On one of my jaunts to explore local Texas history I stopped at the Heritage Village Museum in Woodville, Texas. From the outside I could see some old historic buildings. However, the inside of the museum and the exhibits which walked me through life in east Texas during the nineteenth and early twentieth century surprised me. From the 1920’s homemade still to the 1830’s copper bathtub in the back of the barbershop, the exhibits took the visitor through a walk back in time. Curators deftly created a rather complete town that distilled overlap of the time and technologies throughout the century and half history of the region.
Various building such as the candle makers lodge, the spinning and weaving building, and the large pole barn are used for demonstrations, special events, and weekend activities celebrated in Woodville. But the other buildings were provided the visitor with a close-up acquaintance with the realities of early town life. Just a smattering of the thirty-eight buildings include a turn-of-the century newspaper office with the complete press set-up, nineteenth century doctor and dentist offices, a seamstress shop which operated from 1875 to 1885, the obligatory one room school house, an 1866 family cabin, a railroad depot from 1890, a real post office taken from Pluck, Texas, and a chair factory which produced furniture until 1964.
Two of the most interesting parts of the exhibit were the buggy barn and the tool shed. Standing next to each of the twenty-two vehicles housed in the barn made me very glad I didn’t have to shinny up into the seats to ride into town on the dirt and rutted roads. The tool shed housed a great deal of hand tools used for woodworking and construction of buildings and furniture. The adjacent industrial area housed a fascinating human-powered leather sewing used to make or repair harnesses, bridles, and work on the upholstery for carriages and wagons.
I recommend to anyone interested in the nineteenth century history and artifacts take a trip to the Heritage Village Museum in Woodville, Texas and spend a day. www.heritage-village.org (409) 283-2272
I majored in History twice in college. Yes, one bachelor’s degree wasn’t enough, so I went back and got a second. In the pursuit of that second degree, I was blessed to take hands-down the best History class ever: Historiography. For those who don’t know, Historiography is the history of how history has been recorded. The more historical romance novels I write, the more important I realize the whole concept of historiography is to us. (more…)
I remember a comment a friend of mine made after reading a very inaccurate historical novel. She said there ought to be a rule that you can’t write a historical novel unless you’ve been camping at least once. I think she might have a point.
One of the goals of the historical writer is to bring the past alive for those in the present. You can do all the research in the world into the history, politics, customs, costumes, etc. And an imagination is a great thing, but the more ‘hands on’ experience you’ve had the better I think your story will be. Experience, even a little, can help you add the details that will make your scene come alive.
So, my advice is, if you’re lucky enough to have the chance to do so, live a little in the past. The experience will do wonders for your imagination and help with the details that will make your historicals come alive.
For example, your western heroine is cooking over an open campfire. Think about how and what you would write in this scene. What would she do, feel?
(pause for thinking – come on, really think about it for a moment)
OK, now that you’ve thought about it, did you have her feel the heat on her face? The breeze will blow smoke in her eyes no matter where she stands and she’ll have to watch out for her skirt tails as she squats. And that night, her hair will smell of smoke when the hero hugs her.
Trust me, I’ve cooked many a meal over an open fire. We did a lot of camping with the Scouts with our boys as my husband was the Scout Master. I know what it’s like to heat water and then take a bath in a bucket. (Makes you appreciate the shower, let me tell you). And you know all those cowboys sitting around the campfire drinking coffee out of tin cups – you know how hot those cups can get when you pour hot coffee into them (ouch!).
In one of my western ms. I have the hero teach the heroine (from back East) how to ride a horse. Just to make sure I got a good feel for those scenes, and how long it might take to learn to ride as much as I needed her to ride for later in the story, I took riding lessons.
I can now brush, bridle and saddle a horse, and of course tell it to go where I want him to go, not just around and around the corral. Lots of fun, and I figure if an old lady like me can learn to be fairly proficient, the my hero, who is not only great with horses, but a great teacher, can teach the heroine to ride well enough and soon enough to fit my ms.
I’m always amazed at the way some historical heroines run up and down steps in long skirts. I don’t know about you, but when I’ve worn long skirts/dresses, I have to pick up the hem to go up and down stairs. And you haven’t lived until you try wearing a hoop skirt a la Scarlett O’Hara. There is a real skill to maneuvering and sitting while wearing a hoop skirt. I only did this once when I was very young, but I remember wearing the hoop skirt and sitting down without thinking first. And so I sat on the back of the hoops – a mistake, as the front of the skirt came up and hit me in the face. Fortunately this was not in public.
