Guest post: Researching historical fiction by Velda Brotherton

Tonight’s guest blog post, on the topic of researching historical fiction is brought to you by non-fiction and western historical romance author, interviewee and spotlightee Velda Brotherton.

Led by Dull Knife (Morning Star) and Little Wolf, a pitifully small band of Northern Cheyenne crept silent as shadows into the night in the autumn of 1878. Behind them Fort Reno and Indian Territory, ahead a rugged 1500 miles to the land of the yellowstone and home. Soldiers pursued them every mile of the way, picking off men, women and children as they could. This was their final outbreak that would last into the brutal winter of 1879 at Fort Robinson in Nebraska and one last bloody battle to go home.

After my husband’s initial Internet research, we discussed the idea at length and decided on this setting for my seventh western historical romance novel. He learned that George Armstrong Custer had lain with many Cheyenne women. Rumor had it that he fathered several children, though the only one on record is Yellow Swallow. Cheyenne women spoke of others, and so my first decision was to have my hero be the son of Custer and one of these Cheyenne women. To make sure his age was correct, Custer would have had to father the boy when he was still going to the Military Academy. So we studied his movements and found he returned to that area during breaks from the rigors of the academy.

We then drove as nearly as we could the route taken so long ago. As a writer of western historical romance, my research involves books, the Internet and a visit to the area where my book will take place, when at all possible.

Our first stop on the trip north out of what is now Oklahoma, was Camp Supply, which now houses prisoners who care for the fort buildings and resident horses. We were allowed to visit with one of these men as he worked with a sturdy dun gelding that was happy to get a nose rub. We then toured the fort buildings which include some very old buildings and cabins. It amazing how quickly walking the ground where once my fictional characters would have trod sets the mood for the writing to begin. Scenes begin to flow that may or may not make it into the book.

We would travel, as did the Cheyenne, west of Fort Dodge and Dodge City, pass between Fort Hays and Fort Wallace. From the outset there were constant battles with the army. Dull Knife and Little Wolf parted on White Tail Creek. Later Dull Knife and his band were captured on Chadron Creek in October of 1878 and imprisoned at Fort Robinson. There they were kept in dreadful circumstances in a long building with no floors. All they had for heat was what wood they could scrounge and burn. Food was hauled in to them in great vats.

On the evening of January 22, 1879 they broke free and thus began the final battle in which many Cheyenne were killed and those who weren’t were dragged back to the Fort. The dead were piled outside in the freezing temperatures. Meanwhile, Little Wolf and his band headed north, but this wasn’t known for sure until much later.

By this time, in the history of the west, very few Indians were free. Almost all were kept on reservations. Plans were to send this pitiful band back to Oklahoma, but those plans would never be carried out.

Creating my hero was often difficult. Brought up white, he was torn between two worlds. Which one would he ultimately choose? I think that the death of his father in 1876 at Rosebud or what we call the battle of the Little Big Horn, would have affected his decision. I decided to begin the book when he becomes involved in the Cheyenne’s struggle to break free.

Every romance needs a heroine, and I struggled for a while with that. I needed a strong woman with a taste for vengeance, and nowhere to go. So I came up with Aiden Connor, an Irish lass from St. Louis, abandoned in a small town in Nebraska when her fiancé takes off and doesn’t return.

Historical research can be all encompassing. There’s a danger that we’ll become so involved that writing the book is put aside. I usually begin to write as soon as I have my characters, time period and setting in mind. Outlining isn’t for me. I’d rather write myself into a corner and have to figure a way out. Once a book is outlined, it loses all attraction for me. My creativity has disappeared.

So first I began the book with Aiden, then wrote the scenes when Stone Heart becomes injured in the battle. Once I had this all set up and had worked up to their first meeting, after Aiden is run out of town by a few self-righteous women and takes shelter in the same deserted shack where Stone Heart will hide, I realized that the book would work better if I switched the first scenes around. And so Stone Heart’s scene became the beginning of the book.

