The value of historical research in writing fiction

I’ve described Proving Her Claim as “historically accurate.” The novel itself is historical fiction, but I relied heavily on non-fiction research in the process.

A statistic sparked the story: 42% of women homesteaders proved their claims, while only 37% of men successfully proved their claims. The premise for the novel was “Why did a higher percentage of women succeed?”

To answer that question, I reached back to my B.A. in History from South Dakota State University, where I focused on 19th Century History of the United States. Proving Her Claim is set in post-Civil War America when so much was changing in our country. The Homestead Act of 1862 impacted where and how people lived. The pioneers’ interactions with indigenous cultures and the appropriation of their lands continue to shape our history today.

But a simple Bachelor of Arts degree isn’t enough to create a realistic universe for fictional characters. As many authors do, I spent hours (and hours) researching the lives of homesteaders.

And, in order to present an historically accurate account, I also researched a multitude of other details. I learned about cheesemaking, Norwegian rosemaling, Lakota language, Norwegian language, and random facts about post-Civil war bank robbers.

For some of that research, I relied on the Internet, of course. (What did writers do before Google?) But, I also collected dozens and dozens of non-fiction books. Books such as Land of the Burnt Thigh and Land In Her Own Name were invaluable in shaping my understanding of the lives of women homesteaders. As I continued to write, I’d ask myself “what would Anna wear for this occasion?” or “what was the popular music during this era?” or “what idioms were commonly used?” And I was off to do more research.

In addition, I found academic white papers to be very valuable. Professor Hannah Haksgaard’s paper, “Including Unmarried Women in the Homestead Act of 1862” was a fascinating look at how women became landowners. (Did my history geek just peek out?)

For my next book, I’ve added a book on military history of the Civil War to my resource list.

There’s a saying that research is how authors avoid writing. It’s true.