Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Historical Fiction: Easy Answers--Tough Process

I never do the research first.

That probably sounds irresponsible, but the story has to come first. The characters—they have to be alive. They must have a story to tell. And that story always exists first, at least in my mind.

Alex—I’ll introduce her to you eventually—has existed for no fewer than seventeen years. That seems like forever, but she actually introduced herself after both Aurelia and Aerin so she’s been kindly waiting her turn until now.

Since Alex’s story is historical fiction, I’ve always believed that I would have to confirm certain facts about the premise of her book before I committed serious time to writing it for publication. These facts involved claim inheritance law in Eastern Oregon at the turn of the century.

I didn’t think they would be impossible to find. But . . .

I sure wasn’t having any luck. I started by ordering a couple books about women and the law—hoping, I guess, for a timeline involving women and property rights.

Didn’t get one.

From there I tried online searches, which were—hmm—not very helpful. Specific dates and the law are not so easy to research on Google.

Which brought me into the realm of serious research: contacting the experts. I promptly e-mailed a librarian at the Oregon Historical Society. Now I really thought this would work. I didn’t think the librarian would necessarily be able to answer my questions. But I truly believed he or she would be able to direct me to a person or a resource that might.

However, here’s the thing about Oregon pioneer history. Most of what you read about it revolves around the settlement of the western side of the state, which occurred a full fifty years prior to the settlement of the eastern side. In fact, if you research the Oregon Trail, you will find printed resources claiming the trail ceased to be used prior to 1900. Which is incorrect. Families where I live migrated across the trail during the first two decades of the early 1900’s. Most people came by railroad but not if they couldn’t afford it.

So . . . I received three responses from the OHS librarian. The first was inaccurate because the law referenced was defunct by 1904. The second was inaccurate because the law was passed after 1904. And the third was that I might try asking a law professor at a university.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve had trouble obtaining a timely response from my own advisor at a university.

The real problem I was having was this. There are people who know a lot about the law and people who know a lot about history. But finding someone who knows a lot about the law and history—this is not so easy. Much less claim inheritance law in Eastern Oregon.

My real breakthrough came when I finally went to the Homestead National Monument website, where—low and behold—the original text of the National Homestead Act is printed for all to read. And—believe it or not—includes an entire paragraph or two on the legal inheritance of claims.

So easy! Almost.

You see, my plotline isn’t exactly simple. I still had a few knots I needed to untie.

But Alex had about had enough of waiting around, and it was pretty clear to me by now that plenty of folks weren’t following the letter of the law when it came to settling claims anyway so I figured I had enough data to validate writing the first draft.

Good thing too because I had finished it while going through all of this rigmarole. So much for confirming the premise first.

There was a little box for “contact info” on the Homestead National Monument site, and I had sent out my specific plot questions in the box; but I wasn’t counting on getting an answer. It was one of those I’m-sending-this-off-into-the-electronic-netherworld experiences in which one suspects one may only reach a teenage receptionist, if that.

But—miracle of miracles—just as I was wrapping up the final reading of the local 1904-1905 newspaper, I received an e-mail.

From a man who helps advise the Homestead National Monument site. He has—ding, ding, ding!—a background in historical law. And no, of course my current plotline didn’t work.

Maybe I could try this, he suggested in his e-mail.

Yikes! I thought. That’s going to wreak all kinds of havoc on my plot. But, as I’ve mentioned before, the beauty of a living and breathing resource is that that person can help you navigate through the difficulties. And find your way around them.

So I set up a phone call.

Sure enough, in less than a twenty-minute discussion, I had a legally and historically valid plot. And, again, the answer was so easy!

But—geez—the process of finding those easy answers. Sometimes it’s not.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Historical Fiction: The Second Wave

So . . . as I was saying. My major achievement after the first wave of research for my new writing project was selecting the specific dates for my novel.

Followed by the completion of a first draft.

After which, I had a whole NEW set of questions to research.

Such as . . .
What songs might be sung at a school concert in1904?
What serious diseases might last a full month and spread in the dead of winter?
Did students receive a diploma upon graduation from the eighth grade?

The list goes on.

And on.

And on.

The answers came, as always, from a variety of sources. Some of the best primary sources I found were online. (The original text of the Homestead Act, the Bureau of Land Management database, a first-hand account of a frontier school teacher in exactly 1904). Real people, as I have mentioned in an earlier blog post, are always outstanding. They are the only sources that can speak up and say, “No! Your idea doesn’t work and here is why.” And then help you fix the issue without your having to rewrite your entire novel.

But in this case, I found a new resource. The entire time period of my novel is covered in weekly issues of the Condon Globe newspaper, stored at the Gilliam County History Museum. So guess who got to spend the final weeks of one summer and most of her weekends in September at the museum.

Yep, that would be me.

There is an art to learning to read a newspaper from 1904.

First, one has to recognize the ads. The advertising tricksters on youtube have nothing on the advertisers from 1904. Their ads were immersed right into the text. Same font. Same spacing. Everything.

One moment you’re reading about so and so’s wedding last Saturday, and the next, you’re smack dab in the middle of a Laxative commercial. It takes a serious level of reading—which I was doing—to reach the point where you can bypass these terrifying trips into the promises of cures for everything from the Grippe to household mouse control.

Then there’s the sad lack of one’s own historical knowledge. Famous generals of the Japanese-Russian War, the Russian Revolution of 1905, the Oregon Land Fraud Scandal. I really needed to spend several evenings rifling through Wikipedia just to gain enough background to understand the stories I was reading. And I have to say I’m impressed with the coverage by this small local paper. The local papers today cover very little beyond their own tri-county region. But in 1904, the local newspaper was the major source of international news. And throughout that year, its major headlines on the front page were all world news.

Unfortunately, this meant I had to dig a lot deeper for the local stuff.

And some of it was hilarious. Not in the differences between then and now. But in the similarities. Those things that annoy you about your community. Sometimes small. Sometimes big. They just might have existed for a hundred years!

Sadly, I didn’t get the answers to ALL my questions in the local paper. But I got most of them!

And that just left the monster:

Claim law. 1904.

Which—you guessed it—is a whole other blog entry.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Historical Fiction: The First Wave

My next book—the one after REDEMPTION—is true historical fiction. Not historical fantasy, like Aurelia and Robert’s series. But real HF.

Which means the research has to be more real. (In other words, I can’t cheat).

Don’t get me wrong. I do a lot of research for Aurelia and Robert’s novels. And it’s a blast. Scimitars. Loading rifles. Battle plans. Eighteenth century furniture, torture devices, high-heeled shoes. I get to use all kinds of crazy historical details within Aurelia and Robert’s books.

But for my upcoming novel, I knew I needed to kick that into a whole other gear.

This meant a LOT of reading. Starting off with some general topics: the Oregon Trail, pioneer life, school teaching in the Pacific Northwest, Native American tribes in Eastern Oregon, homesteading. I got to read some fiction and some great non-fiction. I also got to read some really lousy non-fiction. And some stuff written by people who definitely don’t or didn't write at a professional level.

But some of that stuff . . . was the best. Because it was the most specific to the county I was researching. And it’s great to know that’s all you can get because it means there’s definitely room for a novel about the topic. I mean, that’s one of the reasons I want to write about it. Because no one else has.

So, as I was saying, that was a lot of reading. Most of which, won’t get into my book.

Because I had to pick a specific date, or series of dates: September 1904-1905. Ding, ding, ding!

My major achievement after a month of reading.

Once I had done that, I could actually write the whole first draft of the book.

And then launch into the second wave of research.