Tools for Writing Historical Fiction

Writing descriptions is not something that comes naturally to me. I much prefer writing dialogue. But when writing historical fiction, writing about place is critical. In my historical novels, I have to recreate a world that disappeared long before the lifetimes of my readers.

How have I found information about what life was like along the Oregon Trail in 1847? 

1. Diaries of the travelers themselves

Many of these diaries have been published, and some are available online. I’ve read diaries by both men and women to see how they experienced life on the trail differently. Some diaries noted only the weather and how many miles they traveled each day. Some contain detailed descriptions of the hardships along the way.

One of the most famous books by a contemporary traveler is The Oregon Trail, by Francis Parkman. In fact, when people ask me how plausible it is that one of my main characters – a rich young man – left his wealthy home in Boston to rough it in the West, I simply point them to Francis Parkman. That’s exactly what he did.

Parkman didn’t follow the entire route my wagon train company took, but his book was one of my resources, particularly about life in Kansas in 1847 and experiences with Native American tribes of the times.

2. Museum exhibits

Covered wagon at the Whitman Misison

I have driven the Oregon Trail route, but I wish I could have spent more time in museums as I went. I am fortunate to have been able to see several museum exhibits, particularly at The National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Missouri. And as I mentioned in an earlier post, I grew up near the Whitman Mission outside of Walla Walla, Washington, and went to the Whitman Mission National Historic Site run by the National Park Service many times.

3. Google Maps

I pored over roads and rivers and mountains shown in the terrain view of Google Maps. I was amazed at how often local highways in the West are still named “Emigrant Road.” By comparing these locations with the routes described in diaries, I was able to trace pretty accurately how the wagon trains moved from place to place.

Another fascinating feature of Google Maps is the photographs posted along the way. Often when I didn’t know what the horizon looked like or what vegetation the travelers could eat, I looked at pictures that modern travelers have uploaded.

Then it takes only the imagination to see how a wagon drawn by oxen would have moved across the landscape.

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