Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Double the Research, Double the Fun!

{Hey, gang! The following was created for an Amazon.com blog post about Donner Dinner Party, a Kindle Content Nomination for the Month of January!}

The first time I did historical research for a graphic novel wasn’t for a Hazardous Tales book—it was for a fairy tale: Rapunzel’s Revenge, written by Newbery Honor author Shannon Hale and her husband Dean. This wasn’t a standard re-telling of the fairy tale; it was a re-boot—heavy on the boot, because it took place in the Old West.

Even though our Old West was a fantasy kingdom, I wanted it to look and feel authentic. I looked at costumes, buildings, carts, firearms, and scenery, and then incorporated that visual research into the drawings. That dash of period-correct detail went a long way towards making the world of Rapunzel’s Revenge feel like a real place.

The sequel, Calamity Jack, required even more visual research. That book was set in a turn-of-the-century American city that had been destroyed by giants. Now, obviously, I didn’t have access to any cities destroyed by giants. I did, however, find a wealth of amazing photos of turn-of-the-century American cities in ruins. Giants? No--fire: the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, or earthquake: the San Francisco Quake of 1906. These photos were fascinating. One book in particular, The Earth Shook Sky Burned:A Photographic Record of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire, by William Bronson, became my go-to book for Calamity Jack scenery.

San Francisco was nearly wiped off the map in 1906. 3,000 people died! I would stop drawing for hours and get lost in the photos and accounts. This was where the idea of doing historical non-fiction graphic novels first started to appeal to me.

What I didn’t realize was just how much research would be required. When researching a historical graphic novel: you have to research your subject matter twice, once for the facts, then again for the visuals.

Amulet, the publisher of the Hazardous Tales series, employs a very strict fact-checker. This guy is serious. If he sees an error in my manuscript, he lets me know--in angry red pen. I go back and double-check my sources, re-write the offending passages, and fix, fix, fix, until that fact-checker is happy. But that’s just the first half. Then I have to draw all of these historical scenes. So it’s back to the research.

In some ways, One Dead Spy, the first Hazardous Tales book, was the easiest for visual research, because it was pre-photography. I was able to just make up what many of the key characters looked like. Nathan Hale himself (the hero of that book, and the narrator of the series) had no official portrait. The images and statues we see of him today are romanticized versions of written accounts.

The Reeds, the main characters of Donner Dinner Party, have remarkable portraits. My cartoon versions of them had to match the photos. Researching the scenery of the Donner journey was easy for me. I live in Utah, close to the original route.

I just finished the fourth Hazardous Tales book: Treaties,Trenches, Mud, and Blood, a World War One tale. That one was the most difficult research assignment yet. Getting all of the uniforms, guns, tanks, helmets, etc. for each of the countries involved was a monster. I spent a day making sure each army’s shovels were the right shovels. That book comes out this May.

The books may look cartoony, the facts may be interrupted by jokes, but everything in a Hazardous Tales book has been researched, fact-checked, then researched again. Double the research, double the fun!