Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Perils of Pondering...

When I start a new story, I generally write the first two or three chapters, trying to get a feel for my characters and why they do whatever they do. Once I hit a stopping point I then go back and start filling in things like clothing, weapons, foods, whatever is called for.

When you're writing something that might vaguely be classified as historical, there are certain pitfalls to this method. The blame of part of the pitfalls for me can be squarely placed on the very sketchy bit of cultural history we learned in school. Actually, since I went to school during the sixties, I suppose it's a miracle that any ethnic group other than whites was even mentioned. Most of the ethnic education we got, we learned from movies. And we all know how accurate that source is.

So in the last few days I've learned all sorts of interesting new facts. For me, some of them opened entirely new vistas of learning. One of the simplest was the fruit of a conversation with a fellow writer. She discussed the differences between the society woman on the Eastern coast of America and the frontier woman. One of the examples she used was the apron.

When I was growing up, aprons were a rockbed staple of kitchen life. Television moms wore aprons. Movie moms wore aprons. Any woman in any kitchen wore an apron.

But on the frontier an apron would have been a luxury item. Fabric was not easily come by. And there were many other items fabric would be earmarked for. So having a precious piece of fabric tied up in an apron was not likely. Frequently a woman would have only two dresses. One in the laundry and one on the body--if she was lucky. Every scrap of fabric was saved, reused, reworked until it literally fell apart. And one of the other pieces of clothing that wasn't around was underwear. If she was very, very lucky she might have a shift...the all purpose slip and nightie.

When I started looking at the reality of frontier life, my entire story changed. And with those changes I began pondering the likelihood of other things I'd blithely written into my narrative.

If I write the expression Native American warrior I suspect many of you would envision Daniel Day Lewis from the Last of the Mohicans or Rodney Grant (yummy, yummy) from Dances with Wolves. Well, I'm sure some of them looked like that. But the warriors from other tribes looked very different. And in the case of the tribe and time period I chose, the warriors looked nothing like either Mr. Lewis or Mr. Grant.


Another writer friend suggested switching tribes or time periods. And I considered that for...about five minutes. And then I decided this will be my strike against stereotypes. So I'm going to go with my original choice and see if it doesn't make the story richer and more colorful. Perhaps my character, James will be more than a cardboard Indian.

Enter the rifle. From the very beginning of colonization, firearms were coveted by the natives. Frequently, the promise of weapons was the inducement behind native tribes taking one side or the other in the white man's wars. I saw nothing wrong with my hero having a rifle. Really. How could that go wrong?

Well, for one thing...rifles were barely around in 1830. Certainly they weren't plentiful on the frontier. So reality check. Exactly what manner of man was my Native American hero and how likely was he to have a rifle...new technology? And if he has it, how do I account for that?

There are other problems. Foods. For whatever reason, I had the idea that corn was a southwestern staple. No... And the houses my tribe lived in? They were wrong. Horses? Maybe. Maybe not.

My vision of frontier life in 1830 has certainly changed. If nothing else, I've learned not to make assumptions based on what I was taught in school. And that made all the research worth it.



  1. Wow, Anny, great post! You've really got me thinking about the importance of research and being true to the time period a story is set in.

  2. You've raised some excellent points, and I think your story will be all the richer for it. Yes, it will be harder to write certain aspects, but you'll pull it off.

  3. This research sounds fun! I have a big Native American obsession and my great grandmother was one - Mary Cornwoman.

  4. Me, too. He's just not the hero of my book... :-)