Bringing History to Life: Ride On, Will Cody!

I’m excited to welcome back one of my favorite authors Caroline Starr Rose to the blog today to answer some questions about her newest book, Ride On, Will Cody!, which releases October 1. Be sure and read part one of the interview as well.

Can you tell us about the upcoming book?

Ride On, Will Cody! is a picture book about the third-longest ride in Pony Express history. According to legend, young Will Cody (later America’s greatest showman, Buffalo Bill) rode for the Pony Express at the age of fifteen. He claimed to have covered 322 miles in under twenty-two hours on a ride that required twenty-one horses. I should add that while most historians now believe Cody didn’t ride for the Pony Express, he no doubt had a huge influence on America’s collective memory of the eighteen-month venture through the reenactments he later included in his Wild West show. On a personal note, I’ve decided even if the story of his ride is more legend than truth, it still embodies the courage of the young men who rode for the Pony Express and gives a sense of Cody’s big, bold character. That’s enough for me.

Ride On, Will Cody! is an in-the-moment adventure as boy and horse (and reader) hit the trail together. I’m so happy readers will soon be able to jump in!

What led you to write this story? What made you decide to tell it as a picture book?

In 2012, my family was on vacation in Colorado. I happened to notice a sign in Golden for a Buffalo Bill Museum and convinced my family we needed to stop in. As I walked through the exhibits, a story idea began to stir. I didn’t know the specifics, but I knew it would be about Buffalo Bill. The following January, I checked out a number of research books. I was pretty convinced my story would focus on Cody’s Wild West show, but his Pony Express work (if it happened at all) was what really caught my attention.

What do you hope readers will get from reading the new book, (or from any of your books)?

I hope all my books momentarily sweep readers away to another time and place. I hope they see courage, determination, and hope — things my books always seem to circle back to.

What makes the historical fiction genre so appealing, both as an author, and as a reader?

Historical fiction allows readers to see people of the past as fully human. Flawed and wonderful. Short-sighted and brave. Their experiences might have been different than ours, but their emotions and motivations are things we recognize in our own lives.

Historical fiction was my true entry point into understanding the past. It went deeper and wider than a handful of paragraphs in a textbook and made history come alive for me. I hope my writing might do the same!

Why did you decide to tell this story, basing it on a real character from history, when your previous historical fiction has had fictional main characters?

That’s a great question. I actually have this historical fiction continuum in my head, divided into five categories. The first I call history light. May B. falls into this one. It’s a story with a specific historical setting (time and place) but includes no historical event or people. On the other end would be a novel like Melanie Fishbane’s recent release, Maud: A Novel Inspired by the Life of L.M. Montgomery. Not only does Maud center on a real person and is full of real events, Melanie had to be granted permission to even write the story! I’d classify a book like this as a five.

For those interested, I’ve called Jasper and the Riddle of Riley’s Mine a two and Blue Birds a three. Both have a specific setting and specific historical events. Jasper mentions historical figures, but I took liberties with the few I brought to life. With Blue Birds I had to go a step further and develop both personalities and motivations for minor characters who were nevertheless based on real people — a bit of a daunting task.

If I’d told myself I was writing a “level four” book For Ride On, Will Cody! (a real person as the protagonist but no official permission needed), I might not have tried. Instead I thought of it as “biography-ish” — an attempt to capture one moment in time in one boy’s life. (It’s not uncommon for me to play word games like this. Showing up to the blank page can be challenging. I want more joy and less angst in my work. Simply altering definitions as to what I’m doing sometimes is enough to do the trick.)

I wanted to reflect Will’s spirit and the determination of the young boys who rode for the Pony Express. I wanted to paint an experience with words. I’m really pleased with how the book came together.

Your first books featured female main characters, and your two latest ones have had male main characters. Has that changed your writing process?

I don’t think it’s changed my writing process, but it has exposed some unknown biases. More than once with Jasper my editor pointed out I wasn’t allowing him to fully experience emotion. Boys might express things differently than girls, but they are still emotional beings. Of course I knew this! My story, though, didn’t reflect this obvious fact. I’m grateful my editor called me on it.

What are the ethics of writing about historical figures? Did it provide any feelings of constraint as an author, or was it freeing having some general outlines of historical fact to work around?

The idea of ethics is an interesting one. I’ve just finished a non-fiction picture book about two historical figures. It was essential I not invent dialogue or events. I wasn’t even comfortable hinting at emotions these two women didn’t somehow express themselves.

For historical fiction, I feel story trumps history. I am very thorough in my research. Any time I deviate from what really happened, I mention it in an author’s note. Ultimately, though, I’m telling a story, and story needs to build and allow for a character to grow and change. I’m okay with simplifying timelines, for example, to better serve a character and her world. It’s my responsibility, though, to tell the reader when I’ve altered things.

I will say “general outlines of historical fact” help to shape plot. There are specific events in a historical timeline that will touch a character’s life. How she responds to these events (based on how she sees the world) is what makes a story.

How do you make the collaboration with the illustrator work when you’re writing a picture book? Do you have a favorite illustration from the book?

Authors and illustrators don’t collaborate. Publishing houses work hard to keep us separate, largely to honor the illustrator’s process. It wouldn’t do to have an author breathing down the illustrator’s neck! I’ve had my turn at the story. Once the book is with the illustrator, he brings his own insight and magic.

I will say that I got to see quite a bit of the process unfold with Ride On, Will Cody!, perhaps because it’s historical fiction and the art director wanted to be sure the depictions were right. I saw early sketches and read comments from the art director to the illustrator, Joe Lillington. It was very much like the author / editor revision process.

I love these illustrations, so it’s hard to narrow things down to one. My favorite, though, goes with the lines Station shines / on the horizon, / hoofbeats thunder, /echo ‘round. Will has been riding for a while and finally sees a station ahead. I imagined him alone, those echoing hoofbeats his horse’s. But the illustration! Oh my goodness. It was so much more than I could have imagined (and a great example as to why the illustrator needs room apart from a hovering author). Joe has included a herd of buffalo in the picture. It’s a great Wyoming scene but it’s bigger than that: The buffalo are a beautiful nod to the man Will Cody will become. The picture truly thunders in a way the language couldn’t on its own.

That’s the beauty of a picture book. The words plus the illustrations aren’t a simple 1+1 = 2 arithmetic problem. When words finally meet pictures the outcome is exponential, something so much more than either could have ever been alone.

Want more information about Caroline or Ride On, Will Cody!? Read part one of the interview and also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.


Disclosure: I received a copy of the book from the publisher (but I’ve bought my own copies of some of her previous works). This post contains affiliate links. Thank you for supporting The Deliberate Reader!

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