The Endless Adventure of Research for the Historical Novelist

I have written six historical novels, the most recent of which, Seance in Sepia, will debut on October 21. They all have one thing in common for me: each required research that led me into new areas of life that I never saw coming.

Never Come Down
My first novel, Never Come Down, took place in an old mining boom town-turned-ghost town in the Colorado Rockies. Of course, I turned to history books and old newspapers, but the real joy for me was hiking with my two small sons to local ghost towns. We lived in Frisco, Colorado, at that time, elevation 9,100 feet, and we were surrounded by what was known as the Ten Mile Mining District. The mountains were pocked with abandoned mines and mining towns whose fortunes had played out a century earlier. We all know the phrase, “If walls could talk....” Well, the ruins of those old towns practically sung with stories of their rise and fall.

An Uncommon Enemy
Research for An Uncommon Enemy, my novel about the aftermath of the Washita Massacre, when troops of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, attacked a sleeping Cheyenne village in 1868, caused me to search for a Cheyenne-English dictionary. When local bookstores and even Amazon.com had none to offer, I broadened my search and eventually located a linguist on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana who had put together a beginning course in the Cheyenne language.

I ordered the course and was fascinated by the voice on the tapes, that of the late Cheyenne elder, Ted Risingson (who happened to be a grandson of the great Cheyenne leader Dull Knife—for those of you who might be familiar with Cheyenne history, or who have at least read Mari Sandoz’s amazing Cheyenne Autumn).

The linguist was producing the course himself out of the local Kinkos, but I thought the material deserved a much wider distribution. I owned a bookstore in Frisco at this time and so was very familiar with the wholesale book market. I approached the linguist and offered to professionally publish and distribute the course. He was reluctant at first to deal with a stranger, so I traveled to Lame Deer, Montana, and visited the reservation to meet with him personally. Soon I was able to publish “Let’s Talk Cheyenne” and make it available to libraries and bookstore outlets all over the country.

The experience was an amazing education for me and I feel proud to have contributed. in some small way, to the preservation of our rapidly disappearing Native languages.

Read the first two chapters here
My research adventure for Seance in Sepia took me all the way to London, though the story is not set there. The novel begins in the present day when a young woman buys an antique “spirit photograph” at an estate sale. The Victorians were obsessed with the occult and some photographers of that era claimed they could photograph the dearly departed during séances.

When the spirit photograph’s origins seem linked to a notorious 1875 murder trial, my historical protagonist, Victoria Woodhull, enters the story. Woodhull was a real person who, in addition to being the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency, was also a spiritualist. This was a lucrative career for a woman of that time period and widely respected. Spiritualists had their own trade organizations and even held national conventions.

Woodhull was also an outspoken advocate for Free Love, which earned her so much public scorn, she eventually left the United States and headed for England. There she married a wealthy banker and lived out the remainder of her very long life as the “lady of the manor” in the English countryside (proving, I hope, that living well is the best revenge).

I began to correspond with a descendant of her banker husband who had inherited all her personal papers. When he learned that my family and I would soon be visiting London, he invited us to dinner at his elegant Chelsea townhouse on Tite Street, just a few doors down from where Oscar Wilde once lived.

A memorable evening, to be sure, and one which reminds me how much my writing career continues to broaden my outlook and life experience.
This post was reprinted with permission from the blog of novelist Patricia Stoltey, author of The Prairie Grass Murders and The Desert Hedge Murders.  Visit her on the web at http://patriciastoltey.blogspot.com/


Tara said...

Is Seance going to be available on kindle?

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Michelle Black said...

Hi Tara--Seance in Sepia will initially be available only in hardcover. :(
But it will be released for Kindle in October 2012.