Gerald Kolpan’s first novel, Etta is due on bookshelves March 24th.
It’s a sprawling work of historical fiction portraying the imagined life of the mysterious Etta Place, legendary girlfriend of the Sundance Kid. Very little is actually known about the beautiful outlaw queen, although there are literally dozens of theories and clues, not to mention plenty of Etta’s fans that claim to know all the facts.
Gerald wanted the book to be as true to the known story as possible, but still tell the exciting tale that was unspooling in his head.
He decided he needed a methodology and worked one out for himself.
Seeing as how he’s an author, we’ll let him pick up the story.
There were a lot of historical figures to keep track of in Etta’s story. And keeping them all straight was something of a challenge.
I had to keep track of where everyone was at a given time and what they were doing there, as well as imagining what they might have been up to at any given time.
I had to know the differences in all the characters’ ages. I had to keep track of the seasons. I needed to make sure that all technology and inventions (especially the weapons) were correct for the period. Historical fiction readers hate anachronisms.
My solution was to make (to borrow a phrase from Gilbert and Sullivan), “a little list.”
First, I researched all that I could on the principal characters. Etta Place was the easiest, because most of the information on her was speculative. She had no affirmed birth date; no birthplace and she disappeared from history in 1909. I looked at the different stories: that Etta was really a woman named Eunice Grey; that she was actually Harry Longbaugh’s (The Sundance Kid’s) cousin; that they married and had a child or children; that she was a prostitute and lover of Sundance and Butch Cassidy and Lord knows who else. And then of course, there was the schoolteacher role portrayed in the film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I decided to throw all of these out, instead portraying Etta as Philadelphia’s richest and most beautiful debutante. I thought it was more fun; and I figured that if the book was fun for me to write, then it would be fun to read.
Butch and Sundance themselves are well documented. Their births, parentage and lives are all a matter of record as are those of Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Eleanor Roosevelt, restaurateur Fred Harvey and others in the story.
Using information gathered from books, articles and on the Internet, I created a timeline that began with each character’s birth and ended with their deaths. This I typed in black and in a roman font (Palatino). A typical passage might read…
1867, Phoenixville, Pa
Sundance Kid born Harry Longbaugh
Parents: Josiah and Annie Place Longbaugh
Brothers: Elwood and Harvey
…all of which is true. These parts of the list contain where a character was at a particular time, what crimes they committed, if they appeared in the media or were written up by the Pinkerton detectives: anything historically accurate was included.
Once all the real stuff was completed, I began filling in the holes with fantasy, this time in red and in san serif type (Helvetica). So a fictional passage would look like this:
1880, Philadelphia, Pa
Lorinda Reese Jameson is born to G. David Jameson and Anna Pepper Reese on their estate, The Cedars, Chestnut Hill, Germantown Ave. and Etta Place, Philadelphia, Pa. Jameson is a banker, hunter, horseman and explorer. He is also a gambler and womanizer. Anna dies giving birth to Lorinda.
The above is the “list” item pertaining to Etta’s birthplace, “real” name and family. Absolutely all of it is made up: from the estate’s address to the circumstances of Lorinda’s birth. David Jameson is a fictional character, as is Anna. No one really knows for sure who Etta’s father and mother were.
The original outline goes on for thirteen pages, constantly alternating between the black (facts) and the red (fantasy). It actually ends with the death of Butch and Sundance although the book carries on for a considerable time after that.
This “red and black” list served me well. It functioned as my guiding outline and allowed me to use the facts as a way to create fiction while keeping all the characters, both real and invented, within my control. That is, until I actually began writing the book and they started living lives of their own.
After that, all I could do was follow them.