Travel and Virtual Travel

I’ve been away visiting historic sites, museums, and more which will appear on this site over the next months. Of course I’m also planning more visits, too, for myself first and to share after.

Most of the time, I make deliberate plans to visit sites. On occasion, I’m more spontaneous. In either case, however, here are some of the things I try to take into account:

Open Hours — this is probably the biggest thing to check in advance. If it’s a Saturday in the summer, you’re probably good if you head wherever around mid-day. Other than that, though, checking for a website and posted hours is always wise. I recently drove back through part of my state on a Monday in August and several historic sites near my route were only open Wed-Sat or such.

Directions — also a good idea to check on websites. I know this is an era of GPS, but GPS devices are not always right! Particularly for places located out in less traveled areas. I’ve been to two high-profile places eminently worth visiting and in very different locations both of which warn visitors that GPS can lead them seriously astray. (For the curious, the two places I have in mind are Chaco Canyon in New Mexico and the Mount Washington Cog Railway Base Station in New Hampshire; in the case of the former you might find yourself wandering around rather aimlessly while the latter can leave you on the wrong side of the mountain).

Cost — if this matters, check in advance. Some are free, including some absolutely wonderful places. Others charge, and the fees can rack up high particularly if you’re not on your ownsome.

Guided tours / demonstrations — these are often highly worthy of attending, but don’t happen just by chance. If you haven’t decided when to visit somewhere, see if they offer any thing for which day/time is key and take that into consideration.

Special events — these complicate parking (assuming you aren’t there early) and can create long lines, but they also offer once-in-a-lifetime opportunities. Your call. Be aware that, especially if you’re not a local or extremely plugged in, you may not even be aware a special event is scheduled until you arrive. Yes, this happened to me. I had a general idea there was something on a particular weekend at a particular site, but I thought it was for Sunday not Saturday. It was great timing, but completely accidental (and I was there early, so I had no trouble parking)

Accessibility — if this matters, check. More and more sites are preparing to ensure people with various situations can enjoy as much as possible, but it’s still catch-as-catch-can (as some of you likely know better than I)

I could keep on going on, but will stop for now. The main thing is: if you’re interested in historic places, go visit, talk, look, smell, touch, feel, and store up memories. (And ask questions, too, but that’s a whole different can of worms.)

Visiting Historic Places

History is everywhere. This morning? History. Yesterday? History.

The older a place is, the more unusual, and/or the more connected with someone famous (or infamous), the greater the odds it might survive in some form as a historic place to visit. Might. Most don’t. But some do, and that’s the subject for today’s ramblings.

Because these are places for inspiration, education, entertainment, and connection. Sometimes all at the same time and sometimes . . . not. I believe in visiting historic sites (granted, not all–there are some I’m never setting foot in, not no way not no how) and I’ve visited a lot. I don’t have a complete list of all that I’ve visited in my life — I come by the penchant for doing this honestly & remember going to some places when I was a pre-teen.

That said, I kept track of the places I went in the southwest while the Twisting the Border and other stories began sprouting in my mind. The list is below. Some I’ve posted about here on this blog already; some I’ll do so over the next year or so.

And in a week or two, I plan a smaller blitz of visiting–not in the southwest but the midwest, mid-atlantic, and northeast. Because I feel like indulging in a fest of visitations and learning, and as a side benefit for more material for the blog. One doesn’t have to visit in person–many sites offer a lot of information and images online on their websites. But there’s nothing like standing in a place and imagining what life was like back when (among other things, it can help improve appreciation for modern conveniences such as the flush toilet!)

So here are some of the places I’ve been. I’ll expand this list down the road, after I’ve already added to it.

Where have you gone? Where would you recommend visiting?

