New Voice: Debra McArthur on A Voice for Kanzas

Debra with Midge, Italian Greyhound and writing helper

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Debra McArthur is the first-time novelist of A Voice for Kanzas (Kane Miller, 2012)(author blog). From the promotional copy: 

“Kanzas” Territory in 1855 is a difficult place to settle, particularly for a 13-year-old poet like Lucy Thomkins. 

Between the pro-slavery Border Ruffians and Insiders like her father who are determined to make Kansas a free state (not to mention the snakes and the dust storms), it’s hard to be heard, no matter your age.

But after Lucy makes two new friends – a local Indian boy and a girl whose family helps runaway slaves – she makes choices to prove to herself and others that words and poems are meaningless without action behind them.

How did you approach the research process for your story? What resources did you turn to? What was your greatest coup, and how did it inform your manuscript?

Writing historical fiction is a real challenge. I wanted the story to be authentic to 1855 Lawrence, Kansas, and I always imagined a historian reader who would be looking for anachronisms.

I had previously written a history book on the subject, so I felt pretty well grounded—at least until I got started.

Even the smallest details required research. What kind of shoes did they wear? What kind of pen would Lucy use? What kinds of merchandise would be in Lucy’s father’s store?

I had to do research every single day as I wrote the first draft. I used a lot of materials from the Kansas State Historical Society, including newspapers, photos, and other documents. I read literature of the time and considered how Lucy would respond to what she read. I visited the Steamboat Arabia Museum to look at the collection there. I used online resources like Territorial Kansas Online. I interviewed historical re-enactors about horses, wagons, and Sharp’s rifles. I visited Lawrence and walked down Massachusetts Street, looking for historical markers and imagining where Lucy’s store would be.

But the biggest breakthrough was a single document. I had been working on the book for a couple of years when I found “Information for Kanzas Immigrants,” a pamphlet published by the Boston Emigrant Aid Society in 1855. That document really helped me find the focus for the book, and it helped me know Lucy’s real story.

Could you tell us the story of “the call” or “the email” when you found out that your book had sold? How did you react?

More about Louise Hawes.

My mentor Louise Hawes suggested that I submit to Kane Miller. I don’t have an agent, so I simply went to their website to read their submission guidelines. I followed their instructions and submitted the first two chapters in July 2010, with a return envelope.

Two months later, I received my brown envelope back with an invitation to send the whole manuscript. One day in November, I remember thinking “It should be about time for my rejection letter to arrive.”

A few days later, I was visiting my parents in my hometown when I opened my email to find a message from the editor, Kira Lynn. “Yup,” I thought, “Here’s that rejection.”

But the first line of the message said “We’d like to offer…” and I couldn’t move. I read the message three times through, thinking I was surely misinterpreting something here.

When I finally realized it was really an offer to publish my book, I went downstairs to tell my dad. He was watching a basketball game on TV. He turned his head away from the TV a little, said “Well, that’s real nice,” and turned back to the game.

Then I knew I had to share my news with a writer. I called my friend Amy and I jumped up and down while she screamed into the phone. I could hear her husband cheering in the background.

When I hung up, I thought, That’s more like it.

Then I called my husband to tell him.

As someone with a full-time day job, how do you manage to also carve out time to write and build a publishing career? What advice do you have for other writers trying to do the same?

By Debra (Marshall Cavendish, 2009)

I’ve always juggled writing around my full-time job. When I began writing nonfiction books in 2000, I also did volunteer work at my church, I was a Girl Scout leader, and my daughter was doing Irish Dance competitively.

I wrote during my lunch hours at work. I took my research materials with me when I drove my daughter to her dance class across town, then sat in the back seat of my car during her class to write.

You know how the doctor’s nurse always takes you to the examination room, gives you a gown, then leaves you there to sit for 20 or 30 minutes?

My doctor was pretty surprised to come into the room and find me with 3 x 5 cards spread out on the examining table as I outlined a chapter in my notebook!

When you don’t have time, you have to find time and make time. You can’t wait for your muse to show up. You have to invite her in, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time.

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