Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Why Writing Historical Fiction Is So Much Fun

 by Carolyn Niethammer

While readers can learn a great deal from historical fiction, it’s even more of a treat for writers.. For my novel The Piano Player, I read The Tombstone Epitaph on microfilm to learn what life was like in that dusty frontier town in the 1880s. It is said that Tombstone at that time had the best food between St. Louis and San Francisco, and the menus published in the paper confirmed that fact with offerings of  fresh oysters, lobster, six salads, five roasts, four different pies and three puddings all at one restaurant on one Sunday.

Researching what a fashionable young woman might wear led to an enjoyable afternoon in the historical society library looking over old ladies’ magazines with pictures and descriptions of bustles and bows and laces. Then there were the fabulous hats. The under garments were even more fascinating, calling for layer upon layer of fine batiste and corsets with whalebone and laces.

One of my characters, the real life Nellie Cashman, had mining interests in Alaska and Yukon Territory, so I went to Fairbanks to look at the old mining records. Down in a locked cage in the courthouse basement, in huge dust-covered books, I found Nellie’s signature when she signed for her claims. Seeing her actual handwriting sent a chill down my back. Did it ultimately make a difference to what I wrote about her? Probably not, but it sure was fun.

Next I went to Dawson City in the Yukon, and out to Nolan Creek where Nellie Cashman mined. When I figured out approximately where her claim was, I sat on a rock and willed her spirit to speak to me, to help me make her character come alive. Alas, no appearance from the other side with guidance on my project.

Stories have been told about the founder of the Arizona Historical Society and how she would attend funerals of the old-timers, accosting their relatives for diaries or memoirs. She was considered brazen, but she did collect an astounding amount of material that gives great insight into Arizona life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Reading those fading typescripts, now carefully preserved in acid-free folders, were windows into lives both mundane and exciting.

Now all this research has been woven into my novel The Piano Player. Well-bred Mary Rose follows her dream to Tombstone and quickly discovers that she is not prepared for the challenges of being a piano player in the Bird Cage Theater. Help comes from her landlady, Nellie Cashman, proprietor of The Russ House. It is an unlikely friendship. Years after each has left Tombstone, they join up again to seek their fortunes during the Alaska gold rush. Together they deal with a lover who turns out to be a murderer, imprisonment in a Mexican jail, near death falling into the icy Yukon River and disappointment when their quest for gold is dashed. They postpone romance with the men who love them until for one, it becomes too late.
               You can find The Piano Player at 
Carolyn Niethammer grew up in the territorial capital of Prescott, Arizona and now lives in Tucson in a downtown historic district. She is the author of nine nonfiction books on southwestern subjects including five cookbooks and two biographies. The Piano Player is her first novel. Find her at 


Arletta Dawdy said...

I can picture you sitting on that rock waiting for Nellie to deliver! Thanks for sharing the diverse ways you did the research for this lovely novel.

judy said...

Carolyn: Your research journey shows your zest for not just reading about your heroines but feeling, touching, smelling, hearing, seeing the real things that surrounded them. I am a Zoni too and just joined the Southwest Genealogical Society with hopes to expand my knowledge base for some of my upcoming WIP characters. Thanks for the inspiration.