Pros and Cons of Primary Sources – diaries/journals

Diaries and journals are wonderful, except when they’re not.

Diaries and journals are frustrating, except when they’re not.

I’m working with a couple of journals for my current major work-in-progress. Both are travel accounts, documenting their authors’ adventures (or lack thereof) while going across Texas in the middle of the nineteenth century. Now, one of the many hats I wear is that of historian. And as a historian I love primary sources because they say a lot about people and the times in which they lived.

So it’s not a surprise that I also love them when writing historical fantasy. Interestingly, some times the same things frustrate me in the same ways.

For one, very rarely (as in, oh, never?) do they include exactly the kinds of information I’m looking for. It’s always something different–which makes work for me because I have to figure out how to make it fit. On the other hand, this can lead to more complex and interesting passages …

The ones I’d like to write reams, because their observations are so on-point are, of course, the ones who wrote very short entries. The ones who enjoyed the sight of their thoughts transcribed on paper tend to write alot about topics I’m not so interested in or find less useful. (The law or rule of perversity tends to apply.)

And then there are the attitudes and ideas that may have been culturally acceptable to the author but are not to me. I have to put up with it while searching for useful information, and then go find something to take away the sour taste. Here’s one area where my responses as a historian and a historical fantasy author differ. As a historian, the attitudes are something to analyze, to show how things have changed or remained the same. As a historical fantasy author, I can choose which elements of the past I include in my worlds–and if I include attitudes I find personally repugnant (and, apart from all other reasons, if I’m trying to be close to reality, I have to) then I can also search for ways to have the characters recognize, respond, and change so that they address them in a different way.

So . . . onward I go.

Cherokee National Museum

I visited this a couple of years back. It was a bus tour down from Tulsa, one of many optional side trips during a conference I attended, and we wound up having only about 2 hours there. Sigh. I hope to get back sometime, as it’s definitely worth spending much more time.

Statue of a Cherokee playing a game of stickball

There are three parts to the Museum, as far as I could tell — a replica of an early village (pre-1830s at least) and a replica of a village circa the 1830s (i.e. right before the Cherokee Trails of Tears), both of which were outdoors, plus the indoor Museum (and gift shop).

We had a tour of the pre-1830s village (in no small part because we all studied early American literature and/or history), so most of my photos are from there. I’ve tried to only include photos where the people were aware and accepted being photographed.

(As an aside, one of the reasons we had limited time is that drivers in Oklahoma seem to have an aversion to zipper merging. Both going and coming, we wound up in really long single lanes on an interstate before reaching construction. I.e. there seemed to be a mile or more of empty lane where people could have condensed traffic. I understand why the bus didn’t, but lets just say I’m an advocate for zipper merging).

In plain view?

One never knows what may show up around a corner. Is it easier to notice things in a familiar place or a strange one? In the familiar, any new additions may jump out (sooner or later) because they’re different from what we expect to see . . . that is assuming we don’t impose our memories over reality. On the other hand, because a new place is so new we may be too busy taking in the whole to notice every constituent element.

All of which is to say, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to slow down and look at what’s in front of us. Take the photos below, for instance. On my first visit to Tucson, I was a bit overwhelmed (I find driving around places I don’t know in heavy traffic to be enervating). Nevertheless, I went out for a walk that evening and spotted a wall with tiles on it. Now, this is not uncommon in the southwest. Lots of people decorate walls with tiles and murals. At first, I thought it was just another set of decorative tiles–then I looked closer.

The tiles reflect incidents from a very famous tale — Don Quixote. I nearly overlooked them, and I’m so glad I didn’t.

It was a lesson to me (sadly one I need repeated now and then when I get too caught up in tunnel-vision) to look up, out, and around and see what’s actually in front of my eyes.

Enter the Twisting world

The first installment of Twisting the Border will be available on June 21st. I’ll reveal the cover on the 7th. For now, however, here’s the back copy / blurb:

True ladies never acknowledge the presence of ghosts, even in a city suffering a plague of them. Spinster painter Lavinia once considered herself a lady.


Then she snuck out at midnight. Searched for a ghost. Found it.


Only to discover the high cost of freeing herself from ghosts.


Compelling and complex, Hollow Ghosts starts Lavinia on the path from acknowledged lady to heroism—or infamy.

The characters will go far, but this story begins in an alternate 1850s Chicago.

I’m looking forward to bringing these characters and stories into life. For those who read this, here’s a little extra — some of the sources I consulted while researching this particular historical fantasy installment.

Cartography Associates, David Rumsey Historical Map Collection, http://rumsey.geogarage.com/maps/g0079001.html last accessed 1 November 2016.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “Victorian Spiritualism.” http://www.victorianweb.org/victorian/religion/spirit.html last accessed 2 November 2016.

Encyclopedia of Chicago. Editors Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman. Chicago: Chicago History Museum, Newberry Library, Northwestern University. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/

Ferrie, Joseph P. and Werner Troesken. “Water and Chicago’s Mortality Transition, 1850-1925.” Explorations in Economic History 45 (2008): 1-16. http://isites.harvard.edu/fs/docs/icb.topic1377262.files/Health%20and%20Mortality/ferrie%20troesken.pdf last accessed 5 November 2016.

Goldfarb, Russell M. and Clare R. Spiritualism and Nineteenth-Century Letters. Rutherford, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978.

Hilty, John. “Illinois Wildflowers.” http://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/ last accessed 5 November 2016.

Moore, R. Laurence. In Search of White Crows: Spiritualism, Parapsychology, and American Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

The Haunted Museum, “The Koons’ ‘Spirit Room.’” http://www.prairieghosts.com/koons.html last accessed 2 November 2016.

Tremont Chicago Hotel at the Magnificent Mile. “Our History.” http://www.tremontchicago.com/history last accessed 24 November 2017.

Weber, Tom. Series on Cholera in Chicago in 1849. Medical Education History blog. https://mededhistory.blogspot.com/ Last visited 25 November 2017. No longer available publicly as of 19 February 2019.

Wisconsin Historical Society. “Psychics and Mystics in 1850s Wisconsin.” http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/Content.aspx?dsNav=N:4294963828-4294963805&dsRecordDetails=R:CS301 last accessed 2 November 2016.

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