One of the best books I found for information on the Northern Cheyenne flight was Cheyenne Autumn by Mari Sandoz. By reading her account I was able to insert myself in the time period, learn how the people spoke and interacted with each other. There’s an old saying that using many sources is research, using only one is plagarism, and so I then dug into all the information I could find on Dull Knife and Little Wolf. Though they played a very minor part in my book, I needed to know these people. Learn what had happened to them and how they reacted.

Usually research takes me several months, but not all at once. My first draft may be finished long before I complete all the research. As the story flows it becomes obvious what else I need to know, so there may be gaps along the way that can be filled as the second draft comes alive. Some writers can finish a book in six months, for me it usually takes a year to complete around 100,000 words.

A few things to beware of when doing research: consider the source of the material; make sure you find several reliable sources for your facts; check, and double check before you use something crucial. You need to know how, what, where, when, how and why. Fiction consists of stories that come from our imaginations, but if we place a well-known historical character in a place where he could not have been, then we’re immediately in trouble with the reader. Make sure your real people could have been where you put them, remain true to their personalities, and unless you are writing a biography, keep them in the background and create your fictional characters from your own mind. That will leave you free to write the story you truly want to write.

Thank you Velda, this was great! And I don’t outline either – most of my interviewees don’t… something to do with our characters taking over. 🙂

Velda has written seriously since 1983, though she always made up stories for herself and loved to read from the moment her mother taught her before she started school. In 1994 her first two books were published. One nonfiction, another a Western Historical Romance. As fate would have it, her career was growing well and with four books under her belt she felt secure. Bad idea. The bottom fell out, the line closed and she went to another house. Unhappy there, she turned to writing historical nonfiction.

But her love for fiction continued and she wrote several novels while getting some books published in regional non fiction. Today she works solely with small presses and E book publishers, including adding her back list books to Kindle herself.

Velda lives and works in Arkansas. She and her husband have a home in the country and they travel frequently, mostly for research but also for pleasure.

She is a member of Women Writing the West, Authors Guild, Ozark Writers League, Oklahoma Writers Federation, Inc., and is the co-chair of the Northwest Arkansas Writer’s Workshop, a critique group that was founded in 1987. She holds workshops, speaks occasionally at conferences which she attends a few times a year, and is fond of giving presentations at the many small libraries in her area of the state.

Her favorite pastime when she isn’t writing is visiting with her daughter, swimming, reading and watching a good movie. You can find out more about Velda and her writing at her website:

Excerpt from Stone Heart’s Woman

A shuffling of feet, movement of some kind, startled him fully awake. He had no idea how long he had slept, but someone was coming. He tilted his head and listened. Not an animal, nor a big man. Someone small, weary. Even with his wounds, he would have no trouble overpowering this one and slitting its throat. The musket lay in the dark corner, for he had not yet loaded it. He hoped this was a white man approaching, for he desperately desired to count coup, repay the slaughter of the day before. Ignoring the lancing of pain, he crept toward the door, waited out of sight until his prey entered. The only light filtered into the gloom through that opening, and he could be upon the enemy without ever being seen.

The fur-shrouded figure that stepped into sight radiated fire about its head, rays of sun brilliant in long strands of tangled red hair. Already in motion, his arm clamped about its throat, cut off a high scream.

A woman. A white woman.

The robe slipped from her shoulders when she clawed the air and kicked furiously with both feet, her full weight swinging on his forearm. One pointed boot toe struck his shin, another cracked his knee painfully. Gritting his teeth against passing out, he leaned against the wall and hung on, pressed the blade of his knife hard against her midsection. Hissed in her ear, “Stop fighting or I’ll gut you.”

If you would like to write a writing-related guest post for my blog then feel free to email me with an outline of what you would like to write about. If it’s writing-related then it’s highly likely I’d email back and say “yes please” (while quietly bouncing up and down in my seat with joy!).

The blog interviews return as normal tomorrow morning with Joy V Smith – the two hundred and seventy-third of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, autobiographers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me. You can also read / download my eBooks and free eShorts at Smashwords.