PLAYING WITH HISTORY by Christopher Healy
Worldbuilding may well be my favorite aspect of writing. When working on my Hero’s Guide series of fairy tale adventures, it gave me immeasurable joy simply to sketch maps of the thirteen kingdoms in which the stories would take place. I love challenging myself with the creation of fantastical settings in which to house my tales, and intriguing characters with which to populate them, like a village of trolls with terrible construction skills or a ten-year-old bandit king in a castle filled with candy-themed torture devices. So, when I turned my attention to my current series, A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem—a historical mystery thriller set in 1880s America—my first thought was, how will this ever be as much fun? After all, so many of the people and places in this new trilogy were to be ones that actually existed in our real world. Sure, I wanted to put twists on these “characters,” but I didn’t want my depictions to be completely divorced from reality. Turns out I didn’t have to worry.
I decided to take the same approach to historical fiction that I’d taken to fantasy. I looked at what already existed and tweaked it. With Hero’s Guide, I developed new versions of classic fairy-tale characters by pulling interesting character traits from their original stories and expanding upon them. Looking, for instance, at how Cinderella’s prince, upon losing the girl of his dreams, sends a servant out to find her rather than searching her out himself, I had all the basis I needed to turn this character into a cowardly shut-in. When I shifted to Perilous Journey, my process for creating fictional versions of famous inventors, politicians, and other newsmakers was basically the same.
Take Thomas Edison, for instance, who plays a large part in all three Perilous Journey books. Based on his historical reputation as a tireless scientist and consummate businessman, I could have easily portrayed him as a self-serious intellectual. But then I took one look at those bushy, unkempt eyebrows roaming across the man’s forehead like a pair of fuzzy caterpillars, and I knew there had to be much more interesting material in Edison for me to build upon. And when I read about things like Edison’s collaborations with P.T. Barnum, his interest in recorded music, and his ventures into filmmaking, I knew I’d figured it out—my Edison would be a showman, an entertainer. So, did the real Thomas Edison break out into spontaneous tap dances, pull surprise gizmos from his pockets to get applause from crowds of fans, and assume everybody around him just wanted an autograph? I’m pretty sure not. But mine does, and it certainly made him fun to write.
Just as some of Edison’s inventions—the phonograph, the motion picture—led me to his depiction for my books, it was the work and creations of pioneering journalist, Nellie Bly, that led me to one of her key character traits for my version of her. After delving into her groundbreaking investigation into the horrible conditions of New York insane asylums, for which Bly literally got herself committed to one of the institutions in question, I asked myself, what if I had a Nellie Bly who was always undercover? One who constantly gave fake names and pretended to be other people? Until she’s forced into a situation so dire that she has no choice but to face reality, that is. This is the chain of thoughts that led me to my entire Perilous Journey character arc for Nellie Bly.
And then there’s President Chester A. Arthur. I will admit that prior to researching these books, my Chester A. Arthur knowledge was extremely limited. That didn’t matter, though. I gleaned his whole character from a White House Gallery portrait, in which Arthur is wearing a full-length fur coat and a glistening pinky ring. Pair that outfit with those look-at-me sideburns and you’ve got a president who, I decided, was focused way more on sartorial splendor than on actually governing. And I was quite pleased to discover, after the fact, that my initial estimation was not far from the truth! Chester A. Arthur was indeed such a notorious fashionista that he earned the nickname, “The Dude President.”
While I was able do extensive research on people like Arthur, Bly, and Edison, not every true-life character in my books is a household name. Several of the women on my inventor superteam, the Mothers of Invention, have had very little written about them at all. That’s where my process of building characters from a smattering of select details came in quite handy. I’d read, for instance, that Josephine Cochrane, inventor of the modern dishwasher, was a relatively well-to-do socialite whose inspiration to create a dishwashing machine came partly from her displeasure with servants chipping her glassware. But I also read that her life changed after the early death of her husband, and that it was only at that point that she threw herself into the very non-aristocratic work of inventing. I combined these two elements of her real life to create a Josephine Cochrane whose tut-tutting, pearls and lace exterior hides a core of true grit and resilience. And the heroic character she ultimately becomes is something I felt I’d honestly gleaned from the admittedly scant facts I had about her life story. Over the course of the writing, Josephine actually became one of my favorite side characters.
I often imagine the ghostly spirits of these historical folks reading my books in the afterlife and hope that none of them are too grievously offended by my “wacky” depictions of them. But then I think about how, though I certainly have these people doing things in these stories that they may not have done in real life, the guiding traits and personality quirks I gave them, even if played for comedy, are all built from a grain of truth. It was reading between the lines of their biographies that helped me piece together my incarnations of these folks. And isn’t that how we really get to know any historical figure? Especially the ones whom the real history books have, for the most part, left out of the story?
Christopher Healy is the author of A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem Book 1: A Dastardly Plot, A Perilous Journey of Danger & Mayhem Book 2: The Treacherous Seas, the “Hero’s Guide” trilogy, including The Hero’s Guide to Saving Your Kingdom, a New York Times Book Review Editor’s choice, its two sequels, The Hero’s Guide to Storming the Castle and The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw as well as the picture book This is Not that Kind of Book. Before becoming a writer, he worked as an actor, an ad copywriter, a toy store display designer, a fact-checker, a dishwasher, a journalist, a costume shop clothing stitcher, a children’s entertainment reviewer, and a haunted house zombie. He lives in New Jersey with his family and a dog named Duncan. You can visit him online at www.christopherhealy.com
A PERILOUS JOURNEY OF DANGER AND MAYHEM BOOK 3: THE FINAL GAMBIT
by Christopher Healy
The thrilling conclusion to Christopher Healy’s funny, action-packed, acclaimed alt-history adventure!
It is 1884, and Molly and Cassandra Pepper,
Emmett Lee, and Emmett’s long-lost father are sailing back to New York following their death-defying adventure in Antarctica. Having discovered a subterranean world at the South Pole while saving the world from certain doom once again, surely their accomplishments will finally earn them the recognition they deserve.
Unless, of course . . . well, you know by now.
And so do the Peppers and Lees. They’re used to having
their deeds covered up by the government in order to
protect powerful men, and frankly, they’re sick of it. And
when their return to New York doesn’t go the way they’d
planned, they decide that maybe it’s best to go into hiding
and accept that, perhaps, the forces aligned against them are just too great.
As the 1884 presidential election approaches however, our heroes discover a plot against leading candidate Thomas Edison that only they can stop. It’ll be up to them to decide whether to come out of hiding, make the perilous journey to Washington, D.C., and do the right thing one last time. Even if it means risking everything they have left.
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