Writing Historical Fiction: Ability to Weave Recommended
I explain the research behind my historical young adult trilogy, Time and Again, Unclaimed Legacy, and Every Hill and Mountain. Only after doing the research homework are writers able to smoothly weave facts into fiction ("faction?") so that readers can suspend disbelief and enjoy the story.
Thank you, Mr. Frank, for inviting me to be here today. I am so happy for the opportunity to talk history with others who love it. For the past 12 years I’ve lived in Waterloo with my husband Bob. But Bob and I grew up in the Bunker Hill area, graduating from BHHS. My family lived in downtown Woodburn, and his farmed just a few miles north of Woodburn. We’re both on new careers. He left farming for health reasons and we both became teachers in Waterloo. Now, for the past several years, he’s an R.N. at the veterans hospital and I am an author. I am here today to talk a little about how (and a bit about why) I weave history into my fiction.
I’ve written three novels to date, each of them set in southern Illinois, each of them featuring southern Illinois history. The region is rich with history and I can’t imagine ever running out of topics to write about. At a book signing two weekends ago in Equality, a fan thanked me for writing about their town. She and I agreed that the region deserved more attention. And it was tremendously satisfying for me to be able to do so. However, each of the three books has this disclaimer inside the front cover.
Every author must do the background work before writing the novel. For example, the characters must be imagined into being—everything from eye color to family tree. The author won’t used all of that detail, but knowing it makes the character come alive. For historical fiction the author must also do historical research to become intimately familiar with another time and/or place. And once again, only a fraction of what is learned will be used in the novel. A writer friend of mine says she’s not writing historical fiction any more. It’s too much work and takes too much time. She’s right. Especially if you’re dedicated to historical accuracy as I am. Apparently, not every writer does his/her homework. I recently read two different books set in 1870s: contemporary slang, tobacco crops growing in Green Bay, Wisconsin, fence posts dug in frozen Minnesota ground in January by a young woman, and a frozen hog carcass butchered in the dark by the same young woman by herself. These were best-selling authors too. It offended the farmer in me. I do my homework so hopefully no one will ever throw any of my books away in disgust.
Here they are—my literary babies. A trilogy, starring Abby Thomas, a college girl spending the summer in Miles Station, Illinois, tutoring a troubled 11-year-old girl. I have a personal connection to the settings of each of these books. I was born in Eldorado not far from the setting of Every Hill and Mountain. I lived for a time in Wood River, not far from the setting of Unclaimed Legacy. But I grew up in Woodburn, not far from Miles Station, the setting of Time and Again. I wrote the books with teens in mind, but actually most of my readers are adults. Most reviewers compliment either the realistic characters or the history woven into the stories. I do try to be a good weaver.
I let my characters time-surf, because it’s something I always wished I could do—go back in time to see what it was really like in the olden days.
Every Hill and Mountain, the last book in the trilogy was released in April. When I began to write it and had to come up with another old house for my characters to time-surf in, I realized there was no better one to write about than the “Old Slave House” in Equality, down in Gallatin County. It was built in 1834 by John Crenshaw, the overseer/lessee of the salt mine there. Native Americans made salt there in ancient times. The French controlled the salines and Equality was settled because of them. Thomas Jefferson was intensely interested in acquiring control of the salt works, considering them national treasures. The Crenshaw mansion, known by anyone from the area as “The Old Slave House,” still stands high on a Hickory Hill outside of town. At once time it was open to the public and the owner gave tours. Why? Because the whipping post, iron chains, and tiny cubicles on the third floor of John Crenshaw’s mansion still bears witness to what went on there. My characters and I learned more than we ever wanted to know about the history of this old house and the region. Maybe it’s old news to you, but I learned that slavery was rampant in the free state of Illinois, the land of Lincoln, even though the state constitution forbade it. John Crenshaw applied for and got a special dispensation from the state to use slaves to work the salt mine. He paid a hefty fee for the privilege, but it was worth it. Salt production was big business—the largest source of state revenue for many years. They bent the laws out of all recognizable shape to put the stamp of legality on it. Lawyers found loopholes—the 364-day rule. So slaves lived, worked, and died doing hard labor in Illinois. As the fictional Mr. Granger says, “They’re always finding some way to up and die.” There were other Blacks living there. Not African/Americans (not citizens). These Black “indentured servants,” were kept in perpetual bondage—enslaved--to their masters by bending yet more laws out of shape. But even though they were relatively free compared to the salt mine slaves, they lived in constant danger of being kidnapped and sold down the river. John Crenshaw and other entrepreneurs were involved in this reverse/perverse Underground Railroad. Crenshaw held kidnap victims on the third floor of his own home. (most haunted house in Illinois?) But he went beyond this perversity and used a man as a stud to breed slaves, selling the children down south. Yes, I learned more than I wanted to know.
