Research Notes · 11/11/2016

The Adventures of Joe Harper

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Phong Nguyen writes about The Adventures of Joe Harper from Outpost 19.


My new novel The Adventures of Joe Harper concerns Tom Sawyer’s best friend and first mate Joe Harper. The book was inspired by the following quote from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: “As the two boys walked sorrowing along, they made a new compact to stand by each other and be brothers and never separate till death relieved them of their troubles. Then they began to lay their plans. Joe was for being a hermit, and living on crusts in a remote cave, and dying, some time, of cold and want and grief; but after listening to Tom, he conceded that there were some conspicuous advantages about a life of crime, and so he consented to be a pirate.” The Adventures of Joe Harper takes place 21 years later, when after a failed life of piracy, Joe Harper returns to St. Petersburg, Missouri to find his hometown full of strangers; so he decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a hermit and dying in a cave. On his quest, he meets up with a Chinese railroad worker and an Amish woman whose friendship cause him to question his suicidal mission.

With a spin-off project like The Adventures of Joe Harper, the author’s first burden is to become intimately familiar with his source material. This meant immersing myself in the world of Twain, and not only his celebrated works, but lesser lights like Tom Sawyer, Detective and Tom Sawyer, Abroad, and even the unfinished Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among the Indians. I read the biographies official and unofficial, the memoirs published during his lifetime (Life on the Mississippi, Roughing It, etc.), and in the year 2010 was privileged to benefit from the publication of Twain’s autobiography, ushered into print 100 years after his death, per the author’s request. All of this was meant, not to proscribe the possibilities by defining my literary limits, but to better understand the animating spirit of the man who created Joe Harper in the first place.

Stage two involved researching Pike County dialect in the 19th century. This research veered inevitably back to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Although many of the sources most familiar with Northeastern Missouri dialects took issue with the accuracy of Huck Finn’s voice, it was still the most influential factor in developing the voice of Joe Harper. Having the benefit of these historical accounts, however, meant that I could subtly adapt Joe Harper’s voice to be more his own, rather than merely make it a copy of Huck Finn’s.

Stage three consisted of reading about early hobo culture. Books like Jim Tully’s Beggars of Life and Jack London’s The Road gave insight into the struggles, the survival mechanisms, all the variety of human types encountered on the hobo trail. So much that has been written about hobo culture concerns the 1930s, and my book takes place in 1871-2, so this stage of research required that I be extremely selective about my sources so as not to fill the book with anachronisms. For example, in the 19^th^ century there was more fluidity between the roles of the hobo and the hobo-catcher, and many of the unemployed itinerants would become railroad employees, and many former railroad employees would join the ranks of the unemployed itinerants. This was decidedly not the case by the 1930s.

From thereon out, the research process was very functional. Did doors in the 1870s have knobs or latches? What means of transportation did pedestrians use to make river crossings while bridges were under construction? What kind of cheap street drug served as an alternative to opium when morphine was in high demand during and after the Civil War? I’m sure every writer feels this way, but I must have left the strangest Google trail while writing this book. The Internet only seems to have an answer for everything, though. Many times my research left me with only a greater sense of doubt. Fortunately, that’s when the muse is at her strongest.


Phong Nguyen is the author of two short fiction collections, Pages from the Textbook of Alternate History and Memory Sickness. His stories have been published in more than 40 national literary magazines, including Agni, Iowa Review, Kenyon Review, Boulevard, Massachusetts Review, Chattahoochee Review, Florida Review, Mississippi Review, and North American Review. Nguyen’s stories have been given special mention in the Pushcart Prize anthology, and have won the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Award. He is Editor of Pleiades: Literature in Context and serves as an Associate Professor of English at the University of Central Missouri. He studied writing and publishing at Emerson College (MA) and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (PhD).