Historical Research

Let’s start with a simple proposition: there is no one right way to do historical research.

Then again, there are a lot of wrong ways. But I’m not here to talk about those (at least not today). If you want to discuss wrong ways, chat up just about anyone who teaches history courses.

One thing about doing history research is that it’s highly idiosyncratic, or peculiar to each individual person. In short, how you research–your choices of where to search (assuming you have choices), how to search, and how you navigate results–will all affect what you find.

There are a lot of good books and websites out there on how to do historical research. I’m not here to replace them. Rather, I’m here to talk about some of the ways I go about finding relevant material when writing historical fantasy (i.e. this is not necessarily how I go about doing research when I’m working on a scholarly history project).

Most of my fiction historical research falls into one of two categories: fact or ambiance. By ambiance, I mean general information and overall circumstances shaping the specific times and places in which I’m interested.

When I’m looking for ambiance, I tend to head for my local academic library catalog (I work at a university, which helps!). I prefer physical books when I can get them for a variety of reasons which include finding it easier to flip back-and-forth among them. I’ll use e-books when that’s all that’s available. I do check for articles in journals as well, but I tend to go for books first.

Since I’m searching a catalog for books, I go wide. I tend to start with a keyword search — this means generally combining a geography term (such as Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, United States, Mexico) with a broad chronological term (such as nineteenth-century) and maybe a topic (such as women or race or transportation) and see what I get. Catalogs tend to return results in “relevance” order, but I usually change this to most recent first. Whenever I find a book which seems of interest, I plumb subject headings (those are the terms a cataloger somewhere, often at the Library of Congress, decided describe a book’s overall contents). Clicking on subject headings and navigating them is a good way to find other books on the same subject. And, of course, when I actually go retrieve the books from the shelves, I take a look at what’s nearby.

Ambiance reading helps me learn about who was present in a given place at a given time, what kinds of things they were doing, what kinds of things they resisted doing, and all manner of story ideas and background. Usually these are scholarly or popular history books–secondary or tertiary research (i.e. someone who wasn’t there writing up an account based on documents of people who were).

When I’m looking for facts, on the other hand, I’m usually looking for very specific information. For example, “Drinking Unhappiness” is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi from St. Louis to New Orleans. I wanted to know, as much as possible, what that experience would be like for someone in the 1850s–sights, smells, sounds, activities. Any detail that might help recreate the experience. As it happens, I did find a secondary history book which provided a lot of good information–but primary sources (diaries, journals) can also be of a lot of help. And sometimes when I’m searching for facts, the best thing to do is hop on a good search engine and see if anyone has put up a reliable website with the kind of information I’m looking for (I found a lot of good material on 19th century Chicago in the online encyclopedia).

Of course, this is a very down-and-dirty summary of my research practices–but since I’m writing historical fantasy I thought someone somewhere might find it of interest. I keep bibliographies for the Twisting world and the stories set in it, and will add them to my website as I go along. Just in case . . .


On the outskirts of Albuquerque lies Petroglyph National Monument. Petroglyphs are created by carving off top layers of rock to use contrasting colors to make a selected form. Pictographs are painted on.

A rock with three possibly separate images on it.

The Petroglyph National Monument features 25,000 or more spread across 17 miles–it’s one of the largest sites of Native American and Spanish rock art that is generally known. I use that phrasing because it is possible there are other, larger sites which are not generally known. It’s my understanding that many tribes don’t share locations with rock art–because Western cultures tend not to respect them. (And that’s putting it mildly.)

This site, however, is generally known and part of the National Park Service. I stopped by while passing through Albuquerque. It was a hot summer day and I didn’t have anywhere near as much time as the site deserved. Nevertheless, I took a short hike up and around a hill with hundreds of images. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the area!

Beginnings and other things

Well, I had a lovely post up here for a few days — but then tech things happened (don’t ask) and it went bye-bye. Sigh.

I’ve pondered beginnings lately. They’re all over the place. Many things have multiple beginnings–and every ending has at least one beginning tucked somewhere within it.

21 June 2019 was a beginning in many respects. It was a solstice, which means days or nights will lengthen/shorten (depending on where you live on the globe), seasons change, and time moves on.

On a personal level, it was the beginning of a new phase for my Twisting world — publication of the first installment of Twisting the Border. This is, ultimately, one day of many. It will be a long trek, so I’ll celebrate moments such as these where and when I have them . . . and then move on.

I’m looking forward to finding what’s beyond these beginnings (preferably not more tech problems). But that’s enough philosophizing in retrospect. Now back to more regularly scheduled life and posts (and plotting to visit all manner of historic sites).

Camels and The Alamo

While in San Antonio for a convention, I visited several historic sites, although nowhere near as many as I had originally planned. (Then again, my visit got cut short so I could fly off to interview for the job I’m currently in, so things worked out just different than planned.) And, of course, I visited the Alamo.

Front view of the Alamo with people in the distance.

I didn’t spend that long there (see above for why I was short on time) — but what time I had I spent soaking up atmosphere and looking for elements to use in story-writing. Well, I’ve got to the point where I’m writing a story (for the Twisting the Border sequence) set in San Antonio at the Alamo . . . sort of. (I’m trying to avoid spoilers.)

But now, I have to take the photos and think back. To draw on period descriptions (remember my post about primary sources?) and imagine the Alamo as it might have been in the 1850s, long before it became a historical park. Back when it was, among other things, a supply depot for the US Army. And here I will admit to departing, at least a little bit, from history. You see, in the mid-late 1850s the US Army used camels for supply runs to/from the Alamo as part of the relatively short-lived Camel Corps. The camels arrived in our world after my story starts–but how can I resist shifting things just enough for the camels to be present and maybe even some will accompany the expedition westward? Along with their handlers (because mule-handlers don’t necessarily know how to deal with camels)? We’ll see.

In the meantime, here are a few more photos as I was scouting for where my characters might pass the time in their San Antonio, their Alamo (with camels!)

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.