When Kelsey suggested I write about the inspiration and research for my recent book, Oscar’s Gift, I had the chance to think about that question with some new perspective. I was pondering my answer while my son and I visited the town of Belle Fourche in South Dakota’s Black Hills. There we stopped at the Center of the Nation monument and stood at the geographical center of the United States. That’s it, I thought.
I first learned about Oscar Micheaux while researching the South Dakota Indian reservation where I grew up, as part of a family diaries project. As so often happens (at least with me), this new discovery distracted me from my original purpose and led to further reading and research, just because it was fun. I learned about Oscar’s homesteading years, his childhood, his work as a Pullman Porter, and his later careers as novelist and film maker. The more I learned, the more fascinated I became, and I knew he would make a terrific literary character.
I wasn’t ready to write the story yet. For a few more years, I continued to keep my eye out for information about Oscar’s homesteading. For instance, when I learned that he went to the town of Bonesteel, South Dakota, to enter the land lottery for new homesteads, I happened upon and bookmarked a New York Times headline about “The Battle of Bonesteel,” which described the scene in the summer of 1904. I took full advantage of not only online Google Books and the usual internet searches, but also the university databases I have access to through my work. I had no idea where all of this information was leading, but I sure was having a good time gathering it.
When I did begin to write the story, I was constantly surprised by gifts of coincidence and convergence. One example comes near the end of the story, when the young character of Tomas, in a scene with Oscar, chooses a book to read. I knew I wanted a book that, at the very least, would have been available at the time. Imagine my glee when one of the first titles I investigated was not only mentioned by one of Oscar’s biographers as a book that Oscar had read, but also begins with a scene on a Pullman train, echoing the beginning of Tomas’s own story and weaving in the thread of Oscar’s work as a Pullman Porter.
Are such gifts pure luck? Inspiration from the muse? Or something else?
Where does a story come from? I now see that Tomas’s story came from the center, only after I’d allowed myself to become filled with historical details, late night imaginings, and more than a few false starts (I originally had conceived of Oscar as a character in a short story for adults). Here’s what writing Oscar’s Gift taught me: When writing any stories, but especially historical fiction, we can take the time to fill ourselves with as much background information about our characters and settings as we can. We can learn to trust our curiosity compass and sense of fun to let us know when something is interesting and worth pursuing further (even when it veers a bit off track). We can refuse to rush an idea while at the same time continuing to work on it. All of this allows us to write from a place in the center of it all, surrounded by rich ideas and content just within our reach, ours for the taking.
Be sure to check out Lisa’s latest novel:
The year is 1904 on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, and eleven-year-old Tomas, the son of Swedish immigrants, thinks that life is a game of chance. Now you see it. Now you don’t. His father. School. Dreams for the future. It doesn’t matter how hard he tries or how much he hopes. In the end, everything he loves can disappear with the delivery of a telegram.
Then one hot day, on a dusty street in Bonesteel, South Dakota, he sees a tall, dark, city-slicker of a man as they both are trying their luck in a land lottery. Tomas does not know that he has just met the man who will one day write novels about his homesteading life on the Great Plains and be known as America’s first African-American feature film maker. Oscar will also become his friend and mentor.
Could it be that Tomas’s luck is changing?
And be sure to visit Lisa’s wonderful website at http://lisarivero.com/.