My goal was to give readers a picture of Equality today and back when salt was king and slaves labored in the salt mines outside of town. I had lots of questions that needed answers. What had it been like to be a black person living there during this time period. What labor did they do? How did they produce salt? How could I make the character dialect realistic? Why did Abraham Lincoln stay overnight at the Crenshaw mansion? Here are just some of the topics I researched to add realism to the story. The more I learned, the more I knew I didn’t know.
Yes, it’s a lot of time and effort. But for me, the research is half the fun. Historians more knowledgable than I may find discrepancies and errors, but there won’t be tobacco growing in Wisconsin. I thank God for the Internet, which allows me to find nearly anything I can imagine to ask for with the click of a button. I ended up with extensive paper files of print outs and notes. And a search of Amazon.com, led to several books I couldn’t live without.
But now, heading back north from Equality, back to Macoupin County, let me tell you about the first book in the trilogy--the history in it and the history behind it. It all started back in Woodburn where I grew up.
My curiosity and love for history came from growing up in a very old house, built in 1874. I used to try to imagine what the people, sounds, and sights had been like in 1874.
I found cool old history books in the BH library and read about the history of Woodburn. After learning that Abraham Lincoln sometimes lodged in Woodburn during his stagecoach trips from Springfield to Alton, I fell in love with all things Lincoln. Although there was an inn in Woodburn, it was rumored that Lincoln also stayed in several homes. Woodburn kids, myself included, liked to tell everyone at school that he stayed in their homes. Obviously, in my case any way it wasn’t true. There is one documented trip to Woodburn. Lincoln and his political associates held a political rally for the Whig Party in downtown Woodburn on July 4, 1840, during the William Henry Harrison presidential campaign. The Democrats held a similar rally in downtown Bunker Hill. Obviously, Woodburn should have received the Lincoln monument, not Bunker Hill.
After growing up in Woodburn, I married Bob and moved north to Heal Farm. One day the county put up new road signs. The road that ran in front of Heal Farm was given the name Miles Station Road. What’s a miles station? One mile from something? Curiosity again. Back to the library. Only then did I discover that there used to be a thriving little town down the road from our farm—Miles Station. Founded by Jonathan Miles.
I thought it so eerie and poignant that a town could disappear like that. In a creative writing class at SIUE 19 years ago, I decided to write a short story about Miles Station. And that evolved into Time and Again.
This is a mill similar to the Miles Mill. How satisfying it must have been for Jonathan Miles and the brave pioneers to know they were building a town. As were others involved with all the little towns that were popping up around here during that time.
And much to my delight, I discovered that my hero Lincoln showed up in Miles Station history too. Lincoln gave up stage coach trips for train trips once the railroad completed the tracks. And he visited Miles Station on several occasions to discuss the case. So naturally, I had to include him in the story.
In Time and Again, a fictionalized Charlotte Miles, the colonel’s daughter, takes the Chicago and Alton train from Miles Station down to Alton to attend the Lincoln/Douglas Debate there in 1858. Later, Charlotte shelters escaping slaves in her attic. I don’t know if the Miles’ family really were involved with the Underground Railroad, but they could have been. Like Lincoln, Col. Miles, according to his biography, was a “staunch supporter of Republican ideals.” At the time, that was code for standing against slavery and for abolition.And , after all nearby Brighton was a hotbed of abolitionist activity. This is the prerogative of fiction writers.
Unclaimed Legacy is set mostly in Madison County. But there is also a connection to Macoupin County. After Lincoln, Lewis and Clark have always been some of my favorite heroes. So in Unclaimed Legacy, I allow Abby and her friends to time- surf in an old house that stands on the remains of Fort River Dubois in Wood River/Hartford. Lewis and Clark’s camp the winter of 1803 before the Expedition’s departure into the unknown western lands of the Louisiana Purchase.
