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library, I once again traipsed up and down stairways (thankfully above ground) to the rare books room to read historical documents.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

June Book News

Janice McCaffrey, Author

Two of this author’s books will be offered FREE June 8 – 12

Could you use some humor during these trying times? Or a fun summer read?

If so, Plans Interrupted is for you.

Meet Madge Wood, a sixty-something widow as she tells her story of interrupted plans throughout her life that have stolen the self-confidence she’d once known. But feeling unusually brave she sets out to experience her last plan. A trip to Monaco, a ride up the “To Catch a Thief” cliffside road, wearing a long, pink, Grace Kelly-like scarf that catches the sunlight as it flies in the wind, and a visit to Princess Grace’s Palace. What could possibly interrupt that?

An antique ring, thugs accosting her, enigmatic men offering assistance, and an opportunity to change ancient history. As Madge says, “You’re not going to believe it. I wouldn’t either—except I lived it.”

Amazon Kindle ebook       FREE   June 8 – 12

Footprints in History by J. M. Goodison

Based on the personalities who created America’s Early Colonial Period, Footprints in History, combines imagination and historic events to tell of the author’s seventh great-grandfather, blacksmith and indentured servant, James Fitchett. James and his neighbors toil in the new land for the twenty-four Scottish investors, known as proprietors. These men control East New Jersey hoping to amass fortunes from the sweat and tears of their tenants, indentured servants, and slaves. Not all settlers share the same hopes and beliefs.

 Footprints in History reveals the winners and the losers.

Amazon Kindle ebook   FREE   June 8 – 12


A new selection of stories from Food Lover’s Village

Join Leslie Budewitz www.LeslieBudewitz.com and other Montana authors for the summer virtual Local Author Showcase, sponsored by the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, on Wed, June 9, at 6 pm Mtn. Registration is free through Eventbrite using this link.   https://www.eventbrite.com/e/154772826691 You can also use the link to buy Bitterroot Lake, written as Alicia Beckman, or books by her co-presenters. Find out more at the Country Bookshelf. https://www.countrybookshelf.com/

Leslie is also delighted to announce the May publication of Carried to the Grave and Other Stories, the 6th book in her Food Lovers’ Village Mysteries, set in fictional Jewel Bay, Montana. 

Erin and the Villagers return in five contemporary short mysteries, tales of secrets, envy, revenge, and murder, seasoned with humor, good food, and creative problem-solving. And in a historical novella, set in 1910, the year Erin’s great-grandmother Kate arrived in Jewel Bay as a new bride, we see that Erin’s sleuthing skills and her desire for justice may well have been inherited. Find out more on Leslie’s website. www.LeslieBudewitz.com

May Book News

From the Bavarian Alps and the coast of Denmark, across the sea to the New World, and into the Mountain West, this book traces 200 years in the lives and struggles of a family learning to make their way in a hostile world.

MFErler @peaksandbeyond.com

My historical fiction book is finally being released, May 15, after 5 years of labor, researching my own ancestry and talking with elderly relatives to glean their stories before it was too late.

From the Cover:

In this historical fiction novel, thirteen-year-old Cinda Parker knows she and her younger brother Ian have a special connection. It’s not until a mysterious stranger named Lexi arrives from the future that they realize they are more than typical mid-twenty-first century children.

Lexi convinces the siblings to travel back 200 years into the minds and lives of their ancestors, in order to help their father, who is dealing with grief over his own father’s death and anger with his brother’s questionable choices. When their family line is disrupted, Cinda and Ian learn the true value of a single life.

Where is the past?

by Karen Wills


“The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. Put a map in the front of the book. It sets the scene of a story,” said author/map builder Mark Beaulieu at the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference last June.

Writers of historical novels must do research, and one helpful item in our toolbox should be maps. Two writer/presenters at the Denver explained and showed us how they used maps. Delaney Green who wrote Jem, a Girl of London, which is set in the 18th century, showed us period maps of London and how she used them to give the ring of truth to her fiction…depicting crowded dockside streets and centers of activity in the old city.

Mark Beaulieu presented rare images of land and ocean maps used by Eleanor of Aquitaine, the queen who tried to prevail in the Crusade of 1147. Mark is an expert on her 12th century world, having written a six part series called The Eleanor Code. Eleanor wrote the first maritime laws, hence the use of the word code. She was also a successful trader in wine and silks and spices and the mother of ten. The maps she and her husband, Louis VII used were in part wrong, but they succeeded in getting 50,000 pilgrims to the Holy Lands in the 2nd Crusade, and brought those who survived (only one in twenty) back. They went out on land, crossing Turkey in the winter, and returned by sea.

Mark showed us a facsimile of a Roman marching map 6 feet long, and.referred us to helpful internet sites for those wanting to use maps. One is the David Ramsey Collection. http://www.libutexas.edn/maps/map.sites/hist_sites.html

How many of you like to see a map of the setting for any novel?