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library, I once again traipsed up and down stairways (thankfully above ground) to the rare books room to read historical documents.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

Who Was She?

By Ann Minnett

A black hole blocks me from the real story of my paternal third great grandmother (ggggrandma). Every other line in my family tree can be traced further back, mostly thanks to fastidious recordkeeping by Quaker ancestors.

But not ggggrandma Merritt or Merrett or Merett or Marat as it was sometimes spelled. I am obsessed with what little we know about her and who my ggggrandfather might have been. If you have plotted your own family tree, you know how difficult it can be to locate and follow the women who came before.

Here’s what we know about her:

·       Born in SC in 1810

·       Two sons born in north GA, 1832 & 1835

·       Listed as head of household 1840 – north GA 

·       Married a Mr. Lankton in 1844 – north GA

·       Widowed in 1868 and moved to Missouri to live with her son

Possible scenarios:

·       She was a Merritt and had two boys out of wedlock

·       She had two illegitimate sons by a man named Merritt but they never married

·       She married a Merritt, had two sons, was soon widowed, and remarried 

I would like to settle on one of the above and just let ggggrandma be, but I also feel honor-bound to get her story right. So, guess who is not writing or marketing her novels? Who has conducted endless Google searches and purchased reference books on daily life and customs in Antebellum Georgia? Who has lost days reading about The Indian Wars between Georgia pioneer militias and tribes that resulted in forced westward migrations of native populations? 

I’ve learned a lot. Perhaps what’s keeping me from writing domestic suspense will lead to my first novel of historical fiction.


Writing Historical Novels


By Janice McCaffrey

February’s Montana Women Writer’s meeting featured a discussion on Writing Historical Novels led by Karen Wills and me. Karen read the following quote  by Fiona Veitch Smith author of Pilate’s Daughter from M.K. Tod’s blog Inside Historical Fiction:

I build my worlds in concentric circles. The outer circle is the social, political, religious, economic and historical backdrop within which my story takes place … The next circle in will include the ‘props’ that the characters interact with … the innermost circle is the emotional core of the characters living in a particular period. 

An excellent segue into my favorite topic, research. Below is a handout listing some, I’m sure not all and in no apparent order, details historical novelists use to fill in Ms. Smith’s circles.

Facts of people’s lives – names, birth, marriage, death dates and places
Food – what, how produced, hunted, gathered, prepared, served, preserved
Water – supply, how does it get to people/animals
Other drinks – coffee, tea, alcohol, juices
Living quarters – structure, furniture, room set up

Lighting – inside and out
Social structure – social classes, details in each level, reactions, impact on society and individuals
Education – schools, apprenticeships, home learning
Manufacturing – for local use, exports
Imported/exported goods – what, from/to where, how transported

Purchasing goods – where, how often, from who, display or set up of goods, barter or currency
Money – coins, paper, denominations, country’s currency
Occupations and their how-to
Heating and cooling – homes, people, animals
Clothing – fabrics, colors, patterns, how are they made, by whom
Public Health – clean water, sewage, diseases, medical practices

Personal Hygiene – cleanliness, teeth, hair, clothing
Socials – what, where, with who
Games & Sports, pleasurable past times
Story telling – oral, books, legend, lore
Neighborhoods – city, town, rural

Patriarchal or Matriarchal – societies, families, governments, values
Rules spoken and unspoken – within family, community, groups, government
History of place – country, state, county, town
Civil laws – who writes them, how they’re upheld, justice system, consequences
Geography – terrain of land

Governments – leaders, issues, controversies – past & present
Politics – local, national, global
Military – preparedness, uniforms/armor, weapons, strongholds (fort, bunker, cave, etc)
Weather/Climate – seasons, temperatures, precipitation

Communication – (usually before phones at least before cell phones)
Travel – local and distant/international, land, sea, air, walk, ride, vehicles,
Ethnic & religious customs – national, local, family, personal
Religion – beliefs, ceremonies, conversion, spreading the Word
Stereotypes – common of the time and place

Language – written, oral, dialects
Death, burial, cremation – traditions, rites

            If you think of any that aren’t on the list, please let me know and I’ll add them.

Confessions of a Historical Fiction Fanatic

By Janice McCaffrey

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ramifications of reading historical fiction. Does it smother history under make believe? Or does it inspire readers to reach outside of their comfort zones.

