Everyone welcome M.P. Barker, author of A Difficult Boy, a middle grade historical novel set in 1839 rural Massachusetts. Nine-year old Ethan is indentured to Mr. Lyman, a wealthy shopkeeper. When he arrives at his new home, he meets Mr. Lyman’s other indentured servant, a moody, sixteen year-old Irish boy named Daniel. When both boys suffer from Mr. Lyman’s blows they realize they must learn to overcome their differences to survive.
1. Hello Michele. Welcome and thank you for taking the time to stop by Damsels in Regress to talk with us. Jumping right in, can you tell us what inspired this novel?
Thanks so much for the invitation! The story was inspired by a document I came across when I was working as an archivist at the Springfield (MA) History Library and Archives. It was a bill that the master of an indentured boy had sent to the boy’s parents after the boy ran away. The master must have gone to a lot of effort to chase this kid down; the bill included charges for hiring a horse, staying overnight at an inn, and hiring someone to assist with finding the boy. The master also billed the parents for court costs and the value of seven months’ worth of work that went undone while the boy was missing. The grand total was equal to about $1500-1600 in today’s currency. I never found out the whole story behind the bill, but it stirred lots of questions in my imagination: Why did the boy run away? Why was the master so intent on getting him back? How were the parents going to pay the bill?
At the time, I was just starting to explore fiction writing and was involved in a writing group in which we did short exercises in response to writing prompts from the group leader. I was so intrigued by that document that I began using the characters of an indentured boy (who became Ethan) and his master in those writing exercises. Daniel, an indentured Irish teenager, very quickly turned up in my imagination and demanded to be included, and the story grew from there.
2. I love the early 1800s. Especially the every day life of country village. In A Difficult Boy, the time period came alive for me, from the descriptions of clothes, to food to the country store. What type of research did you do to help you capture all the little nuances of 1830s rural New England?
I was very lucky that I had worked at Old Sturbridge Village, where I actually did many of the things that my characters would have, including mucking out barns, milking cows, taking care of livestock, and making and eating the sorts of food New Englanders would have eaten back then. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had at a job!
We were trained in just about every aspect of daily life in that time period, and also had access to a research library full of nifty 19th-century documents and publications. So a lot of my “research” was really on-the-job training that happened long before I even imagined writing a novel.
3. You worked at Old Sturbridge Village (a living history museum in Massachusetts) as a historical interpreter. How did that experience help you with writing A Difficult Boy?
The best thing about working at OSV was that it allowed me to really get inside my characters’ lives in a way that’s difficult to do from library research alone. I think I learned a lot by osmosis just from working there! So when it came time to write about what Ethan’s life was like, I only had to close my eyes and remember the smells, sounds, and sights at OSV. The primary sources that we read as part of our training—letters, diaries, legal records, and more—really helped to give me insight into people’s thoughts and beliefs and how they were different from my own as a 20th-century liberated American female. I also had ready access to lots of experts in the form of former co-workers who were happy to answer my questions.
4. 1830s rural New England isn’t exactly a popular historical setting. In fact, there are very few historical novels set in this time period. Was it challenging setting your story during a time period without any “significant” historical events to serve as a backdrop?
Not really. It would have been a bigger challenge for me to write a story that was set in a popular historical period, because I’d have had to do so much more new research! They say write what you know and what I knew best was 1830s rural New England. In addition, I could call up my former OSV co-workers if I needed expert advice on details that I couldn’t remember or was unsure about. It’s also nice to write about a time period that hasn’t been done to death, so I don’t have to compete against a gazillion other Civil War or American Revolution novels. I hope it’s a refreshing change for readers!
I haven’t done any statistical studies, but I’d bet that the most popular historical settings usually involve wars. That’s understandable – you have a ready-made conflict and plenty of opportunity for life-and-death dramatic events. But those between-war time periods can be plenty significant, too. Even though America wasn’t at war during the 1830s, it was a time of major transitions. Irish immigrants were coming into the country in greater numbers and encountering sometimes violent bigotry. Factories were springing up all over New England, while many farmers were abandoning New England’s rocky soils and relocating to more promising lands out west. The railroad was just starting to speed up transportation and commerce. The abolitionist movement was gaining strength, even though Northern manufacturers profited as much from slavery as Southern plantation owners did. The 1830s was also the decade of the “Trail of Tears,” when Andrew Jackson forcibly relocated the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, and Choctaw nations from the Deep South. Although, except for the Irish immigration, none of those events are front-and-center in my novel, they definitely would have made an impact on my characters’ lives.
5. I know I get attached to certain scenes in my novels that end up getting cut. Was there any one particular scene that you especially loved but didn’t make it into the final novel?
Hmmmm…yeah, about 300 pages of them! Out of all those pages I cut, I think what I missed the most was a sequence in the middle of the story in which Daniel inadvertently overdoses Ethan with a medicinal herb. Lizzie (the Lymans’ dairymaid) is called in to help nurse Ethan back to health. I thought there were some really nice bits of dialogue between Daniel, who is guilt-ridden, and Lizzie, who grows more sympathetic toward the boys. There were also some nice scenes in which Daniel tells Ethan some of his memories of his parents. Well, at least I thought they were nice scenes…totally unnecessary, but nice.
6. Can you tell us a little bit about your next novel?
I’m on the fourth draft of a sequel to A Difficult Boy. In this book, Daniel meets up with Mr. Stocking (a peddler character from the first book), and Billy, a young Irish runaway who’s also a wonderful singer. The three of them join a traveling show operated by an old friend of Mr. Stocking’s, and many adventures ensue involving an East Indian mystic and conjurer, Irish railroad workers, a deadbeat dad, and six dancing ponies.
7. Finally, I’m always curious to know what other authors are reading. What books are on your to read list? And do you have a favorite historical novel?
I just started reading The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan for my book group, but I haven’t read enough yet to pass judgment on it. Then I have a bunch of dog-training books to get myself ready for a new dog we’re getting next month.
After that’s done, I have a big pile of books on my “to read” shelf (30 at last count…not counting at all the 200+ unread books in the attic!!). I recently bought a bunch at a New England Reading Association author event I attended. (The trouble with meeting new authors is I always end up with a very, very large credit card bill!) Four of them are YA and middle-grade historicals: The Whispering Rod by Nancy Kelley (White Mane Kids Books), The Irish Dresser by Cynthia G. Neale (White Mane Kids Books), Stopping to Home by Lea Wait (Aladdin Historical Fiction), and Hidden Voices: The Orphan Musicians of Venice by Pat Lowery Collins. They all look really good—plus, the authors were fun to talk to! Two adult historicals that I’m looking forward to reading are Beautiful Assassin by Michael C. White (who’s written two FABULOUS historical novels – Soul Catcher and Garden of Martyrs) and An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon.
My favorite books and writers keep changing, depending on what I’ve read most recently. I think Diana Gabaldon is currently my favorite historical fiction writer, and Voyager is my favorite of her Outlander series. She does such great historical detail without overwhelming the reader, and her characters really do seem to have an 18th-century worldview, as opposed to being present-day folks in funny costumes (a common problem with some historical fiction). (Plus, she writes really, REALLY great sex scenes…but don’t tell my mother I said so.)
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us today! For more information on M.P. Barker you can find her website here.