Explore Historical Fiction With Our Playwright
Explore Historical Fiction With Our Playwright
Editor's Note: Here at Scope, one of our missions is to give your students a window into the writing process. In this post, playwright Spencer Kayden discusses how she created our play Conquer the Sky, a historical fiction drama about the Wright brothers. This post presents a great opportunity to discuss with your students how authors combine fact and fiction in this genre. We also encourage you to share Spencer’s source list with students who want to learn more about the Wright brothers and this fascinating period of history. Find the list at the bottom of this page.
When Kristin asked me to write a historical fiction play about the Wright brothers, I immediately thought of a visit I made to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., a few years ago. I remember looking at the Wright brothers’ 1903 Flyer thinking, This flimsy biplane changed history? You can actually connect the dots from this contraption made of wood, muslin, and aluminum to the jet that flew me from Los Angeles to D.C.??? What struck me in particular was that these two untrained brothers labored for years believing they could achieve what most people deemed impossible.
1. How am I going to tell the story?
The first thing I did was lots and lots of research. After delving into several books about the Wright brothers, my mind was soaring with possibilities. Would I focus on the brothers' early years in the bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio? The countless hours they spent conducting flying experiments on the beach in Kitty Hawk? Or the years they toured Europe and the U.S. just to prove that yes, indeed, humans can fly. (Most people didn’t believe it was possible until they saw it with their own eyes.) The more I read about Kitty Hawk, the more intrigued I became with the families who lived in this isolated place in the early 1900s. Many of the residents were descended from sailors who had been shipwrecked on the Outer Banks and never left. (That part of the ocean is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic.) In fact, Kitty Hawk was so remote that when Wilbur first arrived in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, by train, he couldn’t find anyone who had even heard of Kitty Hawk, much less anyone to take him there by boat.
2. Creating the character of Bea
Then I came across an old photograph of Bill Tate, the postmaster of Kitty Hawk, and his family, who graciously welcomed the Wright brothers and aided them in many ways. By this point I had decided that, as with other historical fiction plays I’ve written for Scope (such as Light, May 2015), the most effective way to tell this story would be through the eyes of a teenager who was there. So I decided to invent a 13-year-old daughter for the Tates—and the character Bea was born.
3. Choosing a conflict for Bea
Bea needed to have a conflict that could be explored through her experience of meeting the Wright brothers. I combed through newspapers from the period for inspiration. While perusing North Carolina newspapers from 1903, I came across an ad announcing the opening of Jane Brinkley’s new millinery shop in Plymouth. Hatmaking was one of few professions open to women at the time. Hmmm, I thought. Perhaps Bea has dreams of being a hatmaker . . . And perhaps she is afraid of pursuing her dreams. And perhaps her parents’ apprehension about the rapidly changing world around them contributes to her self-doubt. And perhaps she has a friend who encourages her. And through it all she sees the Wright brothers unabashedly pursuing their passion, even though nearly everyone around them thinks they are nuts. These are the ideas I wanted to bring out in the story. How did I do?
This 1903 hat advertisement from The Goldsboro Headlight inspired me to make Bea a hatmaker. (DigitalNC.org)
I hope you and your students enjoy reading this play as much as I enjoyed writing it!
Here are the sources that I used for my research. I encourage you and your students to check them out!
- The Wright Brothers by David McCullough (Simon & Schuster 2015)
- The Wright Brothers and the Invention of the Aerial Age by Peter L. Jakab and Tom D. Crouch (National Geographic 2003)
- The Flyers: In Search of Wilbur and Orville Wright by Noah Adams (Crown 2003)
- The Roanoke Beacon, June 19, 1903
- The Goldsboro Headlight, September 10, 1903
- The photo of the Tate family can be found here
Spencer Kayden, Contributing Editor
Spencer Kayden has been a writer and editor for Scope and other Scholastic magazines for 20 years. She is also a Tony-nominated actress and has a talent for origami and baking bundt cakes.