For those of you who want an update on my writing about the Oregon Trail, I just started delving into the first draft of my second novel in that series. Writers recognize this as a very dangerous point—will I hate every page or will I think it is all wonderful?
Neither of those perspectives is a useful frame of mind at this stage.
I need is the objectivity of a reader coming fresh to the page. It’s been a year since I finished the rough draft, so I think I have that objectivity. I also have the benefit of a wonderful critique group, who will read my newly edited chapters as I go.
I am finding I need to plug some holes in the plot and to even out the pacing, so I’m doing more research as I edit. I want to be sure I am grounded in the history of the places where the book is set, which has set me to reading old Oregon and California newspapers, month by month as my chapters move through time.
I’ve mentioned old newspapers as valuable sources of information before, and I am fortunate that the locales where my novel is set have papers from the 1840s and ’50s available online.
The newspapers of the day contained reports from the skirmishes of the nearby Cayuse War to avenge the Whitman Massacre and of the far-away Mexican-American War that would shape the boundaries of the southwestern United States.
These reports were often delayed for months after the events in question. Some of the reports of the Mexican-American War came to Oregon via the Sandwich Islands (known today as Hawaii).
Even a December 16, 1847, letter written by the Catholic Archbishop of Oregon City, Francis Norbert Blanchet, about the tragedy of the Whitman Massacre was not printed until the March 9, 1848, issue of the Oregon Spectator. Did the editor only just get a copy of the letter, or had he held on to it for several weeks before printing it? The paper was printed twice a month, so he could well have had earlier opportunities to print the letter.
As I launch into this reading project, I find not only military and political history, but gems of social history as well:
- Whose wife would no longer be responsible for her husband’s debts, because he had left her hearth and home.
- Which ships have entered port, and which stores have received new merchandise from their cargos.
- The best times to plant which fruits and vegetables.
These gems tell us about the character of the people who populated Oregon City when my characters did. Some of them may even find their way into my novel.
Here are two nuggets I found in the Oregon Spectator. (My apologies to those of you who follow my Facebook Author page, because I posted these there a couple of weeks ago.)
The first is a joke printed in the February 10, 1848, issue of the Spectator, which is just about the time my novel opens:
— Well, Susan, what do you think of all married ladies being happy?
— Why, I think there are more that AIN’T that IS, than there IS that AIN’T. (emphasis in original)
As you can see, not much has changed in how we use humor about marriage in 165 years.
And in the February 24, 1848, issue of the Spectator, we find a letter to the editor, showing us that opinions of the press have also not changed across time:
From what I have seen in The Spectator, . . . You’ve given us what pleases you, and what you dislike you withhold. Your summary for two years amounts to a perfect aggravation, and nothing more. . . . you had no business to garble a single resolution that was stillborn, simply because it suited your purpose; in doing so you not only lowered yourself but perverted the press . . . .
Who among us does not find the press perverted at times and “a perfect aggravation”?
One of the great things about writing historical fiction is creating characters that are as real as the people who live today and setting them in fascinating places from the past. The characters can be as real as the people we know because the human race really hasn’t changed much in hundreds and thousands of years.
When has historical or family information made you realize that people have not changed throughout the generations?