Historical fiction brings to the reader adventure, romance, and courage. It entertains and educates us at the same time. History books give us the facts, but historical fiction helps us to understand history in a special way. Leon Garfield said, "The historian, if honest, gives us a photograph; the storyteller gives us a painting."
Research is an important part of writing. Learn everything you can about the area your story takes place, the time period, historical facts you would like to add, and to make the setting feel real. If possible, go to the area you want to write about, walk around, and look at the historical buildings. If you can’t travel there, find pictures of that area, study books at the library or search the Internet. Description is very important in a story. Paint a picture like an artist, describing what you see and feel. Make the scenery believable by describing the crunching of pine needles beneath your feet or allow the reader to smell the pine trees in the forest.
After much research I found that Bear Lake Valley had a lot of intriguing history between 1896 and 1925, so I turned my book into a series of five novels called “A Family Saga in Bear Lake, Idaho.” In my research, I found that cattle rustling was a terrible problem in the West. I also learned that a ten-foot grizzly bear by the name of Old Ephraim roamed the mountains of Cache Valley and Bear Lake Valley, wreaking havoc everywhere he went. I learned that the Bear Lake Monster is an old Indian legend, and part of Bear Lake history even today. Many accounts were written about it, testifying to its reality. I also found out that women had to fight for the rights of equality. A woman was not encouraged to go to college or become anything more than a teacher or a nurse. She could not bob her hair or raise her hemlines without the threat of being fired from her job. When doing research, it makes the book come to life and it’s so much fun to imagine what things must have been like as we learn more about history.
I put a great deal of research into my novels. The subplot of Jenny’s Dream is about Old Ephraim, the ten-foot grizzly bear. The research about this old grizzly was exciting to me because I grew up with the stories of Old Ephraim. He wreaked havoc wherever he went, slaughtering sheep and scaring sheepherders so badly that they actually quit their jobs. With one blow of his paw, he could break the back of a cow. I found that he was the smartest bear that ever roamed the Rocky Mountains. No one could catch him. Every bear trap they set was tossed many yards away from where they had put it, and the ones that weren’t tripped had Old Three Toes tracks all around it. He was too smart to be caught. It took one man to outsmart this bear: Frank Clark from Malad, Idaho! In this story, I included every detail about this bear and his deeds. Since my story is historical fiction and my hero is Gilbert Roberts, I renamed this grizzly “Old Half Paw,” in honor of “Old Three Toes.”
In my research for David and the Bear Lake Monster, I found that people still believe in this old Indian legend. The mystery of the Bear Lake Monster has been an exciting part of Idaho history ever since the early pioneers. Some people claimed to have seen it and gave descriptions of it. The monster’s eyes were flaming red and its ears stuck out from the sides of its skinny head. Its body was long, resembling a gigantic alligator, and it could swim faster than a galloping horse. Of course, it only came out in the evening or at dusk.
A man by the name of Johnson was riding his horse alongside the shoreline when he saw an object floating in the water. At first, it looked like a man’s body and he thought that someone had drowned so he trotted his horse closer. When the water didn’t wash the body ashore, he figured it must have been a tree that was anchored to the bottom of the lake with its roots still in tact. As he watched the object, he said it opened a gigantic mouth and it blew water from its mouth and nose. Is it fact or fiction? Whatever conclusion is drawn, this Indian legend still lives on and brings a great deal of mystery and excitement to the community.
Throughout the years, no one has ever disproved the Bear Lake Monster. A bunch of scientists tried to discredit the monster and said it was a huge codfish that was shipped in from the East but could not prove this theory.
Another important part of research is finding out how people react to certain situations. It can be difficult, however, for an author to know exactly how the character feels unless he or she had been in a similar situation, and that’s where research comes in. You must read about other people’s accounts, so you can adequately describe your character’s feelings. In my novel, Melinda and the Wild West, Melinda is faced with danger when she startles a grizzly in the wild. How did she feel when the grizzly growled and began to lunge toward her? The author must show how Melinda felt, describe her quickening pulse, rather than simply say she was frightened. After much research, this was how Melinda’s experience turned out:
“Melinda heard an irritated grunt as the grizzly raised its head and saw her standing off in the distance. The grizzly snarled with anger as if warning her to leave. Then, almost immediately, it let out a hideous growl and leapt clumsily toward her. Its enormous jaws were spread wide and its eyes were flashing fire. She had never seen anything so frightening in her life. Fear overtook her and Melinda could not retain adequate presence of mind. Her chest tightened and her face drained as she tried to catch her breath. She panicked and quickly turned and ran as fast as she could go. Her heart was pounding rapidly with each step she took. She felt as if she were running in slow motion. Surely this was a dream. No, it was more like a nightmare. Suddenly, to her horror, she lost her balance as she tripped over a rock and fell face down on the ground in a cushion of soft weeds and mud. Melinda screamed. She had never seen such a hideous sight before and she became paralyzed with fear. The feeling of terror that rose in her throat made it hard to breathe and she began to shake uncontrollably.”
I didn’t “tell” the reader about an incident, but I helped the reader connect to the emotion and understand what the character feels. Research is an important part of writing. Remember: “The storyteller gives us a painting."