Taking a little literary license, took a building in Macoupin County and fictionally moved it to Hartford in Madison County to use as the primary site for my characters to time-surf in. Shake Rag Corner is located between Woodburn and Brighton. It was once a stage coach stop—a part time one anyway. If you wanted to board the stage coach, someone would shake a rag on the front porch so the driver would know to stop for you. I loved that concept so much that I borrowed it for Unclaimed Legacy.
After Lincoln, Lewis and Clark have always been some of my favorite heroes. So in Unclaimed Legacy, I allow Abby and her friends to time- surf in an old house that stands on the remains of Fort River Dubois in Wood River/Hartford. Lewis and Clark’s camp the winter of 1803 before the Expedition’s departure into the unknown western lands of the Louisiana Purchase. They get a snapshot view of what it was like for the men there that winter. But it took a lot of research to find those details I wanted to include. Books were readily available about the Expedition. And I visited the Lewis and Clark State Historic Site in Hartford and the knowledgeable volunteers offered their expertise. I found awesome details about what items they took along for the journey—compasses and a chronometer, of course. A telescope, hatchets, whetstones, and iron corn mill, mosquito curtains, fishing hooks and lines, knapsacks, sheets of lead for bullets. Clothes, of course. And gifts for Indians they’d meet: pocket mirrors, sewing needles, silk ribbons, handkerchiefs, bright colored cloth, tobacco, tomahawks/pipes, brass kettles, vermilion face paint, 33 pounds of tiny beads, etc. And peace medals with Jefferson’s image.
I would use some of those details in my story. But otherwise, I didn’t want to write about the Expedition itself. I wanted to know and write about Lewis and Clark’s time in Illinois at their Camp River Dubois near present day Wood River/ Hartford. At first I couldn’t find information about the Illinois country.
But I was in a fictional quandary. For the plot to work out right, I needed there to be pioneer settlers near Camp River Dubois, but I wasn’t sure there had been any. The descriptions of the Illinois country (not even a territory yet) painted Southern Illinois as a rough place in 1800.
Continued searching led to just the right books to answer my questions about the region. I’m lucky I am to live when I do. No one had known much about L & C and their stay in Illinois until Captain Clark’s field notes were discovered in 1953.
In answer to my question, yes there were settlers in the area—a very few settlers. And amazingly enough, these settler visited Lewis and Clark’s camp. That worked out perfectly for my plot. Ironically, these settlers had first settled at Whiteside Station outside Waterloo where I live today. It’s a small world. They came to visit out of curiosity and felt it an honor to meet the men who would leave in the spring on their great Expedition. The visitors brought gifts of butter, turnips, and whiskey and engaged in friendly shooting contests. One widowed settler agreed to be a washer woman for the camp.
Captain Lewis was charged with the business and political red tape across the river in St. Louis, including witnessing the official transfer of the Louisiana Purchase to American hands. Meanwhile, Captain Clark stayed at Camp River Dubois and trained the men in marksmanship and survival techniques. And it was his job to keep them in line, not always an easy task. Most of these were rough and independent young men with no military training that had come straight from the frontier where they were used to calling the shots for themselves. Clark had to teach them to take orders, military discipline, and most importantly, to work together as a unit. Their lives and the success of the mission depended upon it. Punishment for infractions could be harsh. At least one soldier, as I recall, was court martialed. The lash was used several times. But the story of the three drunken soldiers was so vivid and for some reason amusing to me, that I had to include it in the story. I find it amazing that in that wilderness before more than only a handful of settlers had arrived, there was already a pub. These three young idiots sneaked off to buy whiskey and got drunk.
Most everyone knows about Lewis and Clark’s journals. But when my research revealed that other men wrote journals as well, I knew just what I wanted to include in my plot! And he wrote a letter to his parents that gives us an idea of what the men thought about their impending trip and its dangers. It took me back to be reminded the trip would take them outside United States. They knew they would face tremendous danger and might not return.
I had local settlers interacting with Lewis and Clark and their men. I had a washer woman living in a cabin in the camp. The next important fact I found was that amazingly with all the records, historians don’t know for sure how many men went on the Expedition. And when I found out that other men had written journals I did a little happy jig.