  • Alamo Mission, San Antonio TX (2017)
  • Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Tucson (2014, 2015, 2016)
  • Bandelier National Monument, Los Alamos NM (2017)
  • Barona Cultural Center & Museum, Lakeside CA (2017)
  • Cabrillo National Monument & Point Loma Lighthouse, San Diego CA (2017)
  • Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Nageezi NM (2017)
  • Chiricahua National Monument, Wilcox AZ (2017)
  • Coronado Historic Monument, Bernalillo NM (2016)
  • Desert Botanical Gardens, Phoenix AZ (2017)
  • Fort Craig National Historic Site, Socorro NM (2016)
  • Fort Davis National Historic Site, Fort Davis TX (2017)
  • Fort Lancaster State Historic Site, Sheffield TX (2017)
  • Fort McKavett State Historic Site, Fort McKavett TX (2017)
  • Fort Yuma Quechan Museum display, Winterhaven CA, (2017)
  • Huhugam Heritage Center (Gila River Indian Community), Chandler AZ (2017)
  • Huhugan Ki Museum (Salt River Maricopa-Pima), Scottsdale AZ (2017)
  • Jemez Historic Site, Jemez Springs NM (2016)
  • Kartchner Caverns, Benson AZ (2017)
  • Old Town San Diego, San Diego CA (2017)
  • Painted Rock Petroglyph Site, Dateland AZ (2017)
  • Petroglyph National Monument, Albuquerque NM (2017)
  • Pinos Altos NM (2015, 2016)
  • Presidio San Agustín del Tucsón Museum, Tucson AZ (2014, 2017)
  • Saguaro National Park, Tucson AZ (2017)
  • San Diego History Center, San Diego CA (2017)
  • San Diego Museum of Man, San Diego CA (2017)
  • South Llano River State Park, Junction TX (2017)
  • Spanish Governor’s Palace, San Antonio TX (2017)
  • Tohono O’odham Cultural Center & Museum, Topawa AZ (2017)
  • Valles Caldera National Preserve, Jemez Springs NM (2017)
  • Walatowa Visitor Center, Jemez NM (2016, 2017)
  • Yuma Quartermaster State Park, Yuma AZ (2017)

Art Imitating Life

There’s the old saying about life imitating art. I don’t recall hearing or reading a saying about art imitating life, but that’s probably because it’s seen as unnecessary. Of course art imitates art. The visual art world went all in a tizzy a century or two ago when painters made portraits, landscapes, and other works of art which deliberately skewed perspectives and altered things.

So let’s take the art imitating life as something of a given.

But . . . what parts of life do artists incorporate in crafting art? There are conscious and unconscious choices. Some may be easy, others political (to return to visual art, consider the portrait painters over the years who chose, potentially for financial return, to flatter their sitters), and others the product of long consideration.

Now, I write historical fantasy (and fantasy and magical realism, but mostly historical fantasy at the moment) — so I’m making a lot of imitative choices in the interests of authenticity and making the world realistic (apart from the particular variants of magic, which have their effects). None of the characters are me, and all are me, so I’m also imitating myself.

And in an homage to the current and previous dogs in my life, I’m imitating life by having a canine characters. In point-of-fact, the canine characters doesn’t look much like any of my dogs. Doesn’t act quite like them either (for one she’s much better trained, I must admit). But she’s there and her existence in the pages of the story owes much to my having lived with and loved dogs for many years.

So here’s to them!

Research, research, always research

I do a lot of research. I don’t always read books all the way through–I’ll flip through, focus on particular chapters, consult the index, and/or other techniques. And I readily admit to regularly consulting web sites as well. I prefer books and websites that offer some measure of research transparency–i.e. they show their work and how they came to certain conclusions (in other words they note which primary and secondary sources they consulted … or they are primary sources).

So with that in mind, here are a few of the sources used for my upcoming Twisting the Border installment, which is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi River. I write “a few,” because these are sources specific to this installment, or at most used for one or two others. Any source I use for more than three or so installments I add to the general list instead of the installment.

Allison, J. Thomas. Hudson River Steamboat Catastrophes: Contests and Collisions. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2013. — not the most useful for this work, but I did appreciate the discussion of things that could go wrong!

Buchanan, Thomas C. Black Life on the Mississippi: Slaves, Free Blacks, and the Western Steamboat World. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina, 2004. — very useful. I wish I could have drawn more on this explicitly rather than having it be part of the “iceberg” of the worldbuilding. I hope there are others out there using it for stories set along the Mississippi in the early-mid 19th century.

Carkeet, David. “How the Mississippi River Made Mark Twain… And Vice Versa.” Smithsonian Magazine (April, 2014). — fun, but as above more atmospheric than specific

And this next related to a very specific element ….

Sandlin, Lee. Wicked River: The Mississipi When It Last Ran Wild. New York: Pantheon Books, 2010. — also slightly more on the interesting than useful side, largely due to the type of story I wrote

Smithsonian Institution. “On the Water: Inland Waterways, 1820-1940.” — interesting & informative

Drinking Unhappiness

The riverboat Illinois Queen‘s passengers form a microcosm of humanity. Gamblers. Settlers. Scientists.

For a spinster headed into self-imposed exile, homesickness turns into seasickness. A fellow passenger offers a cure.

But one sip too many lays bare the sorrows, sins, and secrets the riverboat holds.

Board the Queen as powerful, believable characters face the loss of all they cherish.

Available 19 July!

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 . . .

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).

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.