Writers in the Storm

A blog about writing

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September 25, 2020

The Journey of Writing Historical Fiction

By Ellen Buikema

Writing historical fiction begins with a base of facts that sit atop the whisper of a story. As a child, my mom told me stories about her mother, who was adopted by a rather strange, superstitious woman with a daughter of her own. Mom also mentioned that Grandma’s older brother and sister escaped from the orphanage and ran away with the help of hobos, eventually finding their way from the Midwest to the West Coast. Only three years old, Grandma was too young to run with her siblings. Her older sister and brother were eleven and seven. It must have been terrifying for all of them.

For The Hobo Code I started with my mother's stories, then added the information I gathered from genealogical studies, interviews  (phone, email, text, as well as in person), Google Earth images, YouTube videos, Pinterest photos, and document searches.

Research assistance can come from unexpected sources.

My uncle spent much of his retirement either on the golf course or on his computer working on genealogy for several branches of the family. He sent me the data which I eventually used in my story.

Poring through his files, I learned my great grandmother's street address in Wausau, Wisconsin, the cause and date of her death, and where she was buried. I also found a marriage certificate for my great aunt showing she married in Los Angeles, California. The Hobo Code grew out of all this information, using historically accurate locations and cultures from Wausau to Los Angeles, and the train stops in between.

Since I was unable to travel the route myself, I made liberal use of Google Earth to check for train tracks, waterways, state lines, cities, and train stations. Finding and following those train tracks was a bit tedious, but accuracy is important. In one scene my protagonist spots hobos atop a train passing by the cemetery where their mother had just been buried. Google Earth images, combined with a phone interview with a retired railroad worker, allowed me to be sure of the setting’s validity.

On this writing journey, one conversation led to another.

Nothing pushes the research for a historical novel forward like live conversations.

When I lived in Arizona, a delightful group of miniature railroad hobbyists—actually more obsessors—had a club housed not far from my home. During the drafting of The Hobo Code, I stopped by the club to chat. I left with a few books and several suggestions for internet searches, and the telephone number of a gentleman who used to work on the railroad in Chicago.

That man is now the General Manager for the Union Pacific Historical Society. The amount of information he can call to mind in an instant is astounding. He helped me determine the probable route taken considering the years of travel and the start and end points.

LA Railway System. Found on Pinterest

Once I was firm on the story’s direction, I contacted a lot of resources:

  • 6 libraries
  • 5 historical societies
  • 2 historical museums
  • The owner of a bar in Wausau, Wisconsin.

Everyone I spoke with was happy to join in the fun. The bar was the Glass Hat, previously known as the Langsdorf Saloon, in Wausau, WI and the owner is Gisela Marks. The bar is directly across the river from my protagonist’s family home and the father in my story frequented the saloon.

Gisela and I discussed the bar’s history at length and it was incredibly helpful. In one scene, I wanted to have music playing and considered either a piano or accordion. During our conversation, I learned that she found a box from an upright piano in the basement when she inherited the bar from her parents. So my scene has the father accompanying a piano player.

Tin ceiling attributed to Gisela Marks

Details like this help make the history of your novel come alive. For example, the bar owner saved photos of the original ceiling tiles as she’d considered restoring them. Those images were integral in setting my scene. To fifteen-year-old Jack, my main protagonist, those tiles made him feel that someone was watching him from that ceiling.

You can't use everything.

For example, the gangster John Dillinger frequented the Langsdorf Saloon and was once saved from capture by an employee. This would have been wonderful to include. Alas, my story begins in 1905 when Dillinger was a young child making this a fascinating but unusable fact for this story.

I grew up hearing about the Wild West, thinking it was mostly tall tales.

I was wrong. Here are some fascinating examples.

The Burnt District of Omaha, Nebraska, was an area of downtown where most of the city's brothels were located. Estimates placed the number of sex workers at over 1,600. The brothels had large windows through which potential customers could gawk at the acts going on within.

Hidden behind respectable businesses lurked Electric Alley, Ogden, Utah’s red-light district, known for its opium dens and brothels.  Dora B. Topham, “Belle London,” was Ogden’s most notorious madam. She used the London Ice Cream Parlor as a front for one of her bordellos, located on the upper level. Running a brothel was one of the few business opportunities open to women at the time. The residents of Electric Alley were evicted in 1912, but illegal activities continued there into the 1950’s.

The London Ice Cream Parlor building still stands. You can buy ice cream and sandwiches there while being haunted by the ghosts of day’s past.

Final Thoughts

Although the research for a historical novel is time consuming, I enjoyed every minute of it. The Hobo Code became a journey for me, even as it followed my characters across a large part of the United States. They met fascinating people along the way, and so did I!

When you read historical fiction, what do you hope to find? Do you feel it’s important to use historical figures or does that not matter? What is your favorite historical time period to read about?

* * * * * *

About Ellen

Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Work In Progress, The Hobo Code, is YA historical fiction.

