Writing & Researching Historical Fiction

By Carol Buchanan, PhD



In 1962, the first graduate school class at the University of Kansas required of English majors was called “Bibliography and Methods of Literary Research.”

Literary research in that class meant historical research.

The professor gave each of us a name from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries and told us to compile a bibliography of everything we could learn about that person. Even now, I remember the name I got: Richard Watson Dixon. Finding out about him meant rooting around in card catalogs and book stacks that descended five steep, spooky,  floors below the KU library. It meant waiting for Interlibrary Loan, for permission to get access to old records, and squinting at microfiche documents – when I could get on a machine.

When I Googled that name recently, I learned in a matter of seconds far more than I remembered about Canon Dixon, or wanted to know – then or now.

Yet the skills I learned in that antique class have stayed with me through all the changes in research methods brought about by the personal computer, which were made by Sir Timothy Berners-Lee’s invention of the Internet (1989). For the last 25 years, I’ve used these skills intensively to write historical fiction and narrative history.

I’ve written four historical novels set in early Montana history, and am writing a fifth. And I publish a free newsletter and teach a (noncredit) class at our community college, both titled “Becoming Montana.”

In 1997, when I began to research early Montana history, I had to use a combination of old and new methods. Living within reach of the University of Washington library, I once again traipsed up and down stairways (thankfully above ground) to the rare books room to read historical documents. I took notes in pencil because pens weren’t allowed, and I read fast because documents and books could not be removed.

Slow as that was, I relearned one fact of research: A question answered always leads to more questions.

When a question arose in the ACFW critique group about how fast or long a horse could run, I began to investigate. About the same time, I read in Stephen E. Ambrose’s  Undaunted Courage that in 1801, no human being had ever traveled faster than a horse could run. All transportation on land was either by horse, mule, ox, or on foot.

How fast was that? How long could a horse sustain what speed?

Questions of transportation are vital in portraying the environment of my novels. So I set out to learn how fast horses could run, how far, and for how long. I asked other horse people and equine veterinarians. The answer: “It depends.”

Then the Internet took off.

Old documents came out of rare books rooms and onto the Internet. Books I couldn’t remove in 1997 now reside in digital form on my hard drive. I read a man’s account of fleeing armed robbers in 1863 for more than a hundred miles through two feet of snow. The horse carried the man to safety, but he was never again sound. His owner put him out to pasture for the rest of his life.

I doubted that story, so I set out to verify it.

Then a friend told me she was going to ride in the Tevis Cup, one of the oldest and toughest endurance rides in the United States. The race course crosses the Sierra Nevada mountain range in northern California and must be completed in 24 hours. Equine veterinarians and rest stops for horse and rider are posted at intervals along the way to check the condition of the participants, both horses and riders. Especially the horses.

The horse that saved his rider in 1863 crossed the Continental Divide (at one of its lowest points, in SW Montana) and did the equivalent of the Tevis Cup and more.

I now believe the man’s story.

The more I seek, the more I find.


* https://doyle.com/auctions/17bp02-rare-books-autographs-maps/catalogue/22-overland-stage-table-distances-overland   Accessed 12/28/2021.

Carol Buchanan, PhD, writes historical Westerns set in the Montana gold rush when ruffians ruled and murder was tolerated. Awarded Spur and Spur Finalist from the Western Writers of America, and the “Spirit of Dorothy Johnson” from the Whitefish Library Association, she teaches “Becoming Montana,” a class in early Montana history at Flathead Valley Community College. She is married to Sir Richard, her “tech support.” Her website is https://carol-buchanan.com.

Carol Buchanan, photo by Betty Kuffel


By Janice McCaffrey AKA Madge Wood

Where does inspiration come from? Sometimes from life experiences.

Marseille, France

Janice McCaffrey Goodison with daughter Bonnie, Marseille

Excerpt from Plans Interrupted by Madge Wood

May 4, 2016

After the scheduled light lunch our tourist itineraries said, ‘free time.’ That meant being on our own, to do some local shopping and refresh our classroom French.

I’ve spent most of my adult life going along, mostly with my husband, and since his death, with my son. But on this my first trip abroad and my first trip anywhere alone, I’d promised myself that I’d regain the confidence I had as a girl. This day would mark my first step. So, casting restrictive diets to the wind, I made my way to the ice cream shop I’d read about in the hotel information brochure.

I ordered one scoop of the berry-red framboise sorbet. The clerk answered my ‘merci beaucoup’ with a pleasant laugh and head nod. My attempts at his language pleased him. The sorbet, cold, creamy and delicious on my tongue, pleased me. My ‘C’est Magnifique’ received an even broader smile and several nods. I promised myself I’d find my way back here for sure.

I wandered the narrow streets climbing up and down sidewalks some so steep they had steps. It didn’t take long to realize that Old Europe’s terrain necessitated their construction. Most ancient structures have many levels with, of course, no elevators. I counted each step, up and down, for fun, but also to distract my brain from the discomfort of ever-tightening calf muscles. I hoped I’d be able to walk the next day.

According to the guidebook Fort Saint Jean had been built at the entrance to Marseille’s port in sixteen-sixty by Louis XIV, but unlike most, this citadel’s original cannons pointed inward as a warning to the residents. Rumors had circulated about townspeople planning an uprising against the governor.

As I strolled along its rampart’s seagulls screeched overhead. The fort’s worn terra cotta bricks radiated the heat of the afternoon sun. The view from the promenade included the city’s skyline, the port, and the glistening sea.

The warmth of the early May sun caressed my face. I breathed in the cloudless azure sky wanting it to fuse with my soul. Another American tourist checked his Smartphone and announced that the current temperature read sixty-four degrees Fahrenheit. Marseille’s sixty-four degrees touched my skin much gentler than any sixty-four degrees I’d experienced back home.

A light breeze off the Mediterranean Sea teased what my mother had called my dishwater-blond hair. I wondered what she’d tag it with its gray streaks. I tried long tresses in my youth, but my fine hair always hung limp and stringy. At my age a one-length bob suited not only my hair texture, but my lifestyle as well.

Sigh. Alone in this romantic setting, I could pretend to be young and adventurous, as long as I avoided my reflection in shop windows.

February Book News

Author Help: Beginning to Publication

Janice McCaffrey Goodison

History Buff Press offers individualized assistance through the publishing process: Story development consultation, proofreading, copy editing, line editing, formatting to meet publishers’ requirements, and for self-publishers uploading cover and manuscript to Kindle Direct Publishing. Fiction or Fact, but no erotica. Contact Janice Goodison (Member, Montana Women Writers & Authors of the Flathead) at: historybuffpress@gmail.com