Wednesday, March 06, 2013


One of the best things about writing historical fiction is the research…especially if it involves going somewhere. Last week my husband and I took a trip to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden, Colorado. I’ve wanted to go since visiting a similar museum a few years ago: the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento. And while the Colorado museum came up lacking for indoor exhibits,  it had a yard full of trains and train cars dating from the late 1800’s up to present. Great fun walking around to see them and helpful people in the museum office and library!

On this trip, I was specifically interested in the Toilets. Odd, but when you need to put an eleven-year-old and her cat inside one, it’s pretty important you have an idea of how much room she has to maneuver in. I already knew that the toilet itself, flushed onto the tracks…thus the helpful advice of “Do not flush while in the station.” But the surprise was how relatively recently this practice changed. If I remember correctly, the man from the museum said it was in the 1960’s. That doesn't seem that long ago to me.

The car I walked through to check this out was actually a standard gauge Midland Terminal passenger car, but sure enough, the ground was right below.

 Not much else in the small room…a very ornate coat hook and a few other fixtures. No sink, but outside there was a metal water “cooler” with a push button spigot. Across from the “Toilet” was the coal burning stove…the only source of heat for passengers on a winter trip, and ornate lights hung from the ceiling, which from what I learned so far were fed by kerosene.  

To get a better idea of the insides of an actual narrow gauge passenger car, I went exploring. These cars were closed to the public, but by climbing the steep steps, I could look down the aisles at the lighting, hat racks, and seating. The narrow gauge cars were a little less fancy than the Midland car I walked through, with bench seats instead of individual adjustable seats.  There was one restroom and one wood stove at either end of the car. These were labeled Mujeres: "Women" and Hombres: "Gentlemen." I wondered where this car had been.

It was helpful to know ahead of time that most 
passenger cars for the smaller Colorado lines were made by the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, which is what this car and the two other Narrow Gauge cars I looked at were labeled. I was specifically looking for information on the Florence and Cripple Creek Railroad, but through reading discovered that for the first years of operation, they leased cards from the Denver and Rio Grande. Bingo. If not a D&RG car, then likely the Florence and Cripple Creek cars were made by them and should be fairly similar in structure and inside components.

When I write historical fiction, I want to be as close as possible to the actual time period I’m writing about so  that the details are accurate and ring true. It’s not always possible to get exact, but as one historical fiction writer that I heard speak said is that if you can find evidence that it was probable, then you are OK…writing fiction, that is.

I’m still in the process of reading more on this subject and a couple others that came up during the draft of my new book set in Cripple Creek. I try to check multiple sources and come up with the best fit. Even browsing antique stores turns up some interesting tidbits, like the antique collapsible camping cup I recently ran across.

 I had to stuff my hands in pockets to keep from shelling out the three dollars to buy it. (These things can add up.)

Angel Self:  “This item isn't in the book.”
Devil Self:   “It might be in the next book.  ou know, I was thinking about a camping scene with Pa and Miss Sternum.”
Angel Self:  “Then when you write that book, you can come back and see if the cup’s still here.”

Left arm yanks right arm out the door.

In spite of a library and extensive web search, I've already purchased two railroad books.

 That’s enough. (For now.)

Nancy Oswald taught for more than twenty years in one room and two room schools in Canada, and more recently, in a K-12 school in rural Colorado. She lives with her husband, dogs, cats, cows, goats, and chickens on a family ranch in Cotopaxi, Colorado. Her Colorado-based historical fiction books include “Nothing Here But Stones,” ased on the Jewish colony in Cotopaxi in 1882; “Hard Face Moon,” based on the events leading up to and through the Sand Creek Massacre; and her most recent book about the adventures of Ruby and her donkey, Maude, in 1896 Cripple Creek, Colorado. Nancy's books have won both the WILLA and the Colorado Independent Publishers Evvy Award, and have been finalists for the Colorado Book Awards and the Western Writers of America Spur Awards.


Renaissance Women said...

Love this piece of history that you shared. Such fun, and I love the
Angel and Devil dialogue. Rings true in my life also.

joyce4books said...

Love your focus on trains, and sharing your visit to a great museum in Golden. This is a complex topic with a rich history which can be take many turns and spins, whether standard or narrow gauge! Someday, I hope to write fiction. For now, "probably" is not in my lexicon! Bummer. Thanks for a great blog-Joyce said...

Great post, Nancy! Loved the history.

Unknown said...

Thanks Joyce, Dori, and Erin. And thanks to Susan for getting WWW blogs out to everyone.

I love the historical research that goes with the writing...always some new detail to sniff out or discover.