaped on the ice to save her baby in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. says of Light, “I loved the rich use of detail and was fully drawn in by the vivid descriptions of the safe houses and the methods that the families used to help the escaping slaves to safety in other locations. The real joy, however, comes from the rich characterizations of the Rankin family and the inhabitants of the town, getting to experience the different personalities and eccentricities and also seeing the way the community comes together to help the Rankin family.”

My main characters are based on people who really lived. Classics like Little House on the Prairie and Tom Sawyer spoke to me as a child because I knew they were based on the stories of real people—the stories ring true. Visiting the actual place where a story happened is exciting, too. The setting reveals the characters, details I need to make them live again. It’s easy to write that a character raced barefoot through cornfield stubble in the dark, but if you look at a real cornfield, you will better describe how painful it was. Even a simple walk through wet grass after a fall evening football game can add depth to a slave escape scene—notice how the stars glitter, how the cool breeze flows across a cheek, how the icy dew seeps through shoes. When I realized that my characters had most of the same feelings I have every day, no matter how long ago they lived, I made giant strides in humanizing them.

There is so much more to a character than his appearance or his clothing. As an old man, Johnny Rankin wrote several versions of Eliza’s escape, adding little details here and there. It seemed to me that he had an intense need to share the story, so I put that in his book. Why? Because the Rankin family had to keep their work on the Underground Railroad a secret. That complicated Johnny’s problem—he wanted to tell about their good work, but he’s forbidden. When I have to keep a secret, it makes me nervous. I twist my hair, but I gave Johnny a bit of hair ribbon that he kept in his pocket, one he wound so tightly at one point that his finger turned purple. Where did he get such a girly thing? A pretty classmate dropped it one day.

It’s useless to make your main character live among lifeless paper dolls. But it’s also exhausting to flesh out a whole town, and that gives me a new appreciation for our Creator.

For some characters, I was fortunate to sniff out online sources published by descendants, most notably crotchety Old Archie Hopkins. I delighted to find actual quotes, like “I was a-settin’”, and to know that he’d suffered a broken hip and so rode a horse everywhere, even across the yard.

For other characters, like Underground Railroad conductor Dr. Greenleaf Norton, I had only a name and a place. When I saw the photo of a beautiful morning suit in the newspaper in connection with an exhibit of historical clothes, I knew it would fit Greenleaf to a ‘T.’ Moreover, it established his character as fastidious and fussy, yet with a heart.

Of course, I asked my husband to take me to the exhibit, where I found a beautiful dress for another character to wear. I also found ‘pattens,’ clumsy metal stilts that clipped to boots to keep wearers a couple of inches above the muddy streets of the time period. Golden! The pattens exactly fit Aunt Kitty McCague, the Kentucky-born matriarch who called everyone by his first and middle names—just like my dear Aunt Margie.

Most important is how your characters live their lives. Everything they do should be an extension of their Christian faith. That’s how we live, right? Well, I try to, but I don’t always succeed, and neither should your characters.

The reviewer quoted above goes on to say, “The religious aspect of the story came across in the faith of the Rankin family (the father was a preacher), and I enjoyed the way the family was consistent in applying their religious faith to their life, and it is non-intrusive to those who don’t usually read this type of fiction.”

The faith is evident in the way the family lives, offering aid to all who come to their house for help. It’s also there in a fiery sermon that Pastor Rankin delivers near the end, when he lashes out at slave-hunters who hunt down escaping women and children for a swig of whiskey and a reward. He even says that he would rather be caught robbing a hen roost than tracking down helpless fugitives. The pastor’s wife Jean later calls this part of the sermon ‘uncouth’, and don’t we all go home and second-guess the minister from time to time? He allows that perhaps she is right, but he smiles as he says it. He isn’t perfect, either.

Children still love to read about real boys and real girls just like themselves. They love to read about kids who don’t automatically do the right thing, who make mistakes, who are laughed at, who are comforted, who are loved. One special element came through all those long-ago-based-on-true-stories I read as a girl. Laura Ingalls Wilder and Tom Sawyer knew about God, just like me. They wondered about Him and what He had to say in the Bible as they struggled to sit still in church.

It’s easy to see that Laura honored the Lord, but Tom Sawyer? Well, he did sacrifice to take a whipping in Becky Thatcher’s place. Some of what he learned in church must have stayed with him, and that’s what I hope happens for children who read my books about real children—just like them.

During her childhood, Stephanie Reed's family would often pass through Ripley on their way to her grandparents' home. The signs she read there about the Rankin house were what prompted her to write Across the Wide River and The Light Across the River. Stephanie is a Latchkey teacher and a volunteer spotter for the National Weather Service. She lives with her husband and two children in Dublin, Ohio.


Visit Stephanie Reed’s Blog

Book Bait Blog

View a video trailer of The Light Across the River

Purchase Across the Wide River

Purchase The Light Across the River
This article was originally published as part of National Children's Book Week at the Christian Writing Examiner.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, Liana! I'm glad you liked the article and I hope your readers enjoy it, too.

If anyone is interested in winning The Light Across the River, the book from the article, there just so happens to be a giveaway going on here.

Stephanie Reed

Mona Risk said...

It's interesting to meet an author who writes historical for children. I often tell my grandaughters stories while they eat dinner. They would be hanging to every word I say while I squeeze my brain to come up with stories that are plausible, exciting with the right amount of emotion, and a good-is-rewarded happy ending.