Wednesday, June 24, 2020


Dorothy Wiley
Storyteller of love and heroes on the American frontier. Author of the 
American Wilderness Series, Wilderness Hearts Series, and Wilderness Dawning Series.

When writers write, they must constantly ask themselves questions and then find the answers because a novelist must be a student of the time period in which they are writing. They must create the world that their characters live in. They can only do that with the authentic details that come from careful research. Below are ten things I consider and research in the course of writing my historical romances.

1) Geography. What was the setting called at the time period? Believe it or not, the name of the location can change several times. And boundaries change. County names change. One county can get divided into eight counties. A territory can become a state. As you can see from this map, the 'Arkansaw' territory included much of present-day Texas.

Historical geography is an important element of any book. Just as the French had disputed Spain's claim to Texas' Red River area, so also did American settlers, who rightly believed the land to be part of the Louisiana Purchase. And then Mexico considered it theirs. And to the east and west, native American tribes might have argued with all of them as well as with each other!

2) Maps and roads. What maps were published at the time of the book? How accurate were they? What roads existed at the time? Where did they lead? Were they safe? When Davy Crockett gave his famous quote, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.” El Camino Real is how he got to Texas and the Alamo. I love old maps and collect a few on my computer for every book I write.

Colonists' and emigrants' route to Texas published in 1877.

3) Weather. Were there any major weather events? Flooding or drought? Hurricanes or record snowfalls? How did those events affect the characters? River flooding, among the most powerful and terrifying forces of Mother Nature, has led to countless disasters throughout history. The same is true for droughts. Books that don't mention weather events are missing an important element of reality.

Comparing the Two Major Red River Flood Events of 2015 at Pecan ...
My book RED RIVER RIFLES is set on the Red River at Pecan Point in 1818.

4) Epidemics. Did they have to deal with smallpox, yellow fever, flu, or some other contagion? What did they know about these diseases? Did they understand the cause? How did outbreaks disrupt the economy? Yellow fever appeared in the U.S. in the late 17th century. The deadly virus continued to strike cities, mostly eastern seaports and Gulf Coast cities, for the next two hundred years, killing hundreds, sometimes thousands in a single summer. The cause of malaria, mosquito bites, would not be discovered until 1897 and not until 1900 for yellow fever. 

5) Cures. What were the cures or treatments for those diseases at the time? For example, quinine pills were not available until 1832. John S. Sappington developed a pill, using quinine taken from cinchona bark, to cure a variety of fevers, such as scarlet fever, yellow fever, and influenza. The anti-fever pills helped to save thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives. 

6) Guns and other weapons. Were flintlocks still used? How were they loaded? Was a lead ball called a bullet? What was the weapon's range? How accurate was it? How did they protect it from rain? 

This.69 caliber smoothbore flintlock U.S. Model 1813 pistol was made by Simeon North under Army contract. 

7) Animals. What kind of animals roamed in the setting? Which ones were dangerous and why? What's a gelding? What's a steer? How many pounds does a calf weigh? How much water does a cow drink per day? How fast can a horse reasonably travel in a day? What did they feed them then? Animals were a big part of pioneer and western life and even though I live on a ranch, I'm always learning something new about them.

8) Songs, books, and other entertainment. What did they sing or dance to? What books would the characters be reading? As the four main characters in my upcoming release approach Nashville, they hear a song being sung. It adds authenticity to let the reader know it was Hail Columbia a popular pioneer tune composed by Philip Phile in 1789 for the first inauguration of George Washington. 

9) Customs, cultural, and political elements. The first settlers dealt with cultural, political, legal, and economic challenges. For example, gaining legitimate titles to their land was often difficult and sometimes impossible. And, ironically, entrance into Mexican Texas was extremely regulated by Mexico. According to the Texas State Library and Archives, “Foreigners arriving in the state of Coahuila y Texas had to ‘prove, by certificate from the authorities of the place from whence they came, that they are Christians, and also the morality and propriety of their conduct.’" 

10) Wars and rumors of wars. American history is an endless list of rebellions, skirmishes, battles, and conflicts. A writer must determine what was happening at the time of the setting that might have impacted the lives of the characters.

There are countless other considerations–such as food, clothing, newspapers, money used, types of stores, etc. With these kinds of details, the reader should be able to almost taste the food, smell the forest, or visualize the town.  Of course, all of this research takes lots of time. That's why I only publish about two books a year. But I believe it makes for a far better novel. 

After six months, I’ve finished the first draft of the third book in the Wilderness Dawning Series—BUCKSKIN ANGEL! I still have edits, design, and publishing ahead but it will be released soon. This book brings back well-loved characters Captain Sam and Bear, and their two sons, Rory and Alexander, and takes them to the Province of Texas in 1824 to see their brother Stephen. This is a story about two aging warriors who learn they are not too old for a good fight or a wild adventure. And it is a tale of two young men who learn they still have some things to learn. While one of them discovers courage, the other finds love. I’m so excited about this novel, my 13th! For those readers who haven’t read the other twelve books in my highly-rated series, they are all available on Amazon in eBooks and print and some in audiobooks at the link below.

I am constantly amazed at how fascinating history can be, and when paired with an active imagination, writers like me can have fun bringing history to life for readers like you!

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Kristy McCaffrey said...

Great post, Dorothy! It's definitely a challenge to balance all of these.

Elizabeth Clements said...

Research is so much fun....and a time stealer because I can so easily get immersed in research. Sometimes I've had to change some of my action because a fact check told me not even poetic license would let me get away with what I'd dreamed up. In my trilogy I post Author's Notes at the back so a reader can check there for tidbits of research that I've used in my book. A very informative post, Dorothy.

Rhonda Frankhouser Books said...

Great post, Dorothy.

Laurean Brooks said...

Thank you for this post, Dorothy Wiley. I like to add weather disasters, epidemics, or conflicts that occurred at the time my stories take place. It takes research, but adding these things brings the story to life.