When I began The Great Show I knew I wanted to have a circus in it, for a lot of reasons. First, I said circus, right? Second, the Civil War pretty much shut down American circuses, so I knew I had to do get my circus book in before the war really gets rolling in the series. I had this idea that slave snatchers would kidnap Juba and sell him south and that Kate and the gang would go under-cover in the circus to look for him. My vision was that they’d be in circus wagons, traveling south, checking small towns until they found him.
Then research told me it wouldn’t work. By the 1850s, most circuses didn’t travel around in wagons, not if they could help it. Railroad travel was a far more economical way to travel. Also, a lot of circuses traveled by steamboat. The cool thing about steamboat was that circus owners could turn them into floating theaters. This meant they didn’t have to own a huge, expensive tent. They could just pull up at a town’s docks, put out fliers and voila! Instant circus.
Dan Rice, the most famous circus man of the mid-nineteenth century, refined this tactic by putting together a show he could do in almost any theater. He both saved on costs and got to claim his circus was classier than a traditional circus. He called his dramatic-circus hybrid Dan Rice’s Great Show.
The Great Show was an immense step up for Mr. Rice. He got his start working for other circus men as an animal trainer. His Lord Byron, the Learned Pig astounded 1840s audiences with his ability to do math and answer questions about literature. Eventually Dan struck out by himself, but when he did he had a wagon and his trained horse Excelsior. He called his circus Dan Rice’s One Horse Show. Eventually he moved up to Rhinos and Elephants. And then the Great Show, which he considered his finest idea.
I had more than circus problems with my original plot. It also turns out the vast majority of slaves sold south in the two or three years before the Civil War were shipped to New Orleans. If you lived in the deep south and needed new slaves you went to New Orleans for the sales, which lasted from October to the end of May (New Orleans being hot and full of disease in the summer months). So I didn’t need my main characters wandering around the South in circus wagons looking for Juba. I needed to get them to New Orleans, which lies conveniently on the Mississippi River. And what is the Mississippi River known for? That’s right. Steamboats. Badda Bing. Badda Boom. I had me the bare bones of a plot.
I’ve heard some writers say they write the first draft first, then go back and do the research. I guess if it works for them, fine. But it makes no sense to me. If I'd done that I'd have had to re-write the whole book and do it while working my two jobs and editing the other books. ICK! Research isn't as fun as writing (only because nothing is as fun as writing), but if you ask me it's got to be done first.Work first, play second. I’ve got this little sticky note on my desk lamp that says “Do the work and the art will take care of itself.” I don’t know where I picked up the saying but it feels like good advice, not just for writing, but for life in general.