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.

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