Finding Billy Battles
Tell us about your research process for the book
Researching Finding Billy Battles began with my own memories. I grew up in rural Kansas and I grew up listening to the way my great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents spoke. Everybody in my family grew up in Kansas, so it is no stretch to say that I was immersed in “Kansas-speak” from an early age.
Nevertheless, even though I grew up in regions mentioned in the book, I did not know what those places looked like between 1878 and 1894–the period in which most of the first book in the trilogy takes place. Luckily, I was able to do a lot of research online. I spent a lot time mining the website of the Kansas Historical Society, the FordCounty and Douglas County Historical Societies. There were many other places I found useful information of the period, including the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad.
I am a relentless researcher. That comes from my 27 years as a journalist with the Chicago Tribune. As I said in a previous guest post:
“Working as a journalist taught me some basic skills regarding reporting, which is the journalist’s word for research. Journalism is an empirical discipline. That means, like science, it is a search for truth and you use trial and error, observation and analysis to find that truth. For the scientist or scholar or historian, empiricism means arriving at a truth via observation and experimentation. For the journalist the empirical tools are: Observation and Interviewing. I believe any successful journalist, author or scholar must master both of those skills–along with the ability to respect the language and write compellingly.”
I believe authors who write historical fiction owe it to their readers to be accurate about the time and place they have put their characters in. That means you MUST do good research. You cannot rely on watching a movie about Bleeding Kansas in the 1850s and 1860s and then write a book based on how that film depicted the time, the places and the events.
You can do a lot of that research on line, but NOT all of it. Libraries are still the best places to find the kind of books that will tell you what a place looked and sounded like in the 1890s. Luckily for me, I have amassed a large library of books during the past couple of decades on 19th Century America, Asia and Latin America–the main locales for my characters in the Finding Billy Battles trilogy. I have old maps of countries, cities and territories that have proved invaluable in creating accurate settings in the book.
I cannot emphasize enough how important accuracy is in developing the historical novel. Readers need to trust you when you describe a place, a city, an event. They almost want you to have been there so you can present them with an accurate picture of the place and time. For me, recreating 19th Century Lawrence, Denver, Chicago, New Mexico, etc. was part of the fun of writing. I want my readers to “see” what I am seeing and what my characters are seeing.
As I’ve said previously, I like to call my writing “Faction.” It is a blend of the journalist’s ability to gather accurate information and the fiction writer’s ability to imagine and create compelling characters and stories.
Excerpt from Finding Billy Battles by Ronald E. Yates:
Kansas City, 1948
My full name is William Fitzroy Raglan Battles, but most folks call me Billy Battles. My good friends call me Billy “Rags” Battles. More on that later.
Let me begin by owning up to some pretty terrible things I did during my life. That way, you can make up your mind right now if you want to read further.
I have killed people. And I am sad to say the first person I killed was a woman. It was entirely unintentional, and to this day, the incident haunts me. The next person I killed was that woman’s grown son, and that was intentional. If you decide to read on, you will learn more about these two people and how they came to die at my hands.
You will also learn about other things I did—some of which I am not proud of, some of which I am. In the course of my life, I got into a lot of brawls where I had to defend myself and others in a variety of ways. I did so without regret, because in each case, someone was trying to do me or someone else harm.
Now I know the Christian Bible says it is a sin to kill, and in some of these imbroglios, I probably could have walked away and avoided the ensuing violence. I chose not to because I learned early in my life that walking away from a scrap is too often seen as a sign of weakness or cowardice and simply incites bullies and thugs to molest you later on. There were a few individuals who tried their damndest to put an end to me, but fortunately, I was able to dispatch or incapacitate those malefactors before they could apply the coup de grâce.
So there you have it—a forewarning about me and my sometimes-turbulent life. As the Romans used to say, “Caveat emptor,” if you decide to continue reading.
I don’t know if anybody will ever read what I am putting to paper here, but I figure I should do it anyway. A few folks have told me my experiences are fascinating because they show what it was like in Kansas and a lot of other places in the last century, when life could turn violent and capricious without warning.
As I am writing this, I am eighty-eight years old, and the year is 1948. I am not sure how much longer I will be on this earth, so I figure I had better write pretty fast before I join the Great Majority. I have been fortunate in that my memory still serves me quite well, but I must admit that for much of my life, I kept several journals, and it’s those journals that have kept my mind on the trail when it was inclined to wander off into the brush.
It’s also those journals that helped me make sense, now that I am an old man, of some of the things I saw and did during my life. It’s a funny thing, but as you grow older and you have time to look back on your life, things begin to make more sense to you. I guess that’s what they call wisdom—not that I’m necessarily a wise man. I’m just somebody who had the good fortune to see and do a lot of things—some pretty awful, some pretty wonderful—and the good Lord has blessed me, or cursed me, with the capacity to remember most of them.
There are some things I wish I could forget—things other people did and things that I did. But I cannot. Consequently, I have lived for decades with many ghosts—not the kind that appear as apparitions in the night, but the kind that grab hold of your mind and force you to remember even when you don’t want to.
I know what it is like to be a hunter of men, and I know what it is like to be hunted. I can tell you, I much prefer the former over the latter. I have known and caused terrible fear. I have experienced and inflicted dreadful pain. I have loved and been loved, and I have been, without doubt, hated by some.
But I have always tried to live my life as my mother taught me—with uprightness, reliability, and consequence. I wasn’t always successful. Sometimes my disposition turned dark, and I did things I truly regret today. I am, after all, one of God’s wretched creatures—a simple mortal with all the imperfections and deficiencies of that species.