Writing historical books requires hours of research and most of that research doesn’t even get put on the page, but it’s in the author’s head, making the setting and scenes real to both the writer and the reader.
I love the research as much as the creating of characters. When I decide on an area, if possible, I travel there and hang out in the museums. I gather historical books about the area, check out information online, talk to people in the museums, and I spend hours devouring newspapers of the area at the time I’ve set my book.
Nothing gives the writer more authenticity than reading the newspapers. This is my favorite, though, most time consuming research method. I chuckle as I read the local sections about who is courting who, who went to visit relatives, and where the good doctor spent most of his time delivering babies. Reading the notices of local activities such as dances, performances, and horse races the place comes to life. And becomes real in my head.
Meeting people who live in the area and know the intimate details of their area’s history are even more intriguing to me. I met an interesting woman while researching the Galena, Oregon area for my first published novel, Marshal in Petticoats. Someday, I plan to spin her into a heroine in one of my books. She and her husband ran the last pack train into the highest mountain mining areas. She showed me photo albums of their mules and the loads they packed to the miners.
She also told me a fact that figured into, Marshal in Petticoats, and solidified my setting. The miners hated to waste time traveling down the mountain to, what was then Susanville, to get their mail. So one night, they snuck down and stole the post office, building and all. The town didn’t go up and take the post office back; they just renamed their town. Learning this, I knew I had to put my accident-prone heroine in this town.
Visiting a local Oregon historical museum in The Dalles, while researching the second Halsey brother book, Outlaw in Petticoats, I met another woman who had lived her entire life in The Dalles area. We started chatting as I waited for a museum employee to bring me a map of the town in 1887. The woman was a volunteer and loved to talk about her home. After telling her I was interested in one of the hotels prominent at the time of my book, she told me about various pieces of it that were scattered around town and how the bar had finger holes drilled in the bottom of it, so men who drank too much could shove their fingers in the holes and still remain standing. I found the bar, and sure enough, there were holes spaced just right to stick fingers in, and leaning back, you wouldn’t fall down. And yes, that little tidbit is in Outlaw in Petticoats.
What are some of your favorite ways to research? When reading a historical do you want the cold hard facts or do you like the unusual trivia?
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