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). https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/how-mississippi-river-made-mark-twain-and-vice-versa-180950193/ — 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.” http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/4_1.html — 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.

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.

It all started with a dream…

Cover for Twisting the Border showing cacti against a night sky and the tagline: Journey to heroism--or infamy.
Spinster and painter Lavinia lives a quiet life in Chicago. Escorts her mother on calls. Teaches her nieces to draw. Attends lectures at the local lyceum. Wants nothing more.

Then, in the wake of a cholera epidemic, ghosts haunt her. Manifest every time she leaves the house. Spark riots and mobs storming through the streets. She fears discovery as the cause.

Fleeing into a self-imposed exile, she accompanies her younger brother on a border survey and scientific expedition to San Diego.

Moving and powerful, Twisting the Border sets Lavinia on the path to heroism–or villainy.

A couple of years ago, I woke from a dream with a particular moment in history in mind, and a couple of characters watching in expectation of something rather different than happened in our world. Alternate history–historical fantasy–whichever or whatever, the characters persisted in forcing me to start telling their tales.

Twisting the Border is a serial novel–or a sequence of linked short stories. The first installment/story will be available on Friday 21 June, with other installments/stories to follow the third Friday of every month.

I’ll reveal the covers two weeks before each installment launches, both here and on my Fb page. Plus, I’ll share a few key moments/passages for each story on my Fb page. Or sign up for my quarterly newsletter to get more advance snippets, tidbits, and exclusive insights (such as the core bibliographies of research works/sites consulted for each installment) plus a free story with a connection to Twisting the Border.

It started with a dream. Or does it all start here? Join Lavinia, Edward, Harriet, Jonny, Nick, and more on a life-changing, world-changing adventure to heroism—or infamy.

Phocion R. Way

Something a little different for today — a primary source. I use secondary sources a lot, often because they’re easier, tend to be in English (I can read Spanish, but I’m very slow), and bring hard-to-find sources and information closer to hand. That said, whenever I find a relevant primary source there’s a general celebration of one sort or another.

Whether or not I like the author of said primary source is a different matter. There’s often plenty of reasons not to like them. They have different mores, values, and ideas. These may or may not be typical of the time, but they tend to be different from our time (or at least from me). The “catch” title of the diary of Phocion R. Way, as printed in 2016, is Overland via “Jackass Mail” in 1858, and as far as I’m concerned the title adjective can apply to the author as well as his mode of travel.

Nevertheless, “Jackass Mail” refers to the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line, evidently called such “because passengers often had to ride on muleback from Fort Yuma to San Diego.” Way, however, headed to Tubac, Arizona, and stayed there for quite a while.

What prompted me to purchase the pamphlet (while visiting the Tubac Presidio State Historic Park) was Phocion’s descriptions of his month-plus travels from Cairo, Illinois, to Tubac. He traveled a little later than the characters in my serial novel / short story sequence Twisting the Border. Nevertheless, his experiences were close enough in time that I can make use of his observations of travel–albeit filtered and repurposed. For instance, the fifth installment has several of my characters taking a steamer from New Orleans to the Texan port of Indianola. They experience very different weather (a storm where Way had a very calm trip), but pass the same buoy as he did, and the steamer stops in Galveston as his did. Similarly, the sixth installment takes place near Victoria, so Way’s observations of his passage come in handy (albeit he traveled in spring whereas my characters face late summer heat).

This post is not in praise of Phocion R. Way–but of primary sources, of which his 1858 diary is one.

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