For me historical fiction often whet’s my appetite for facts. That curiosity leads me to research and of course to Google. Over the years I’ve collected eclectic facts from around the world.

But last year a seemingly innocent choice took over my life.

I watched an international historical fiction TV series, Magnificent Century(Netflix.com). And now my family and friends roll their eyes if I so much as mention the word “Turkey.” Even during this holiday season.

I can’t help it!

I fell in love with Sultan Süleyman I

. . . of course the actor who portrayed him, Halit Ergenç didn’t hurt.

Süleyman was the Ottoman Empire’s longest reigning Sultan (1520-1566). He set fair taxes and protected ethnic and religious minorities. He updated the Empire’s code of law and instituted free education for boys. He’s responsible for the Empire’s unique artistic legacy. He wrote poetry, was an accomplished goldsmith, and led the world in architecture building mosques and public buildings. In Jerusalem he restored the Dome of the Rock and the city walls (still the Old City of Jerusalem’s walls) and renovated the Kaaba in Mecca.

And what a romantic! During the same era Henry VIII was arguing with the Pope about a divorce, Süleyman changed the law so he could not only marry his favorite concubine, Hurrem, but also live with her. He even bent the mores of the day inviting her to council meetings and taking her advice on matters of state. She was an important diplomat especially between the Ottoman Empire and her native Poland.

Fascinated with the Ottoman Empire and Halit I’ve gone on to an array of historical and contemporary movies, TV shows and books, both fiction and non-fiction. I highly recommend The Butterfly’s Dream (Netflix) a touching story based on two lesser-known Turkish poets, Rüştü Onur and Muzaffer Tayyip Uslu.

Over the past several months I’ve experimented with traditional Turkish recipes and learned lyrics to a few of their popular songs. And, yes, I’m working on the language (thanks Free Turkish Lessons Online or I should say soğul (pronounced sowl).

I guess the answers to my original questions can be both yes and no. It depends on the person doing the reading.

This personal admission of my fanaticism is just one example of historical fiction’s ability to promote a readers’ expansion of knowledge. I’m thankful for authors who give us the facts blended with imagination.

And I wish all of you a very Şükran Günü kutlu olsun (Happy Thanksgiving)


Move Over, Southern Writers

By  Karen Wills

Since my roomy at the Historical Novel Society 2017 North American Conference, Janice McCaffrey, has written about sessions she attended, I’ll continue the thread.

Libbie Hawker, a young writer I admire both for her talent and prodigious output, was to moderate a panel discussion listed as Historical Fiction through a Pacific Northwest Lens. Emphasis was on the region as our last frontier.  pacific nw

Since NW Montana as part of the Inland Northwest is a sort of cousin to the Pacific Northwest states only without a coastline, I decided to attend. A former member of Kalispell’s Authors of the Flathead, Janet Fisher (A Place of her Own, and The Shifting Winds) presence on the panel became another incentive. Additional speakers were Kirby Larson (Hattie Big Sky, the Audacity Jones series, and others), and Janet L. Oakley (Tree Soldier, Timber Rose, and Mist-Shi-Mus).

Panelists first addressed how curiosity about their region determines what they write. It also leads to sources chosen for research. These include Metzger maps, documents such as deeds, historical societies, old letters, and professional historians to interview. The list also included early regional newspapers. As an aside, Oakley reminded us when we’re researching online, to look for sites ending in edu or org. Also, in order to save later grief, for every source record its date and where you found it.

Kirby Larson also spoke to the special temptations of using everything you’ve found in research. She once wrote an entire chapter on how to bake bread in a wood stove. As Janet Fisher said, of historical fiction, “The background is the brush strokes. Give a sense of your era without going into great detail.”

When asked about writing about minority populations, such as the Japanese Americans interred during WWII, panelists agreed on very minimal use of offensive racist terms. Writers need to be realistic about the era being covered, while still recognizing twenty-first century sensibilities.

The panel surprised us by expressing a desire to have the vibrant group of Pacific Northwest novelists become as recognizable and distinct by region as the Southern writers, think Truman Capote or Harper Lee. I caught up with Libby later, and suggested us Inland Northwesters be included.

river with no bridge

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