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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Never Say Never to Research! Guest Blog by E. Ayers

Hi, everyone, I love being a guest on this blog because I happen to think this is one of the best blogs for readers and writers. I want to discuss that nasty little word research. No matter what an author writes, it seems at some point that author must stop long enough to do a little research. But how accurate is that research?

For the last three years, I've spent quite a bit of time doing research on the history of our "Wild" West. It all happened by accident. I wrote a contemporary romance, A Snowy Christmas in Wyoming, which is a little east-meets-west-type of story. It was loads of fun, but I had no idea that I was going to open a big can of worms. I never intended to write historical. I know several authors who do and the stuff they've had to research... Nope, not me. Never ever would I write that! Well, never say never in this business. It all happened by accident. I wrote a contemporary romance.

The contemporary that I wrote mentioned an old diary. People began to ask for the diary. When enough readers asked for it, I thought I might as well write it. So I began. But as usual, it's easy to get sidetracked. Debra Holland asked me to be part of her Christmas anthology, Sweetwater Springs Christmas, and I said yes. So I wrote about a young man who leaves Creed's Crossing, Wyoming to ask his long time pen pal, Adie Reiner, to be his wife. And as I wrote that story, I realized I had another one brewing between her older sister and a Crow Indian. That story became A Rancher's Woman.

Sounds simple, right? Quite the opposite. I was buried in research. I'd write a few sentences and then spend hours looking up something. It's been a fascinating journey for me. Having lived my life in the eastern portion of the United States, I can talk about the colorful history of the east. To make matters worse, history in school is taught mostly from the standpoint of important battles. But east is east and west is west, and I probably read three lines about the railroad being laid, a single line or two about the Pony Express, and not much more on the early settlers of the west. I had to learn everything from scratch! Plus, I hadn't been in the beautiful state of Wyoming in years. I actually managed to contact someone within the Farm Bureau who was wonderful. He was also a rancher, and he gave me all sorts of answers to the strangest of questions. Oh, yeah, I really did, I asked what color the dirt was. When he quit laughing, we had a long discussion on soil types.

I didn't want to write about pretty dresses. There are plenty of authors who do that. I wanted to write about real life. I found it in photographs, letters, and all those wonderful things that historical societies collect. Plus many companies have fabulous records. Even simple things such as pens needed hours of research. Did you know that the railroads employ historians? The Bureau of Indian Affairs was wonderful - once I reached the right people within that organization.
So after hundreds of hours of digging, and some awesome contacts, I wrote A Rancher's Woman. The Diary of Clare Coleman is still being written. That one is more difficult because it starts in the 1840's and records are sketchy.

I just finished writing A Rancher's Dream, which follows A Rancher's Woman, and that second novel should be available around the end of this month. As I wrote these, I realized that my grandmothers would have been the same age as the young teenage girls in the stories. My one grandmother and her son, my father, grew up on a self-sufficient farm. That gave me a slight edge as I’d heard all those old stories.
I know that what I've written is historically accurate, and it's a slightly different glimpse of the past than what most romance readers might expect. That's because I didn't leave out the day-to-day chores, the lack of plumbing, or all the other stuff that is not mentioned in most books about our west. And those gals who went west were tough! They had to be to survive!

What do we do when it gets a little too warm? We turn on the air conditioning. If it's cold, we use the heater. They didn't have that luxury. If it was hot, they still had to cook over a wood stove and churn cream into butter. They didn't jump in the shower to cool off! And they certainly weren't wearing corsets under silk dresses as they milked the cows. Maybe reading Roberta Gellis spoiled me. If I'm going to read historical fiction, I want it accurate. And I feel as though I owe it to my readers to write with the same care and accuracy as Roberta Gellis. (Thank you Ms. Gellis for giving me so many hours of reading pleasure and for being such an inspiration to me!)

So that dirty little word, research, has become part of my life. The diary is no longer on the back burner. It's become a labor of love. But using the Internet is tricky. I can't take a single source and assume it's correct. I try to find several sources. Wikipedia has been my friend, but I make certain I have other sources and not just the ones Wikipedia cites that will back up my info. Even photographs can have errors. They might say the photo was taken in 1880, but really it was taken in 1903. I've learned to look for those flaws.

I've had some training in working with old photos. Find something that you know is a certain color, and then, in theory, you can pick out everything else in the photo which is that color. I often felt as though I was looking for Waldo! Depending on the tribe, the white man's influence on their clothing changed. They wouldn't be wearing shirts or blouses made of flour sacks until they were confined to a reservation.
We gave them bags of white powdery stuff that had no taste. They didn't know what to do with it. They dumped that flour out and used the bags for all sorts of things. It's really sad. Plus every tribe has its own language. Some were similar and some were as different as Portuguese is from Swahili. Just toss out most of what you probably were taught or thought. Chances are it's wrong!

