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Sunday, December 13, 2009

I (heart) reserch



I confess I love to do the research for writing historical romance.

History had always been part of my life. I was lucky enough to grow up in an extended Midwest family with a rich oral tradition. Family reunions were filled with tales of adventures of frontier life that they’d heard from their families, as well as stories when they were children in the early last century.

So I’ve always felt connected to the past. The stories of who we are and where we come from is something I wanted to past on to others who weren’t as luck as I. I did this as a college instructor of US History and Western Civilization. Telling these stories carried over to writing historical romance. Because of my teaching, I wanted my stories to be as authentic as possible.

Which leads us to research.

My first historical romance, KENTUCKY GREEN, is set on the frontier of 1794 in Ohio and Kentucky. Because of my history degrees, I already had the general political, social and economic background. The first research I did was on the costumes/clothing, as that is not something they cover when you’re studying for your BA and MA.
Once I had the general plot line of my story, I started researching. The hero is a civilian scout for the Army who is coerced into escorting my heroine back to her childhood home in Kentucky. He and the heroine travel from Philadelphia to Pittsburg via a wagon train. So I had to find their route and how long it would take. Thanks to the WPA, I found a travel guide to Pennsylvania that listed not only the original main road from Philadelphia to Pittsburg, but listed all the little towns, how far apart they were, when they were founded, and even their elevation. So I found the original name and about the ferry my wagon team to use to cross the river.

From Pittsburgh, our hero and heroine travel by river boat to my fictionalized town in Kentucky. This I based on Lexington. Researching Lexington, I found that an Englishman had visited there in the 1790s and written a book listing every business there along with the price of timber, candles, eggs, molasses, etc. as an advertisement for immigration to Kentucky.
The key to research is to give the writer a sold background in which to place the story. Research should be like an iceberg, only the very top part shows. So I didn’t use the price of timber, candles, eggs or molasses into the story as it wasn’t needed.

Since my hero is a crack shot with this Kentucky long rifle, I did some research on that rifle. One help was that years ago my husband had replica black powder rife, so I knew what is sounded and smelled like when it fired. And in the course of the story, the hero teaches the heroine how to shoot the rifle, so all that detail was useful.

I did use some of my grandmother’s stories. On one scene in KENTUCKY GREEN, the heroine is churning butter, one of my grandmother’s chores as a child. I gave the rhyme my grandmother used to keep time while moving the dasher up and down to my heroine. Passing along history give authenticity to the story.
One of the reason I chose this time and place for my first novel was that I so loved Janice Holt Giles novel THE KENTUCKIAN which I read when in high school. I later learned that Giles used as a background a Mater’s Thesis, The Life and Times of Benjamin Logan. Logan is a secondary character in the book. And, of course, her book rang with authenticity.

For my second story, I chose Durango, Colorado as the setting. Years ago on a cross country trip we traveled through Durango. First thing was to get a history of the city and go from there. Not only did this give me background, it gave me the historic fire that provides the climatic action for the book.


The hero in COLORADO SILVER, COLORADO GOLD is an undercover agent for Wells Fargo. A book on the history of Wells Fargo confirmed that they did, in fact sometime employ an undercover agent. The main business in Durango at that time was mining and smelting. I end up researching the smelters and mining in Durango. Again, I end up using a lot of this information as the hero explains some of the works of the smelter to the heroine as he wants to impress her.

Researching 1880 Durango was much easier that 1794 Kentucky due to the amount of information actually available. As this was a real location, as apposed to my fictional town in Kentucky, and much more current in time, some of the actual buildings as well as the narrow gage railroad still exist. This railroad brings both the hero and heroine to town in the story.

My big find was something I learned from a writer’s workshop, the Sanborn Fire Insurance maps. These historic maps were made by the insurance company that showed all the main streets and also gave the location of all the business. So while the book on Durango history said where the main concentration of saloons was located, on the insurance maps, there they were, one whole block of solid saloons.
The map gave me a good mental image of Durango so I could easily picture my characters there. It also gave me a soda fountain where my hero bought the heroine a sarsaparilla. One of those instances where the research gave birth to a scene.

Today there is a lot more information on the web than before. I still usually start out with a book on where I’m writing the story. This gives me a foundation, and as the story line takes shape, then I know what else I might have to research.

This does not mean I can find everything I want. Some things a writer just has to make up, but with the research I’ve done, I can be reasonably sure that what I fictionalize will be within the realm of authenticity.

I know that an author can’t always do accuracy, but I try for authenticity. I always include author’s notes in the back of my books in case the reader wants to know more, or know if everything was accurate.

As an author, do you like to research? What was your best find?

As a reader, do you like the historic romances to have authenticity?

6 comments:

Paty Jager said...

Terry, I (heart) Sanborn maps! LOL Once I discovered them I always find one for the time and place of my books to help ground me in the towns I've set my stories in. Research people at historical museums have sent me photocopies of the maps I've need.

And yes, Pinkerton's were on the Wells Fargo payroll as well.

Fun post!

Terry Blain said...

Aren't the maps the greatest? I took all the 8 x 11 1/2 pages and taped them together for onge big map I colored in.

Jody said...

I love the Sanborn maps when doing family research because they help a lot when comparing the census records. I like using plat maps for counties as well, because you get a real feel for the way the land and families were linked in a community. I had a map class in college a few years back and we got to see and use a early map of the world from the 1300's, had to wear gloves and masks as the color had arsenic. The uni I graduated from has the "American Geography" archives so they had so many maps, one could loose themselves for ages there. Personally, I would much rather research than write and I am going back for my MA in history once I complete my post grad certificate in Celtic Studies. If you like US maps you would really enjoy maps overseas. My favorite place is the online map collection for Scotland at the National Library of Scotland here is the link: http://www.nls.uk/maps/
And the one for plat maps: http://www.farmandhomepublishers.com/county_plat_maps.php

Susan Macatee said...

Definitely! Although I don't want a history lesson in with my historical romance, I do hope the author has based her story on accruate historic facts and weaves in just enough details to make the story seem real.

Valerie Oakleaf said...

I just LAST night stumbled upon the Sanborn Fire maps when researching Atlanta in 1895. I was floored to see this morning the posting about them. hehe
I, too, love to research my historicals and probably would have made a fascinating career as a research librarian. Wish that I had the hindsight 25 years ago when I graduated from high school. :-)

librarypat said...

I know it is more work for the author, but I want the historical books I read to have good and interesting factual details in them. If I wanted straight romance, I could read contemporaries. I read historicals because i like being in that different time and place and want to learn about it while I am there.