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