Why Writing Historical Fiction Is So Much Fun
By Carolyn Neithammer
While readers can learn a great deal from historical fiction, the genre is even more of a treat for writers. What a great opportunity to dive deeply into all sorts of handwritten manuscripts and forgotten books to search out the perfect gem that will bring our characters alive.
My novel The Piano Player features two female characters making their way in the turn-of-the-century West. The story begins in 1882 Tombstone, a small town in Arizona Territory that served the nearby ranchers and silver miners. I wanted my readers to smell the dust that the horses kicked up, to feel the heat of an Arizona summer, experience what it was like for a single woman to live in a dusty frontier town full of men. To steep myself in what it was like for these women, I read every extant copy of The Tombstone Epitaph the newspaper of the day. The original copies are too fragile for much handling, so I scrolled through microfilm.
Gunfights are the first thing that comes to mind regarding Tombstone history, but in fact there were very few. What people don’t know was that Tombstone at that time had the best food between St. Louis and San Francisco. The menus published in the paper confirmed the fact that French food ruled with offerings of fresh oysters, lobster, six salads, five roasts, four different pies and three puddings all at one restaurant on one Sunday. Because one of my characters, the historic Nellie Cashman owned the renowned Russ House, the food she cooked figures prominently in the novel.
Since stagecoach travel was still common during that period where the railroads didn’t reach, I had to try that myself in Tombstone and wherever else I could find an old stage operating. It might have been a little touristy, and just going around the block in no way approximated what it would have been like to have been stuffed into one day after sweltering day, but it was great fun.
The second character, the piano player of the title, is Mary Rose, a fashionable young woman who needed to support herself and found a job playing the piano at the Bird Cage Theater. We learn the story through her “memoir.” Discovering what might be in her wardrobe led to an enjoyable afternoon in the historical society library looking over old ladies’ magazines with pictures and descriptions of bustles and bows and laces. Then there were the fabulous hats. And that was just the outerwear. The under garments were even more fascinating calling for layer upon layer of fine batiste and corsets with whalebone and laces.
Nellie Cashman had mining interests in Alaska and Yukon Territory where the second half of the novel takes place. I visited a friend in Fairbanks and went to look at the old mining records. Down in a locked cage in the courthouse basement, in huge dust-covered books no one had looked at in decades, I found my character’s signature when she signed for her claims. Here was her actual handwriting. A chill went down my back. Did it ultimately make a difference to what I wrote about her? Probably not, but it sure was fun.
After leaving Fairbanks, I took a bus east across Alaska to Dawson City, and out to Nolan Creek
When I was a young newspaper reporter, I used to tell people that I liked the job because it gave me a license to be nosy. With writing historical fiction, it’s the same thing except dialed back a hundred years. Now all this research has been woven into The Piano Player in which well-bred Mary Rose follows her dream to Tombstone and quickly discovers that her sheltered life has not prepared her for the challenges of being a saloon piano player. She becomes Frisco Rosie and finds help comes from her landlady, Nellie Cashman, who runs the boarding house where she lives. It is an unlikely friendship. Years after each has left Tombstone, they join up again to seek their fortunes during the Alaska gold rush. Together they deal with a lover who turns out to be a murderer, imprisonment in a Mexican jail, near death falling into the icy Yukon River and disappointment when their quest for gold is dashed. They postpone romance with the men who love them until for one, it becomes too late.
Apparently I managed to use my research to evoke the era as one reader wrote in a review: “The main character in The Piano Player is the wild West itself….”
More About the Author
www.cniethammer.com and on Facebook.
(sorry, no twitter. My blog deals with Southwest food and is related to my earlier works, haven’t got one started on the Old West yet.)