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, last accessed 1 November 2016.

Diniejko, Andrzej. “Victorian Spiritualism.” 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.

Ferrie, Joseph P. and Werner Troesken. “Water and Chicago’s Mortality Transition, 1850-1925.” Explorations in Economic History 45 (2008): 1-16. 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.” 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.’” last accessed 2 November 2016.

Tremont Chicago Hotel at the Magnificent Mile. “Our History.” last accessed 24 November 2017.

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

Wisconsin Historical Society. “Psychics and Mystics in 1850s Wisconsin.” 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.


For the most part, my Tuesday posts focus on particular historical sites many of which I’ve visited in person. (I’ve got a nice backlog of sites yet to post, plus plan on visiting a number in the next months, so I won’t run out of the I’ve-visited anytime soon). Today, however, the topic is a place.

Sedona’s got a number of reputations. I can’t speak to all, or even most, of them, but one thing it does have in spades is atmosphere. And that, of course, is a wonderful thing for inspiration.

So here are a variety of photos of the red rocks, hills, and mountains from my visit. These barely scratch the surface, but may give at least a taste.

And I’ll take inspiration from them as I go off to write a story that isn’t set in Sedona, but is in a similarly atmospheric locale.

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.

Valles Caldera

Valles Caldera is a National Preserve — and the most recent (as of this writing). It includes a lovely 13 mile bowl circled by higher lands, courtesy of an eruption a very long time ago. It’s dormant, but there are signs of activity now and then.

I visited briefly while in the area. Alas, most of my visit was during a drenching rainstorm (seriously heavy rain, and this from someone who’s lived through some torrential downpours). There was a break long enough to stop by the visitors center and to walk around a bit.

Here’s a photo of part of the caldera, complete with the resurgent dome.

Mountain in the distance with a smaller domed peak rising from the floor of the caldera, surrounded by fields
Valles Caldera

The image also captures the mistiness of the day, and the re-impending storm. Someday I’d like to go back during better weather to hike around!

Research and Frustration

In specific, historical research and frustration. There are a lot of wonderful resources and people keep churning out more. Which is terrific and worth celebrating. And yet, and yet . . . the course of research nevertheless includes a myriad of dead ends and unexpected road blocks.

And sometimes, that terrific, wonderful resource is terrific and wonderful about everything except the particular facts for which one is currently searching. While I’m mostly writing historical fantasy, I’m invested in making it as historical as possible. Yes, some events and likely people are different, and there most certainly is magic, but magic doesn’t change everything. Moreover, the particular kinds of magic in this world haven’t slowed or stopped certain technological developments (they haven’t stopped various other developments either, but that’s another matter and one that, inasmuch as it can, the stories address).

At any rate, I’m experiencing a variation on that at the moment. I used a number of resources while writing “Drinking Unhappiness” aka Twisting the Border #2 (out in mid-July), which is set on a steamboat headed down the Mississippi River in an alternate 1850s America. All was well (enough).

Then the characters had to go and disembark in New Orleans (site of story #4) where they waited for a ship to carry them to the port of Indianola in Texas.

So I promptly began the next round of research. (These rounds mean I have an ever-growing bibliography of sources, which I’ll start adding to the website in June as they become available.) Did the characters take a steamboat along the Texas coast? A sailing ship? How much (or rather, little) space would they have had? What did it smell like? How many crew and in what capacity? How long did the journey take. Oh, so many questions flew through my brain.

To my delight, I found some excellent, decidedly relevant books . . . except they’re missing the very information I require. One, just checked out today, discusses all manner of Victorian travel–but not, evidently, along the Texas coast. The other discusses the shift from sail to steam, but doesn’t have the details I want.

In the end, I’ll mesh these and others together to come up with the equivalent experience in my historical fantasy world. It will be as historical as I can make it–but even writers of historical fiction face research limits (not to mention inconvenient events plot-wise).

Here are the two main secondary sources I’ll use for now. I have a couple of primary to draw elements from too, and perhaps there are more where these come from. I only need enough, after all, not every detail out there under the sun.

Richard Francaviglia, From Sail to Steam: Four Centuries of Texas Maritime History, 1500-1900. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998.

John H. White, Jr. Wet Britches and Muddy Boots: A History of Travel in Victorian America. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2013.