Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Sedalia, My New Home Town

Writers know they've done well when they can't walk away from a finished book. A good story leaves something of itself in its author's mind forever.

When I started work on THE RAGTIME KID, the first book in my historical-mystery trilogy, I could have dropped what I knew about life in a bustling 1899 Missouri town into a watch case, and it would have rattled around. So aside from educating myself on the history of ragtime music and its pioneers, I read everything I could get my hands on about social, political and historical aspects of Sedalia a hundred years ago. I studied Sanborn insurance maps for 1899 Sedalia; these gave specifics for every building in the city, every street, every alleyway. At that point, I could have written a decent nonfiction account of the amazing collaboration between Scott Joplin and John Stark, but a novel? No way. Something important was missing, and I knew that to get it, I needed to go to the place where it all happened.

I pulled into Sedalia for the first time on a Sunday morning in June, 2003, immediately after the annual Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival. It was 94 degrees, with humidity to match. This meteorology developed into the opening sentences of Chapter 4 in THE RAGTIME KID: "They say the devil once spent a week in Missouri in July, then went back and set up hell to specifications. Only ten in the morning, but the air was already a sopping blanket..." Ohio Street, the town's major thoroughfare, was deserted, the only sound that of church bells. As I followed the self-guided tour in a C of C brochure, I saw that many of the buildings had stood since 1899 or earlier. In my mind's eye, Ohio Street filled with men in three-piece suits, women wearing long dresses and big floppy hats, scampering children, peddlers, horse-drawn wagons. I walked to Liberty Park, sat on the grass, and could feel myself among picnickers and strollers from a century before, listening to the band on the bandstand.

My story began to come to life. But I knew I needed more, so I planned to come back the next June - but a little earlier, in time for the Joplin Festival.

Which I did. I'm not a musician, and had been wondering how to portray Brun Campbell's piano lessons with his hero, Joplin. My reading had given me a pretty good sense of what Joplin generally would have expected from a student, but as to specific instructions, I was at Square One. So I sat in on some master classes, where prominent ragtime pianists showed their young counterparts how to play the music. I strolled through town, among crowds of people, many of them dressed in period apparel, and it became easier and easier to imagine myself on those streets 104 years earlier. I spent hours at the beautiful Carnegie Library, looking through microfilmed copies of the Sedalia newspapers from the summer of 1899 - what were people concerned about, what were they saying, how did they speak? I pawed through a profusion of photos and documents from the local ragtime era. The librarians opened locked cabinets to allow me to look through histories of Sedalia and Pettis County, written and independently-published through the years by local residents.

My greatest stroke of luck came while I was at the microfilm machine. The woman at the machine next to mine introduced herself as Betty Singer, said she was researching a book about local rural cemeteries, and allowed that my project sounded interesting. She loved to do research, she told me, and if she could help me with material I found I needed once I got home, she'd be only too glad to do so. That she did, over the next two years, providing me with information I only realized I required as the book developed. Without Betty's help, important characters for my story, such as Dr. Walter Overstreet and P. D. Hastain would never have developed.

All the while I wrote THE RAGTIME KID, I felt as though I was making a personal connection with Scott Joplin, John Stark, Brun Campbell, and many of the other real people who became characters in my book. But I also came to feel connected to Sedalia. Images still drift into my mind: the gorgeous century-old mansions along Broadway; lovely Liberty Park with its lake and bandstand; the central downtown district, fighting to survive the onslaught of the ubiquitous highway shopping malls; fields of tall grasses blowing in the warm summer wind north of Lincolnville, the original Black residential quarter of town. Now, I find myself counting time to the first week in June, when Sedalia will host the next Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival, and I'll hop a flight to Kansas City, then drive east on Route 50, through Lone Jack and Knob Noster, for my annual homecoming.

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