Find her at http://ellenbuikema.com or on Amazon.

Top photo found on Pinterest

14 comments on “The Journey of Writing Historical Fiction”

  1. You've taken a fascinating journey! I love historical writing as well, and have written nonfiction tales...I'm embarking on my first historical fiction and loving the process. My problem is the time period isn't one I might find "interviewees" to help shape the story--mine takes place in 15th C. Flanders 😉

  2. Hi Claire! Yes, it's been an interesting journey. Wouldn't it be handy to be able to travel through time?! What is your story about?

  3. You have a fascinating family history. The best part of writing historical fiction is the research and all the rabbit holes it takes you down. Your book sounds wonderful!

    1. Thank you, Laurie! I love this story and wish I could have met my great aunt and uncle, who actually made the trek. I can only imagine how frightening that all must have been.

      Every now and then I'd see a side note from my editor stating that I was showing my research. There were so many cool things I wanted to include, but they didn't carry the plot along.

  4. I've always loved history, so when I was ready to write my first novel, I set it in 1905 during the week leading up to the Great Quake and Firestorm that destroyed most of San Francisco. I was inspired during a trip there...especially Nob Hill and Chinatown. It became the first of a California-based historical-romance series. Then last summer I chaperoned a high-school trip to Japan. Had no intention of being inspired to write a novel set there. By the time we pulled out of Hiroshima on the Bullet Train I was outlining a novel set the week before the bomb was dropped. See a pattern? History can spoon-feed us amazing black moments to wrap our stories around...but not just the historical moment. It's all about how our characters react to and grow despite horrific circumstances. The challenge I face is that, as I said earlier, I LOVE history. So I gladly slide down endless rabbit holes, researching and learning way too much. But, like you, it's those firsthand accounts that add richness and reality to our fictional takes on the past. Thanks for your post today. Here's how I describe my love of history to people...and it might work for you as well. I don't live in the past, but the past certainly lives in me.

    1. Brilliant way to describe your love of history, Christopher.

      Those rabbit holes run deep! Thankfully I didn't get too lost. There are so many interesting twists and turns to follow.

      The next manuscript has me chasing after information on espionage. I am hoping the search engine doesn't flag trouble. Thank goodness for the wonderful writers that populate the pages of this blog! I'm reading bios of spies gleaned from Piper Bayard and Jay Holmes, invaluable information.

  5. It was a joy to watch you go through this journey of discovery, Ellen. I think I got almost as excited as you did with each new piece of history you dug up. The pictorial language of the hobos was a real eye opener for me.

    Even if you're not writing historical fiction this kind of research can be interesting and helpful. While writing Cold Karma I had to do a lot of research for the character of Nestor Yazzi. It took me deep into the history of the Navajo culture and the Navajo Code Talkers. So much of what I learned never made it into the book but was still important when it came to understanding and writing the character.

    1. You were there when I transitioned from writing books for children to this very dark YA novel. What a bumpy beginning that was!

      I am overly tempted to include more of what I learned while researching than is needed, and love those rabbit holes far too much.

      The Karma series is awesome. Nestor Yazzi is such an interesting character. I look forward to this next series.

  6. I always hope an author has woven some researched information into the story. I don't mind artistic license, but I love when it fits the time period and makes sense. I prefer the contemporary idioms, expressions, and words are not used, though some are older than we realize--some things just don't belong.


  7. Thank you for sharing the journey through your history, Ellen. I know there are fascinating stories in my own family. The saddest thing is when those stories aren't shared, and end up being lost. We have been blessed enough to have many of our family members record their lives on tape, which we have digitized. My own grandfather, who fought in three wars did this, and I can't wait to listen to them. I have more than a few stories I need to dig out!

    1. How wonderful that your family recorded their history. There is so much I wish I knew.

      I understand some of my great uncles were good tellers. They told stories about the Irish Banshee that were so frightening that my father, a teen at the time, was too scared to go out at night.

      1. Hi! I think those horror stories of the wilds, the woods, and the night served an important purpose - it discouraged kids from wandering off and ending up in real danger.

        John Douglas, Behavior Profiler for the FBI, has also observed that when people came across the horrific crime scenes left by serial killers or any kind of killer, they couldn't imagine that a human being in their own community was responsible, so they came up with monsters.

        Those monster stories warned people about a very real danger without describing exactly what was going on, probably because they didn't know, themselves.

        As for the Banshee, if you've ever heard a Barn Owl screech at night, especially if you're walking at night, it sounds like you'd imagine a demon or witch would sound (though you'd think that anyone living close to nature would know what that screech was).

  8. Your book sounds interesting, and the journey you went on for back up literature sounds like an adventure in itself, as well as your family's history. 🙂

    1. Thank you! I began knowing the starting and ending locations, and then filled in the possibilities in between. There are many people who helped me with locations along the route, once I determined what that probably was. Writing this novel was an enormous learning opportunity.

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