Interview with Cathleen Davitt Bell

  Please welcome Cathleen Davitt Bell, author of Little Blog on the Prairie, to Damsels in Regress.  If you read through this interview and want to find out more, visit Cathleen’s own WordPress blog,  And be sure to come back Friday for a chance to win her book!  For now, enjoy hearing how she came to write her hilarious YA novel.

1.  How did you come up with this wonderful idea?  Is any of the story based on the experiences of you or someone you know?
I read Little House on the Prairie in October of third grade and from the second I’d closed the book I was hooked. I wanted to live on the frontier. I wanted to be Laura. I wanted to cook over a woodstove and churn butter. At some point, I noticed the papier machié in school tasted like bread when it dried––I started working on cooking my own “bread” by mixing flour and water in cereal bowls and sticking them in the oven. (My single mom was taking night classes…) By fourth grade, I’d been given a sewing machine, learned to make yeast bread, grown my hair down to my waist, and was ready for the total immersion that never came. In the midst of this frenzy, I came up with the idea of frontier camp in the back seat of my dad’s car on some extended road trip. I had it all sketched out––you would check in for two weeks and be assigned a life in a fully-functioning village. I remember explaining to my parents that you could be the blacksmith or the general store owner or whatever you wanted, just as long as you wore the clothes and ate the food.

The next time I thought about this vacation was when the PBS reality show Frontier House was aired. Boy, did I miss my calling as a reality show inventor. I was twenty years ahead of them, though I think my little world would have been a lot more “interesting…” Imagine the scene of a 21st century computer programmer or office manager trying to work in a blacksmith’s shop? Nothing like massive burns and a full blown fire to send the ratings through the roof, no?

The next time I remembered my vacation idea was in Brooklyn, where I live. I don’t know what brought it to mind, only I had this flash of the camp I’d designed, and then the idea of what a modern teen would make of it made me snort the cup of coffee I was drinking and turn heads.

I started writing the book that very day.

2.  What sort of historical research did you do for the book?
There were three kinds of research that informed the writing of Little Blog.

First was a lifetime’s interest in the subject. I read a ton of books set in the “olden times.” I went on a lot of historical house tours. History was always my favorite subject. As an American Studies major in college, I took a course on the West, and read a book about frontier families called Traveling Home, which followed the lives of women through the letters and journals they kept while traveling, the first indication of how unromantic and riddled with failure frontier life could be.

When I came up with the concept for this book, I knew I had to do some reading. I started at the website for the PBS reality show Frontier House, which led me to a bibliography which led me to the fabulous Pioneer Women: The Lives of Women on the Frontier by Linda S. Peavy and Ursula Smith. This book came out of a movement in the post 1968 world, where women historians began to write women’s history—a history of housework and child raising and daily life experiences for women who seem to be invisible in the great white men and war version of history that had been so popular up until then. If I were an historian, this would be the kind of history I would want to know about. I’m always interested in questions like, What did people eat in 1833? I was fascinated once to learn through a family memoir that my great-great-uncle would eat an entire pie for breakfast. Or that graham crackers are the descendents of a flat bread designed by a mid-nineteenth century food reformer by the name of Graham––who recommended raw nuts and no meat. Lots of the details that made it into this book came out of the reading I did.

Then there was the constant checking on the Internet as I wrote. I’d have Gen pull up her stockings, and then think to myself, “Did people WEAR stockings back then?” And find a dissertation on the history of the stocking online. Would she have had pockets in her dress? (Yes, but a hundred years earlier, a pocket would have been a small purse tied inside a garment.) Did corn grow in rows? After I’d written so many scenes of Gen walking between the corn rows, I took a long car trip through upstate New York, where I realized that the corn in the fields we passed was planted so close together no one could squeeze between it. I had to button hole a local farmer, who explained that machine planting allows greater density. If you were working by hand you’d have to leave room to get into the corn. Also—weeds in corn? You don’t see them, but, I learned, that’s because modern weed killers such as Round Up inhibit weed growth. I was able to Google old farmers’ magazines, researching what kinds of weeds were common in corn fields in the 1890s. I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get access to this kind of primary source material, in my very own little office at home.

3.  Which did you find more enjoyable for writing, the historical aspects of the book or the modern ones?
I loved the contrast. There was something really fun about describing processes in Gen’s horrified voice. The modern sections were harder…trying to line up plot, character, etc to make a story that was fun and entertaining. But that was also incredibly rewarding. One of my favorite moments in the book was the frozen tableau moment when the kids try to hide inside the electricity shack when Ron is at the door. So many bodies, so little space, but they all believe they have a chance of disappearing…

What I love about the historical sections was how much there was to write about. I am used to spinning stories out of pure air. The historical is like a rich granola of material to delve into.

4.  Do you have any more historical projects in the works?  Any other times and places you’d like to explore?

My brain is filled with historical ideas, but I don’t have a project in the works right now. I am currently working on a novel set very much in the present time. The project I am toying with writing after that does involve a lot of history, but again, seen through a modern lens.

One thing that is very challenging and very important in good historical writing is making the characters and to some extent the narrator sound like a person who came out of that time. I know a writer who goes to the Library of Congress and listens to recordings of people talking at the time where she is setting her books just to get the way words are different, sentence structures vary. All it takes is five minutes with Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary to see how even regular people used to be able to express themselves in complicated, long sentences. We have all but lost that ability now, and speech is changing right alongside it. I am not sure I am ready to take on that challenge.

In high school I used to get a lot of flack for saying “like” and “you know” too much, but I tend to like writing in the modern teen voice now, as it is full of funny, shock, life, anger, gossip.
5.  What is your own history with blogging?  Do you dream of trying something as creative as Gen’s, or is it enough to maintain your writing blog?

My writing blog is enough for now! I am terrible about keeping it up and find that I am plagued by the idea that no one is reading it, something that doesn’t seem to make me blink an eye when it comes to writing fiction. I do have one form of an unpublished blog—it is the journal I keep to track my writing. I started it when I had a baby and my brain was a sieve, and my writing days were few and far between. Every time I sat down to write I started on a journal page with what I was thinking I’d try to do that day and end with a brief summary of where I’d been. Sitting down the next time, I’d read back to try to remember where I was. It was also a good place to jot down things in my life that were so overwhelming I couldn’t concentrate on writing. Once I was in a café at Christmastime and I was so overwhelmed and distracted by the pure cliché of every song that came on that I had to just sit there and write them all down instead of writing anything else. Can you say CRAZY???

2 Responses to Interview with Cathleen Davitt Bell

  1. Audry says:

    I love those little details like pockets and stockings — I’m afraid if I were trying to write a historical novel, I’d just read about all those interesting things forever and never get around to writing the book!

  2. Jennifer says:

    Hehe Audry, I just try to fit all the historical details in and you edit out my info dumps or give me great ways to rework those little details 😀

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