A Difficult Boy: Frequently Asked Questions

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How long did it take you to write A Difficult Boy?

It took about ten years from the day I wrote the first scene to the day I had the published book in my hand, but the book went through at least five drafts in that time, and I didn’t write all day every day (I had to work for a living, too!). The first draft took about two years to write, and it was about 700 pages long–about as big as a telephone book! Well, of course, that was much too big, so it took me about two more years to whittle that down to a mere 500 pages. The next two drafts brought it down to about 350 pages. Meanwhile, I was trying to find an agent or a publisher –that took even longer than writing the book! After Holiday House bought the book, I worked with Regina Griffin and Leanna Petronella, my editors there, to tighten the story up some more, and took another 50 or so pages off it. Whew!

Is the story based on historical events? Were Ethan and Daniel real people?

BALL-01-0011-for-webNo. Both the story and the setting are fictional. I couldn’t find a real town that was exactly the way I imagined Farmington, so I invented a town on the western edge of Hampden County, Massachusetts, near the Farmington River.

Although Ethan isn’t a real person, his story was inspired by the document at left, which I discovered in the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum’s archives. The document was a bill that a man sent to an indentured boy’s mother, charging her for the cost of catching the boy when he ran away. That got me thinking: What kind of man was that master? Why did the boy run away? What would happen if his mother couldn’t pay the bill?

Before I knew it, the characters of Mr. Lyman and Ethan began to take shape. After that, Daniel made his appearance. Irish immigrants like Daniel came to New England in large numbers in the 1820s and 1830s to build canals and mills. So I used that information to help me imagine why Daniel’s family might have come from Ireland.

Jonathan Stocking, the peddler, was based on research I did at Old Sturbridge Village about peddlers in New England. I’d originally intended Mr. Stocking to make a very brief appearance, but he insisted on developing into a more prominent character. He also insisted on being quite different from the character I’d originally intended. I’d envisioned a tall, thin fellow in his twenties as the peddler. But when I started writing the scene, Mr. Stocking turned into a short, round, older man with a checkered past and a variety of talents. Mr. Stocking continued to pester me to tell his story, so watch for more adventures involving Mr. Stocking and Daniel in my next book, Mending Horses.

How did you research the period?

My training at Old Sturbridge Village involved learning about almost every detail of life in a New England town of the 1830s. When I worked there, I did many of the chores Ethan and Daniel do, like milking cows, mucking out the barn, planting crops, turning the manure pile, etc. So I used that experience when I described the way things looked and sounded and felt and smelled in the story (especially the smells!).

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Me during my Old Sturbridge Village days

At Sturbridge Village, I also learned about the opinions and beliefs of people from the time period. It was interesting to see the ways in which people have changed since then—and the ways they haven’t!

Sturbridge Village has a fabulous research library, which provided a wealth of information. I also did a lot of research at the Connecticut Valley Historical Museum and Mystic Seaport Museum . I searched through reference books, old newspapers, indenture agreements, account books, and diaries and reminiscences of people who’d lived in the time period. For example, when Mr. Pease, the hired man, tells anti-Irish stories to aggravate Daniel, I adapted Mr. Pease’s tales from some jokes that were published in newspapers from the 1830s.

I also relied on several former co-workers from the Village for advice and fact-checking. I’m especially grateful to Dennis Picard, Director of Storrowton Village, for going over the manuscript to root out any historically inaccurate situations. He’s an amazing guy—I swear he has a photographic memory!

Do you speak Irish (Gaelic)?

No. I did consider learning Irish, but it’s such a complicated language that I found the prospect a bit intimidating. So I called on a couple of experts to help me out. Thomas Moriarty, a professor from Elms College (my alma mater), and George Bresnahan graciously translated all the Irish bits for me.

How were you able to make the details of riding so vivid? Are you a horse lover? Do you own a horse? Do you ride?

horsesmallI’ve loved horses ever since I was a kid. I read all Walter Farley’s Black Stallion books, and probably drove my mom crazy cutting pictures of horses out of magazines and newspapers. But my family couldn’t afford a horse or riding lessons, so I didn’t get the chance to learn to ride until I was in my twenties. Although I never owned a horse, I took riding lessons for several years, and helped take care of a couple of horses at the stable where I took my lessons. I don’t know that I was ever much good, but I had fun!

The best teacher I had was a red-haired girl named Kathy, who taught me to ride much the same way that Daniel teaches Ethan. No, we didn’t ride the horse together the way Ethan and Daniel do in the book, but Kathy described how to sit in the saddle and hold my posture just the way Daniel does, and she showed me how to get a feel for the horse’s motion. She also recommended a book called Centered Riding by Sally Swift, which was a real eye-opener. From that point, everything just started to click for me and my riding improved immensely.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to ride for several years. But I hope I will be able to do it again someday!

Is Ivy based on a real horse you either owned or rode?

Ivy is based on a combination of real horses I’ve observed and fictitious ones that I’ve read about. When I took riding lessons, there was a girl at the stable who had taken care of one of the stable horses for so long that the two of them had formed a very special bond. She would run around the pasture and play with this horse sort of the way Daniel plays with Ivy in the book–although Daniel and Ivy play a bit rougher!

gilsmallWhen I worked at Old Sturbridge Village, I became friends with a very special man named Gil Barons, who drove a horse and carriage around the village. Gil was in his seventies when I met him. He’d been around horses all his life, and told me lots of stories about the horses he’d known. He had a very special bond with his horse Monty, whom he’d owned for more than twenty-five years. I’m sure I picked up a lot just watching Gil and Monty work together.

Who are the two boys on the cover?

Well, that’s an unsolved mystery! Marc Tauss, who created the cover, used a photo that he found in an antique store. There was nothing to identify the boys in the photo, which probably dates from the late 1800s. He collaged the picture with a 19th-century account book and a horse silhouette to create the stunning cover image. (To see more of Marc’s work, check out his web page at http://www.marctauss.com/)

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