When I was a child, every time my grandma talked about her favorite receipt for fry bread, I wondered why she mispronounced the word. It was recipe. Didn’t everyone know that? Well, my mother didn’t. They were receipts to her, too. You can guess where she got that. Imagine my surprise when I learned that historically, receipt is just as correct as recipe.
“It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”
What I’ve always heard
As a woman who has always been interested in the women’s rights movement, I thought I knew the right word for the women who fought for the right to vote in the United States: suffragette. It was repeated in everything I read and heard over the years. Then I read Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler and came upon the word suffragist for the first time. Because the word was new to me, I had to learn more.
What was true
A quick search on the term revealed Fowler was right. On learning that suffragette as a word did not exist until the early 1900s, I was embarrassed that I had used it in reference to Hannah True, the aunt of the Pierce siblings, in all the novels set in 1855 and forward. If you’d like to know more about the origin of suffragette and how it differs from suffragist, go to this article on the National Park Service site.
When you write historical fiction, or any fiction that contains facts, you run the risk of being wrong, and often it is what you thought you knew that turns out not to be true. However, if you spend time investigating the origin and meaning of every word and detail of every event you want to include in your story, you’ll never get the story written. Research what you know you don’t know, and when you see something at odds with what you believe to be true, look it up. In the meantime, keep writing. The world needs more stories that touch our hearts and minds and challenge our beliefs. And if you do use an incorrect word, sooner or later, someone will let you know.
Thank you to writing buddy and Photoshop whiz Bonnie Eaton, aka B.J. Myrick, for creating my historical research graphic. I supplied the list of resources, and she put them together with a picture of me hard at work. Bonnie knows what is involved in research as she has her own historical novel, Nelly of No Man’s Land.
The Library Book Collection: My First Research Stop
Once I settled on the Battle of Mine Creek, my first stop was the Emporia Public Library to see what it had on the topic. Out of a half dozen books that looked promising, I found They Deserved a Better Fate by Roy Bird to be particularly helpful as it sparked the idea for the main character and part of the plot. Learning that the Confederates had taken prisoners at the Battle of the Blue near Westport and marched south with Price’s wagon train past Mine Creek all the way to Newtonia before being set free, I knew that Hiram Pierce would be my main character and that he would be one of those prisoners. In previous Pierce saga novels, we’ve seen Hiram’s dark side. Will being a prisoner of war change him? If so, how? All of that is still to be determined as I delve into Hiram’s character, his motives for voluntarily joining the militia, and the conditions of his capture and time as a prisoner.
I knew as I was writing the final pages of Hiram’s Boy, that the next story in the Pierce Family Saga would have to include the Civil War. The thought was intimidating. How many battles should my characters be part of? How would I ever do all the research? Then, sometime in January 2018, I started thinking about Civil War battles fought in Kansas. A bit of research led me to the Battle of Mine Creek, which took place on October 25, 1864.
The Research Trip
When I mentioned my brilliant idea to a group of writer friends, Cheryl Unruh said, “Road trip!” I immediately said, “Yes!” We had thought to visit the Mine Creek Museum in April, but time passed without a definite date. Then on Saturday, July 7, I got a text from Cheryl saying the day was the coolest we would probably get for a while, so let’s go. And we did.
The museum is in a rural area off Highway K-52 near Pleasanton, Kansas. Upon signing in, we were greeted by a member of the museum staff. I explained my interest in the battle and was handed a fabulous brochure, which I will say more about later. Then we wandered through the indoor exhibits, which included fashions, bullets, and a cannon replica, as well as large information posters about the battle sequence and soldiers involved. Then Chery and I went outside to view the battlefield. By that time, it was mid-afternoon and too warm for me to make the hike through the field and read the signs, but as you can see from the picture at the top of this post, it was a beautiful Kansas day.
I didn’t look at the brochure I was given until that evening when I got home. My first reaction when I opened it was “Wow!” I still keep saying “Wow!” every time I look at it. This has got to be the absolute best, most informative brochure ever. The entire Price Campaign of 1864 is shown, along with the battles and dates from September through November. Below that map is a brief description of what happened at each point in the campaign. On the reverse side of the brochure is a detailed accounting of the actual Battle of Mine Creek. there are two large maps and two small ones, each showing different views, along with a summary of the action on the day of the battle. This one brochure gives me a wonderful timeline for presenting the action in the novel.
Given what I’ve learned about the Battle of Mine Creek and what happened in the days before it was fought, I’ve found a title for Book 4 of the Pierce Family Saga: Hiram’s War. I’ll be writing more about that in the next post.
In the meantime, if you are interested in learning more about this little-publicized battle on Kansas soil, check out their museum page. The research links are going to be high-priority for me as I gather more information for Hiram’s War.
In last week’s post, I lamented the lack of closets in nineteenth century houses, but fixing that error in my novel was easy compared to the other problem my astute critique partner, Wes, brought up. First, the offending sentence from thirteen-year-old Lucy’s point of view:
In his letters, Ambrose had said even with the depression the last couple of years, the town and Pa’s blacksmith shop had done well.
In the nineteenth century, economic downturns weren’t depressions, they were panics. Yes, Lucy was referring to the Panic of 1857. It was easy enough to remove depression and insert panic, but I couldn’t help wondering how a modern reader would interpret panic. I felt a definition was necessary, but definitions tend to slow down the action and take readers out of the story. Below is my attempt to explain without author intrusion. Does it work?
In his letters, Ambrose had said even with the Panic the last couple of years, the town and Pa’s blacksmith shop had done well. All I knew about the Panic was what I heard folks at the hotel say: In 1857, a ship on the way from the San Francisco Mint to the States in the east had sunk with thirty thousands pounds of gold on board. I couldn’t even imagine what that much gold looked like. Aunt Hannah said banks were shutting down, railroads were going broke, and farmers were getting less money for grain and not paying their mortgages. With fewer people going west, fewer people were staying at our hotel. For most of the last year, Aunt Hannah said the hotel barely made enough to stay open, and my pa and uncles complained they weren’t seeing the profits they once did. Those hard times seem to have gone by without touching Hidden Springs.
Just writing it out here, I’m thinking I’ve overdone the explanation. I question whether I needed all the facts I gave about the Panic. Should I take out the part about the sinking ship and go straight to what Aunt Hannah said? Is the definition of a panic clear? Is it credible that Lucy has this information at the age of thirteen? These are all questions I will continue to mull as I finish the second revision and move on to the third. Any advise will be appreciated.
One of the pluses of a critique group is that each person comes with a different set of knowledge about the world. This month, I e-mailed eighteen pages of For Want of a Father to my critique partners. One of them, Wes, commented on my use of an anachronism: closets and hangers in a mid-nineteenth century house.
Of Closets and Coat Hangers
Wes’s comments got me thinking back to the farmhouse I lived in as a child. There were no closets. My mother had a free-standing wardrobe in her room, and there were hangers, but I am talking the 1950s. My novel takes places one hundred years earlier in the 1850s. I clicked on Google and did a search, hoping for exact dates when houses had closets.
I didn’t get exact dates for either the closet or the coat hanger, but rich people did have closets. In fact, Thomas Jefferson, Founding Father and third President of the United States, invented the wooden coat hanger so he could hang his coat in his closet. However, while my characters are well off compared to their neighbors, they are not rich and probably had neither closets nor hangers. I have made the necessary corrections.