And I can imagine that those American colonial women, or any 18th Century lady with panniers had to turn sideways to get through a door way (think of Grace Kelly’s costume in the masked ball scene of To Catch A Thief). Unfortunately, I’ve never danced at a Regency ball, but would if I was writing Regency.
I know as a Campfire Girl in my youth, and going through Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts with our sons, I’ve cooked over an open fire, made soap, made adobe bricks, dipped candles, made cornshuck dolls, churned butter, chopped wood, etc.
I’ve been lucky enough to come from a large mid-western family with a great oral tradition, so as a child I heard stories of my ancestors. In Kentucky Green, when the heroine churns butter, I have her say the rhyme that my grandmother said when she was a little girl and had the job of churning the family butter.
Experience can make facts you find in research books come alive for you. I’ve known that spiral stairways in medieval castles spiral up counter-clockwise. This is so the person going up (an attacker) has his right/sword arm against the wall, and the person going down (the defender) will have his sword arm unencumbered by the spiral.
My husband and I had the wonderful experience of touring several English castles one summer, and I had just finished explaining this right hand/left hand business to him as we started up a staircase in Bodiam Castle. Now just knowing why the stairs are as they are is totally different from us going up one of those staircases — and meeting another tourist coming down swinging an imaginary sword as he’s explaining to his wife why the stairs are that way!
I notice a lot of medieval heroines are experts with herbs/healing. But how often do we actually see/feel/smell them digging in the dirt tending to the herbs? I admit I do very little gardening, but the earthy, moist smell of the garden, the texture of the soil, the dirt on your hands and knees, the smell of a garden after a rain or the smell of a garden on a hot, dry afternoon — all this should be in the text if you have a scene where the heroine’s in the garden.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel through most of the US, either going to visit grandparents as a child, or following my military husband from duty station to duty station. My story for Colorado Silver, Colorado Gold came from the setting, as I was always struck by the clean, high mountain beauty of Durango each time we went through there. And my visit to the Molly Brown house in Denver gave me not only the feel of houses of the period, but useful information for this story.
We may be able to walk up castle staircases or plant some flowers. And if you have the chance to do any of the everyday tasks we expect our historic heroines to do, then I strongly urge you to do so.
Living in the past can be a lot of fun (especially when after a few days you can come home and have a nice hot shower), and it can only help you bring your historical novel alive for the reader.
A short list of some of the places I’ve been that will take you back in time.
http://www.logcabinvillage.org/ Log Cabin Village in Ft. Worth, TX
http://www.nps.gov/york/planyourvisit/hours.htm Yorktown Battlefield, VA
http://www.historyisfun.org/Jamestown-Settlement.htm Jamestown Settlement, VA
http://www.julianca.com/historic_sites/index.htm Julian, CA a gold rush town
http://www.oldtownsandiegoguide.com/history.html Old Town San Diego, CA
http://www.okhistory.org/mwp/index.htm Museum of the Western Prairies, Altus, OK
http://www.williamsburg.com/ Colonial Williamsburg, VA
http://www.mountvernon.org/ Mount Vernon, VA
http://www.nps.gov/mima/ Minuteman National Park, Lexington & Concord, MA
http://www.chicagohs.org/ Chicago Historical Society, IL
http://www.nps.gov/casa Castillo de San Marcos, St. Augustine, FL
http://www.mollybrown.org/ Molly Brown House, Denver, CO
Two things happened last week that prompted this blog. There was a discussion on our loop about the lack of history knowledge in today’s students, and I watched one of my favorite movies. The movie was Red River (1948), a western staring John Wayne and Montgomery Cliff. As a history professor tried to make history real for my students, and one of the ways I did this was to show the first twenty minutes of this film for a discussion of the westward moment in America history.
For those of you who haven’t seen the film, here’s a brief summary of what the students saw. Thomas Dunstan (John Wayne) and his friend (Walter Brennan) are on a wagon train west before the Civil War, 1851 when they pull their wagon out of line and head south to Texas to start a ranch.
Wagon Master: You can’t leave, you signed on.
