When I begin writing a novel, I have a who, and often a what, but finding the where and when usually takes some exploration. I try my main character in different settings to see what feels right. I pour over photographs, walk the streets where I live, and drop my protagonist into different time periods and places until I find their story.
My middle grade novel The Luck of the Buttons (Candlewick, 2011) was originally set in 1970s Minneapolis, Minnesota until a Grant Wood painting inspired me to set Tugs Button’s story, and then her cousin Ned Button’s Button Down (Candlewick, 2012) in fictional Goodhue, Iowa, circa 1929.
For my newest book, however, the setting came ready made. The Curse of the Buttons (Candlewick, 2014) is Tugs and Ned’s Great-granddaddy Ike’s boyhood story. Because bits of Granddaddy’s life slip into The Luck of the Buttons and Button Down, I knew his adventure would be set during the Civil War, and this time there was a real town I was anxious to use. My husband was born in Keokuk, Iowa, and from the first time I heard the name, I loved to say it out loud (KEY-u-kuk), and hoped to find a story to set there.
I love river towns and Keokuk is the ultimate river town. Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, one of my favorite river town storytellers, even lived in Keokuk for a time. Called the Gate City, Keokuk’s place at the confluence of the Mississippi and Des Moines rivers puts it on a line between north and south, east and west. This unique geographic situation made the city particularly valuable and volatile during the Civil War. Thousands of soldiers mustered in Keokuk. Freedom seekers crossed the Des Moines River and found their way north through the town. Sympathies were divided even among family members.
I read Raymond E. Garrison’s Tales of Early Keokuk Homes, which is full of fascinating snippets of life stories, many from the 1850s and 60s; names, like Albirdie; and jobs people held, like boatman, carriage maker, and butter and egg man. I could imagine Ike’s adventures among those people, walking into Chatham Square Church to discover a clandestine meeting, running down to the levee when a steamboat arrived with the announcement that Iowa’s soldiers were being called up to war.
While the main character births the idea of a novel, the setting unleashes questions that make the story unfurl. Questions I hope will propel readers through The Curse of the Buttons include: What was it like to live in a town between North and South at the dawn of the Civil War? How did children understand the issues of the war? What were towns like after the most of the men left? What if a boy in Iowa met a boy who was escaping slavery? What if a child was faced with having to make an ethical decision while the adults around him spouted conflicting beliefs? I am excited to share Ike and his summer of 1861 adventures in Keokuk, and hope that readers find as much satisfaction as I did in connecting character to setting, question to answer.
Anne Ylvisaker writes in a tiny cottage in a green belt ravine behind her house in Monterey, California. She is the author of five middle grade novels, all from Candlewick Press, including Dear Papa (2002), named a Booklist Top Ten Youth First Novel, Little Klein (2007), Midwest Booksellers Choice award winner, and three books about the comically unlucky Button family.
Candlewick has generously offered a free copy of The Curse of the Buttons to one of my lucky followers. Must live in the US or Canada to win - enter below.