Finally, the research was over, and with these loopholes, I felt like I had historical justification to write the story I wanted to write. Now you’ll have to read it –and all the books--to see how I did at weaving history into fiction.
Thanks for having me here today.
Writing Historical Fiction: Ability to Weave Recommended
“I like how the author wove the stories from the
present and the past in such a way as to appeal to
someone interested in history, yet firmly living in
the technological world of today.” --Amazon reviewer
To this reviewer and others who said
similar things, I say thank you very
much. I do try to be a good weaver.
This is a work of fiction. Any
references to real
people, events, institutions, or
locales are intended solely to
give a sense of authenticity.
While every effort was made to
be historically accurate, it
should be remembered that
these references are used
You have to do your homework
first if you want to be
And even if I have change a
few things so the plot will
work, I try to be true to the
logic of the time period and
One reviewer described the series as “unique, a cross
between Back to the Future and Touched by an Angel.”
Abby’s weird computer program lets
her fast-forward and rewind life.
Not her own, of course, but those
of the people who used to live in old
She can see, hear, and know
everything about the people she sees,
even know that they’re thinking—sort
of like reading a good book—but no
one knows she’s there.
“I call it time-
explained. “It’s like
being there only
century. . .not the
summer vacation she
Every Hill and Mountain Is Set in
Equality’s “Old Slave House”
Abby agrees to use the program to help her friend Kate find
her ancestor Ned Greenfield, born at a place called Hickory
Hill in tiny Equality, Illinois.
The mansion, built in 1834 with blood-tainted money from
the Half Moon Salt Mine, stands in lonely isolation on
Hickory Hill. They “time-surf” on the third floor and find
information almost too much to bear.
Some of my research topics in EHM. . .
Equality. History. stores and businesses.
The salt festival. The Red Onion Restaurant. Its menu.
Half Moon Salt Mine. The national salines. Salt making.
Thomas Jefferson’s connection to Equality.
Ninian Edwards and other early Illinois politicians
John Crenshaw. His mansion. Its date and structure.
Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Equality.
--the party at the Crenshaw mansion.
Illinois state constitution and the black laws
Shawneetown. History, courthouse, the slave registry
Conditions in southern Illinois for Blacks
—free, “indentured,” and enslaved.
Outright slavery in the free state of Illinois
Slave labor at the salt mines
Slave dialect, grammar rules
Abolitionists, the Underground Railroad
--Its routes, conductors, logistics, fines, risks
Slave accounts of life and escape
--Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, etc.
The “Perverse Underground Railroad.
John Crenshaw’s kidnapping activities and trial
Slave breeding programs. Bob Wilson
The Goshen Trail and other early roads
Churches and their denominational stances on slavery
Hymns that might have been sung. Sermons
Martin Luther King’s Dream Speech
Minerals in the southern Illinois region
Coal mining and its effect, methods, hype
“Passing” how and why
Chicago geography. Street names The Trump Tower.
D. L. Moody. His church and work
Time and Again is set in Miles
Station, Brighton, and Alton.
Growing up in an old house. . .
Col. Jonathan Miles
• Born in Kentucky 1820
• Settled in Brighton Township with his
parents in 1832
• Married Eliza Stratton, also from
• Had three children, including a
daughter named Charlotte
• Organized a company of soldiers from
the area, the Twenty-Seventh Illinois
• Had a brilliant career in the Union
Army, being promoted to the rank of
colonel in 1862.
Col. Jonathan Miles
Built the first steam grain mill in Brighton
Township. You couldn’t make bread, that staple
of life, without a mill.
Settlers road by horseback for a week to get to
the nearest mill until Miles built his.
Col. Jonathan Miles
Miles was instrumental in getting the
Chicago & Alton Railway through—and
through Miles Station.
Later, Lincoln represented Miles in a suit
against the railroad. Lincoln visited Miles
Station on several occasions to discuss the
The Lincoln/Douglas Debate
Alton, October 16, 1858
The second book of the trilogy
was released September 2012. It is
set in Wood River and Alton in
This time, the featured heroes are
Lewis and Clark.
What was Illinois like in 1803?
Were there people there?
What was their camp like?
What did they do all that winter?
Who were the men of the
expedition and where did they
Time for more research!
