Thursday, October 23, 2014

Guest Post: Researching Historical Fiction--Can it Really Be Done?

I'm thrilled to host author Martha Conway as she promotes her latest book, Thieving Forest, through WOW! Blog Tours. Writing historical fiction is a topic that has always fascinated (and if I'm to be honest, intimidated me) as a writer, so I was excited when Martha agreed to write a guest post on the topic for my humble little blog. You can check out a fun interview with Martha at The Muffin, along with a list of her blog tour dates and giveaways for her book.

About Thieving Forest: 

On a humid day in June 1806, on the edge of Ohio's Great Black Swamp, seventeen-year-old Susanna Quiner watches from behind a maple tree as a band of Potawatomi Indians kidnaps her four older sisters from their cabin. With both her parents dead from Swamp Fever and all the other settlers out in their fields, Susanna makes the rash decision to pursue them herself. What follows is a young woman's quest to find her sisters, and the parallel story of her sisters' new lives.

 The frontier wilderness that Susanna must cross in order to find her sisters is filled with dangers, but Susanna, armed with superstition and belief in her own good luck, sets out with a naive optimism. Over the next five months, Susanna tans hides in a Moravian missionary village; escapes down a river with a young native girl; discovers an eccentric white woman raising chickens in the middle of the Great Black Swamp; suffers from snakebite and near starvation; steals elk meat from wolves; and becomes a servant in a Native American village. The vast Great Black Swamp near Toledo, Ohio, which was once nearly the size of Connecticut, proves a formidable enemy. But help comes from unlikely characters, both Native American and white.

Both a quest tale and a tale of personal transformations, Thieving Forest follows five pioneer women and one man as they contend with starvation, slavery, betrayal, and love. It paints a startling new picture of life in frontier Ohio with its mix of European and Native American communities, along with compelling descriptions of their daily lives. Fast-paced, richly detailed, with a panoramic view of cultures and people, this is a story of a bygone era sure to enthrall and delight.

About Martha Conway: 

Martha Conway’s first novel 12 Bliss Street (St. Martin’s Minotaur) was nominated for an Edgar Award, and her short fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, The Mississippi Review, The Quarterly, Folio, Puerto del Sol, Carolina Quarterly, and other publications. She graduated from Vassar College and received her master’s degree in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. She has reviewed fiction for the San Francisco Chronicle, The San Francisco Review of Books, and The Iowa Review. The recipient of a California Arts Council fellowship in Creative Writing, she has taught at UC Berkeley Extension and Stanford University’s Online Writers’ Studio. Visit for more information.

Researching Historical Fiction: Can it Really Be Done? 
By Martha Conway

There’s something about the term Historical Fiction that still seems like an oxymoron to me. Yes, it’s set in the past, and part of the pleasure is transporting yourself to another, long-ago world, but it’s also fiction, so it doesn’t have to be entirely true.

Does it?

When I was doing research for my historical novel, THIEVING FOREST, I tried very hard to be accurate about many things: what a Potawatomi man might wear for his “everyday” clothes, what a Wyandot woman would do to prepare food for winter, how settlers would grind grain if there was no mill yet, and so on. But the biggest stumbling block, I found, came from nature. Which is crazy, because northwest Ohio, where the novel takes place, still exists.

In a way. Part of the reason I chose northwest Ohio was because I was intrigued by a huge swath of land called the Great Black Swamp. I’m from Ohio, and I had never heard of it before, partly because it pretty much no longer exists except for a few state parks. So how do I describe land that no longer exists, and that was, by all accounts, uninhabitable, which means there are no essays or journal entries (or at least very few) about it?

I was drawn to the Great Black Swamp for the very reason I had such a hard time researching it: it was unknown, it was thought to be unknowable, and I wanted a place where my character could get lost. And I did my due diligence: I walked through a few of the state parks and forests that still remained. But my experience was vastly different from what my protagonist’s would have been.

The trails were neatly marked, and the trees and bushes trimmed. The ponds and lakes didn’t bleed into the surrounding marshland but seemed very contained. My protagonist, Susanna, would not have been able to see where she was going because of the tall cattails. If the sun was hidden, she would have had a difficult time distinguishing the points of the compass.

It was no longer a wilderness.

I looked at some pictures of the Great Black Swamp, and I read the few journal entries that I could find about it, and then I had an idea.

I looked at swamps in South America.

Okay, swamps in South America are going to be vastly different than swamps in northwest Ohio, but what I wanted was the feel of being in a swamp. And I had a hard time visualizing that until I found places that indeed were true wildernesses and not state parks. (Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE that the state parks exist, and for myself I’m happy walking along the tidy trails!) When I got on the internet and found pictures of people canoeing along narrow rivulets in Brazil with dark foliage hanging overhead, or trying to set up camp in a marshy stretch of land, I found what I was looking for.

And in a way this experience symbolizes what I feel about historical fiction: you research the time and the place and the people, and then you find creative ways to make your story seem more true.

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