Creating a historically accurate book takes extra time. As an author, you must check, double check, and check the information again. And then it has to be applied to what you are writing. Sometimes that research yields hardly anything applicable and other times it showers you in useful info.
If the author is researching something for a contemporary novel, be creative! I know of an author who joined a dating service and made it quite clear she only wanted someone who could feed her information for her novel. She got lots of that and a few marriage proposals! Never be afraid to ask. Most people are more than willing to share their information.

When I wrote A Cowboy's Kiss in Wyoming, I needed medical help. Fortunately, I knew several doctors in a large sports medicine practice. I learned more about hip replacements than I would ever need. But that entire office was so willing to share information. And as a way of double-checking, I contacted a physical therapy group in Wyoming and got the same information with a slightly different slant. Apparently, those cowboys don't believe their doctors when they are told to stay off the horse for at least six weeks. Stubborn men! Why don't they listen?

Research is research. It makes our stories better. If you are an author, just jump in and don't be afraid of it. It's amazing what you will learn! And sometimes it’s fun. If you are a reader, do you prefer to read stories that are historically accurate or do you only want a romantic story that skims over all the not so glamorous aspects of life years ago?

When E. Ayers isn't busy writing, she's often doing photography. She'll be away from her desk most of the May 23 with her camera, but she's promised to respond to everyone as soon as she returns that evening. 

Her historical western A Rancher's Woman has been added to a Native American encyclopedia and is a USA Today Recommended Read. It is available in e-form and in paper. You can visit with her on her blog. Her westerns are sweeter than her contemporary stories but nothing is ever extremely hot. She writes down the middle.

8 comments:

Rose Anderson said...

I agree. Research often takes a story to creative places and makes for a fun read. Best luck for your soon-to-be A Rancher's Dream. I'm looking forward to book 2!

Thanks for joining us today. :)

Cara Marsi said...

Loved your blog. I agree research is important. I love research myself too. I hope that when I read historical fiction, it's accurate. Good to know yours are. I look forward to reading them.

E. Ayers said...

Thanks, Rose. I'm thrilled about this next book, A Rancher's Dream. Tiago is a very different sort of hero for me and Ingrid is probably the most intense female character that I've ever written. There's no way I could do the things that she has done.But the women who settled the west had to be strong.

E. Ayers said...

No matter what is written, there's always room for error, but Roberta Gellis raised the bar with her books. So many authors today are researching for accuracy but not all. Much of my research has left me surprised, because I thought something existed sooner or later.

But there are still many authors who feel as though historical novels are still all about the dresses and unfortunately that is what they write. Yes, the clothing is interesting, but so are all the other things. But I promise those gals back then weren't milking cows in their corsets! Life was tough and they had to be tougher.

Thanks for stopping, Cara.

Judy Baker said...

I never considered research a dirty little word - I actually enjoy research and have to remind myself to stop and write my story! Thanks for sharing in an interesting post.

jean hart stewart said...

Fascinating and I hope readers who haven't yet read you know now how hard you work. I research carefully too, but I'm impressed with difficult some of your searches must be. Mine is easier (mostly on Regency) but accuracy is sometimes difficult. Thanks for your blog.

E. Ayers said...

Oh, Judy, getting lost in research happens quite often. Some things are fascinating and it's very easy to get sidetracked.

E. Ayers said...

Jean, it's been an interesting "journey" because there's not much written about the people who settled in the west. And I'm often dealing with Indian tribes and they had no written history. I'm keep searching for the things that can be applied. But in all honesty, people never really change. Circumstances change, but people have always had the same basic needs and desires.

Take a look at today's kitchens. We all want those super kitchens. Back then a woman would drool over that "new" stove. So find the "new" stoves in the 1800's. If you are washing on a washboard, that new wringer washing machine looks fabulous!

A Rancher's Dream had me searching for brickyards. I finally gave up! They existed in big cities and even small towns, but I couldn't find one even remotely close to where I imagine Creed's Crossing would be located. I also couldn't find one in Cheyenne or in Laramie! I suspect Laramie probably had one. So to avoid a problem, my hero merely ordered the brick from the city, I didn't name which city. But I spent so much time on brickyards that I learned all sorts of things about bricks, clay, and so many other things they made while "baking" bricks. I'll probably never use more than a smidgeon of that research.

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