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)

Many Missions

A week or two ago, I discussed the Alamo (and camels!). It started life as a mission (Mission San Antonio de Valero)–long before it became a fortress, army outpost, or museum. And it wasn’t the only one built, used (worshipped in), abandoned or passed by, and then rediscovered or reconsecrated at a later date. There are many throughout the Southwest. Indeed, there are many around San Antonio. I’ve enjoyed incorporating references to them in a recent Twisting the Border story (probably set for release in December).

The National Park Service keeps a number of San Antonio missions open for visitation and exploration.

There’s Mission Concepción, (more formally known as Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción de Acuña)–largely unrestored but boasting not one but two bell towers.

Or Mission San José, the “Queen of Missions, which shows something of the scale of churches as communities. It has a round bell tower stair which makes a brief appearance in my story. I wanted to have my viewpoint character climb it, but she declined. Sigh.

Then Mission San Juan Capistrano, which supported an active agricultural community in the 1700s.

And one of the oldest Texas missions: Mission Espada (Mission San Francisco de la Espada). According to the NPS, it has the most complete & original acequia system (and these are cool!)

I knew a little about the missions beforehand, but at some point in the past year or two, I also picked up a lovely book of photographs and supporting texts: A Sense of Mission: Historic Churches of the Southwest. Three of the San Antonio missions linked above appear in it. I’ve seen it listed with at least two different covers, so there are probably multiple editions. If you can’t get out to see some of the missions themselves (depending on where you live, etc) then consider picking up a copy or borrowing one through a library. Just a thought (after all, if you’ve wound up here there’s a fair chance you like some elements of history …)

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 . . .

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!)

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.

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