Lawrence author Laura Moriarty’s previous books — “The Center of Everything,” “The Rest of Her Life” and “While I’m Falling” — have been set in modern-day Kansas, but her latest book, “The Chaperone,” moves back 90 years, to 1922 and the beginning of major changes — social and technological — in America.
The author said she’s always loved reading historical fiction, because it “really does allow you to live in another time, smell it, see it, feel it ... it becomes personal. Writing it was just an extreme version of that.”
Moriarty, who will be in Wichita on Thursday for a book-signing, was led to a historical setting for “The Chaperone” by Louise Brooks. She was reading about the early movie actress (and Kansas native) and how she went as a teenager to New York to study dance, of course accompanied by a chaperone.
“Everything about Louise was from her autobiography,” Moriarty said. “The chaperone was a real person, but I changed everything about her, including her name. I made up a name for her, and a backstory.”
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The resulting character is Cora Carlisle, a Wichita wife and mother in her late 30s at the start of the book, a character that required a bit of balance.
“She’s not a frumpy old housewife who meets a cool young woman who liberates her,” Moriarty said. “I didn’t want her to be a fuddy-duddy.”
She wanted Cora to be realistic — still wearing a corset and not bobbing her hair — but also a little more progressive than her peers — refusing an invitation to join the Ku Klux Klan, breaking from other society women on certain social issues.
And Moriarty gave Cora an interesting childhood: coming to Kansas on an orphan train and being adopted by a farm family in McPherson. She said she first learned about the orphan trains from a library display a couple of years ago, then did some research on the subject. Later, when she was working on “The Chaperone,” Moriarty found that she needed a reason for Cora to want to go to New York, and “putting two separate pieces together” solved that question nicely: Cora went in search of information about her biological parents.
The research was the most challenging aspect of writing historical fiction, Moriarty said. For the book, she had to look into a lot of subjects: clothes, daily life, transportation, technology.
For example, when Cora and Louise take the train from Wichita to New York, Moriarty wanted to make sure all the details were right: what it would smell like, what people would eat on the train, even whether trains were air-conditioned in 1922 (they were not). She came to Wichita to delve into Brooks’ life and life in general in the city in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s (the book spans several decades after Cora’s trip to New York).
“You learn a lot,” Moriarty said. “I learned a lot of things you can’t put in the book.”
One interesting tidbit, however, did make it in: the 1925 baseball game in Wichita between an all-black team and the Klan, which had Catholic umpires for impartiality (the black team won, 10-8, and no major incidents were reported).
But, she said, the research also was the most rewarding part of writing the book: “I did feel like I got to live a little in 1922.”