Back in April of 2021 Stage Partners reached out to me and asked if I would be interested in writing a new play about a group of librarians known as the ‘book women’ who delivered books on horseback to rural communities in Eastern Kentucky during the Great Depression. I told them, “You had me at ‘book women,’” and eagerly jumped on board. But where did I go from there? Not only do history plays demand a ton of research, they also demand urgency and strong characters so your history play doesn’t sound like a history book. I started with research, hoping I would find my characters and urgency along the way.
First Stop: Wikipedia
I know, I know! Anyone can write anything they want on Wikipedia! Even knowing that, it’s always my first stop. Why? The resource and further reading section. This is almost always a wealth of resources; books, articles, websites. Wikipedia likes a good fact-check and thank goodness for that. If you look up the Pack-Horse Library Project on Wikipedia you’ll find:
- Smithsonian online exhibit - which is packed with wonderful pictures!
- Down Cut Shin Creek by Kathi Appelt & Jeanne Cannella Schmitzer
That Book Woman by Heather Henson
- Academic articles
Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries (page 4)
Next up: All the reading!
Now that you’ve found all the articles and books your heart desires, it’s time to read! But what are you looking for? What I’m looking for can be boiled down to three categories:
- Cold hard facts.
- Exact descriptions of systems, as in, how were the books organized? Who else, beyond the librarians on horseback, were involved? What did they do?
- Juicy bits!
- All the beautiful details and specifics that make the characters and story special.
- Feelings of librarians
- Feelings of community and patrons
- Descriptions of routines and environment
- Music and art of the community
- Specific stories of the incredible
- I read accounts of women having their boots freeze to stirrups as well as having to wade through quick moving creeks
- Anything else that catches my eye.
- I write using my instincts A LOT, so this third category is hard to describe. Anything that pokes at my brian I jot down in my notes as well. Yes, this means a lot of writing, but I also almost always go back to find these indescribable nuggets that, at the time, may not have made sense to notate.
Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries (page 10)
Knowing the history and the facts is essential, but just as important are the characters that will tell the story. A brilliant mentor of mine, EM Lewis, told me once, “It’s not history for them.” The ‘them’ she meant was the characters within the play. They’re not looking back fifty plus years, this is their NOW, and a successful history play will feel immediate for its characters. I selected characters I thought would have the most at stake in order to tell a compelling story.
- All my librarians want the same thing, but they all go about them very different ways, you have:
- Della, the charmer
- Erma, the no-nonsense secret softie
- Josephine, the heart of gold
- Sissy Mae, the newcomer, and non-believer
- Having newcomers makes for easy storytelling, that way, when you explain how things work, the audience thinks that explanation is meant for the new character, not them! That’s why, in addition to Sissy Mae I included:
- Leo, my city boy reporter
- The rest of the cast is huge, I knew I was going to have a ton of characters, and that making them different was going to be essential. There are characters who love these ‘book women’, others that disdain them, and many in between. But, in addition to having various characters, they all want something. That, for me, is the most sure-fire way to create dynamic characters. They want things and use various tactics to obtain their goals.
Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries (page 23)
Then it’s nothing but clear skies and smooth sailing! I love letting my characters lead the way, and once I have a strong understanding of their world, and their wants, I let them guide. I just have to be fast and sure-footed enough to keep up with them… Characters who know what they want tend not to dilly-dally.
Goodman-Paxton Photographic Collection, Special Collections, University of Kentucky Libraries (page 20)
Photo Credits: Undergraduate Student Angelia Pulley curated the exhibit with the guidance of Mary McLaren, Federal Depository Collections Librarian, Jennifer Bartlett, Head of Reference Services & The Hub at W.T. Young Library, and Dr. Randolph Hollingsworth, Assistant Provost, University of Kentucky, as Faculty Sponsor for Internship. Contribution was made by Lillie Staton, Paul Laurence Dunbar High School Intern, and Ruth Bryan, Director of Archives & University Archivist, for research assistance.
Read the Play:
The Book Women
By Rachel Bublitz
Full-length drama, 75-90 minutes. 7-30 actors.