Saturday, April 30, 2016

Researching and Writing Historical Characters

by Velda Brotherton

If we aren't careful when we write historical fiction, the characters come off stiff and boring. What's the solution? Set them squarely down in the center of something that really happened. Study the way people acted and reacted in that day and time, give the characters some background problems and a goal that applies to the times and you're off.

In addition to that, I like to walk real characters through the action so they can all get acquainted. I've mingled outlaws like Jesse and Frank James, and the notorious gentleman outlaw Clay Allison into my fictional story letting my hero and heroine get to know them,. I actually shoved them together into the story line so that the real characters affected the  plot.

This calls for a lot of research concerning these true-to-life characters, which I enjoy thoroughly. For instance, I never read anywhere that Frank James was fond of quoting Shakespeare until I began to dig into his life story. I also learned that Jesse loved to have his photo taken. This fit right in with my book, Images in Scarlet, about a young woman photographer working her way from Missouri to Santa Fe by taking photos after the Civil War. At that time Frank and Jessie were roaming Missouri and had a hideout there.

When Jesse and Frank kidnap her, she fears the worst, until she learns they only want her to take some photos. Jake, who is traveling with her, which is another story, thinks the worst when she disappears and tracks her to the outlaw hideout. It made for a slightly funny, slightly scary scene and I really enjoyed writing it. My readers let me know they enjoyed reading it too.

It's always important when using these real characters that the writer makes sure they could have been in the vicinity during the time period the story takes place. Fiction only extends so far in your historical storytelling. You can't make up outrageous things about well-known historical figures, though you can allow them to romp through your story if you remain true to their lives and let them do what they would have done in such a situation.

In Dream Walker, the story begins in Fayetteville, Arkansas in 1849 where the Cherokee and white businessmen have formed a wagon train to go west to California to look for gold and come back rich. The plan is to blaze a new trail west avoiding the desert and some of the well-grazed land around the Oregon Trail. This will open up a new route so the cattle drives crossing Arkansas can follow with better results.

In the story I placed the real leaders and several of the characters who were on that first wagon train west. After my half-Cherokee, half-white heroine, Rachel Keye (Winter Dawn) stows away on one of the wagons, the real characters interact with her and ex-soldier Daniel Wolfe (the fictional hero) throughout the trip. One of Arkansas' folk heroes was Peter Mankins, and he was known to be a charming man who liked the ladies. He had a big part in the book when Rachel continued to get in trouble.  Because I've written a lot of historical articles for several local newspapers over many years, I knew these people quite well, having researched them as well as interviewing people whose families were well acquainted with them.


Neil Waring said...

Love researching, but sometimes I get carried away and don't get much writing done.

Charles Gramlich said...

I've very seldom ventured into historical character land. Mentioned a few in passing. it sounds like an interesting discipline to try and write them.

S. Connell Vondrak said...

This is good. I love history but have avoided using it in writing