“Thick timber and wild rivers
restricted any kind of movement in
southernmost Illinois.… To travel
from Vincennes on the Wabash
River to Kaskaskia on the
Mississippi River required more
than 40 hours on horseback through
forests and over prairies covered in
summer with thick grasses 10-12
John Reynolds, a distinguished
citizen of Illinois, who served in
Congress and as governor recalled
that it had taken his family four
weeks to travel 110 miles from Fort
Massac to Kaskaskia in 1800.
For a century and a half after their
arrival at Wood River no one knew much
about Camp River Dubois.
Then in 1953 Clark’s field notes, taken
during that time were discovered in a
Minnesota attic and published.
And now we have glimpses into their
time in Illinois.
Within the scraps of Clark’s notes, a
word here or there, maddening in their
lack of detail are some of the facts I
wanted to know:
According to the 1800 census, about 2500
people resided in what is now Illinois:
719 at Cahokia,
467 at Kaskaskia
212 at Prairie du Rocher
250 along the southern border of St. Clair
334 in scattered parts of Monroe County
90 at Fort Massac
100 in Peoria.
There were people nearby. And they came to
visit the men that winter from isolated farms in
the area, the group of Indians camping just
upriver, and from the Goshen settlement near
Whitesides, probably some from Goshen and
others from Whiteside Station, showed up
periodically at winter camp. From Clark’s notes,
we know of visits on January 2, January 4 and
When Captain Clark discovered that four of
the men assigned to the hunting party—a
constant chore to keep the men in meat that
long winter—had sneaked away from the
hunt, bought whiskey at the local shop, got
drunk and commenced to beat each other to a
pulp he. . .
“Ordered those men who had
fought got Drunk & neglected Duty
to go and build a hut for a Woman
who promises to wash & sow etc.”
(from Clark’s field notes January 6, 1804)
Lewis and Clark weren’t the only ones to
President Jefferson encouraged all the men
to write so there would be different
perspectives of the journey.
Sergeant John Ordway, next in command
after co-captains, was only one of the men
who also wrote a journal.
Camp River Dubois
April the 8th 1804
I now embrace this opportunity of writing to
you once more to let you know where I am and
where I am going, I am well thank God, and in
high Spirits. I am now on an expedition to the
westward, with Capt. Lewis and Capt. Clark,
who are appointed by the President of the
united States to go on an expedition through
the interior parts of North America. We are to
ascent the Missouri River with a boat as far as it
is navigable and then to go by land, to the
western ocean, if nothing prevents, &c.
This party consists of 25 picked Men of the
armey & country likewise and I am So happy as
to be one of them pick’d Men from the armey,
and I and all the party are, if we live, to Return
to Receive our Discharge when ever we return
again to the united States.
This place is on the Mississippi River opposite to
the Mouth of the Missouri River and we are to
Start in ten days up the Missouri River. This has
been our winter quarters. We expect to be gone
18 months or two years. We are to Receive a
great Reward for this expedition, when we
Return. I am to Receive 15 dollars pr. month and
at least 400 ackers of first Rate land, and if we
make Great Discoveries as we expect, the united
States, has promised to make us Great Rewards
more than we are promised.
For fear of exidants I wish to inform you that I
left 200 dollars in cash, at Kaskaskia. Put it on
interest with a Substantial man by the name of
Charles Smith &c. partnership which were three
more Substantial men binding with him and
Capt. Clark is bound to See me paid at the time
and place where I receive my discharge. . .
and if I should not live to return my heirs
can get that and all the pay Due me from
the U.S. by applying to the Seat of
I have Recd. no letters Since Betseys yet,
but will write next winter if I have a
chance. yours, Etc.
John Ordway Sergt.
Three Historical “Loopholes”
1. There were approximately 50, but “Even
after assembling all the military records and
journals, and with diligent work of historians,
there never has been a precise roster of the
full company that traveled from the Illinois
country to Fort Mandan.”
2. We don’t actually know how many of them
did write journals.
“At least six members started journals of the
voyage…Others may have kept journals or
diaries, but none has been found.”
3. And we don’t know exactly who the washer
Let me know how I did at
weaving history into fiction.
If you read and like the trilogy, I’d
really appreciate it it if you’d post
reviews for them. Authors can never get
too many reviews!
A few of my sources
The trilogy is available at
Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com
in paper or e-book format.