\Dunstan: I signed nothing, if I had I’d stay say, no I didn’t, I joined the train after you left St. Louis. (He keeps looking over his shoulder down the line of wagons).
Wagon Master: But there are signs of Indians #1. The Comanche’s are welcome to you, but not your bull and cow, we need the beginning of herds in California. #2
Dunstan: I’m starting my own herd.
As they start to leave, the girl Dunstan has fallen in love with wants to go with them.
Dunstan: I decided last night.
Girl: I have too, I want to go with you.
Dunstan: I’ll send for you
Girl: I know you have work to do, Tom. I want to be part of it. I love you.
Dunstan: It’s too much for a woman.
She pleads with him, but he says no.
Dunstan: I’ve made up my mind. I’ll send for you. Will you come?
Girl: Of course I’ll come. #3
But Dunstan says he has work to do, and he’ll send for her when he gets the ranch set up. So Dunstan and his friend head south.
Dunstan and his friends, reach Texas, and in the middle of nowhere, they stop, brand their bull and cow to start their ranch.
Dunstan: This is it, good water and grass.
Garth (as a boy): Who this belong to?
To me. Someday this will all be covered with good beef
At this point two Mexican arrive from the south.
Mexican: Where do you travel
Dunstan: No where
Mexican: You may remain here on Don Diego’s land. You are welcome for day, a week, a year
Dunstan: Are you Diego?
Mexican: No senior
Dunstan: Where is he?
Mexican: At his home across the river, 600 kilometers south
Groot: How far is that?
Dunstan: About 400 miles
Groot: That’s too much land for one man. Why it ain’t decent. All this land aching to be used. It ain’t decent, I tell you.
Mexican: But it is for Don Diego to decide.
Dunstan: Where did he get the land
Mexican: In grant from the king of all the Spains
Dunstan: Took it away from those who were here first. Indians maybe. Well, I’m taking it away from him. #4
This is essentially the prologue to the rest of the movie which deals with the first cattle drive north after the Civil War. And, of course, there is a romantic element that comes into the story.
One of the things I tried to teach was critical thinking. After seeing this part of the film, I’d asks question as to what they’d seen. What might have been incorrect? What did you learn about the lives of the people of the time?
Here are some of the things I pointed out to the class (from the numbers above).
#1 – Indian attacks on wagons trains were not common before the Civil War, as the wagon trains were just traversing the Great Plains. Indians attacks happen mostly during and after the Civil Was as the Indians realized the people were planning on staying on the land.
#2 – they didn’t need cattle in California. The Spanish had brought cattle, and they multiplied until they were killed for hides and tallow. Hides went back to New England to make into shoes.
#3 At this point I asked the women in the class to think about this scenario – This man is the love of your life, you go on the Oregon. How long are you going to wait for him to send for you? A year? Two years? Forever? Eventually marry someone else and hope you don’t hear from him? For the men this is the scenario – This woman is the love of your life, and you’ve made a success of your ranch. How are you going to send for her? How are you going to send a letter or massager? Go yourself? Where is Oregon are you going to look? Say the heck with it and marry whoever’s available?
#4 this film (in addition to being a good movie –OK I admit it’s one of my favorites) has a good example of Manifest Destiny (you remember that from you history classes, right?). Land belongs to those who can utilize it.
Have you ever seen a movie (or read a book) that made history come alive for you? I hope I made my students think about who we are and where we come from that has shaped up into who we are today. And I think that what, in some way, all of us who write historical novels do – tell today’s readers about the past and make it come alive.
Being we are close to Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d do a post on falling in love western style.
Despite Victorian mores, marriage and courting in the Wild West was a good deal less formal than the overarching norms of the period. This had much to do with the scarcity of women in the West, at least in the early period before the Civil War. After the Civil War, the female population increased somewhat as more adventurous women rode west, mainly in search of men to marry since the War Between the States had decimated the population of young men in the East and Southeast. Of course, women still made up a smaller part of the western population even in 1890 with the West reporting 41% of its population as female while in the total United States females made up 49% of the population.
Surprisingly, the marriage age was later for women in the West, perhaps because they could be choosier about whom they married and had a few more career options that allowed for independence, such as teaching and running boarding houses and stores, than their eastern sisters. The 1890 census reported 35% of men and 36% of females as married in the total United States while the Western Region reported only 30% of the male population married and 39% of western females as married.