Today, I welcome Michael L. Ross, author of The Search, book II of his series Across the Great Divide. His post reflects on the challenges of seeking oral sources for history, eliminating historical bias, and bridging a cultural divide.
Historical fiction is an unusual type of writing, because many events, and even characters are already determined. There is a basic timeline for the story that can’t change. Most writers of history do mountains of research to make their work as authentic as possible, true to the culture, times, known facts, and people.
Research means delving into the internet, written archives, libraries, diaries and newspapers, and possibly visiting the places of the events. But what if there isn’t much written down? What if there isn’t much left to see? Authors concerned with ancient history often encounter this problem, but it can be equally true when writing about more modern but not literate societies.
In writing my most recent novel, The Search, I follow my main character Will Crump from the ashes of the Civil War to the high country of Wyoming and Montana, in the period 1865-1868. Suffering from what was then known as “soldier’s heart”, Will follows the trail of immigrants west, searching for peace – and runs into the middle of Red Cloud’s War. Along the way, he acquires a companion, Huwei or Dove, a young Shoshone woman, a survivor of the Bear Creek Massacre.
Though the novel is half the length of The Clouds of War, the first in the Across the Great Divide series, it took nearly twice as long to write. Tracking down information about the Shoshone, Sioux, Arapaho, and Crow tribes is daunting, and means consulting oral sources. The written documents are often slanted to the white or Army point of view. When you are forced to deal with oral history for research, grabbing scraps from various people, it can be quite difficult to construct an accurate world view.
For example, one primary written source is Francis Carrington’s book, My Army Life. While informative, Mrs. Carrington had a vested interest in protecting her husband, Colonel Henry Carrington, and his reputation following the Fetterman fight. Since there were no survivors, her arguments were persuasive, but suspect.
I constantly ran into roadblocks, due to Native Americans’ understandable reluctance to discuss their history and culture with a white person. I read Red Cloud’s Autobiography, The White Indian Boy (first person account of a boy who lived with Chief Washakie of the Eastern Shoshone), biographies of Jim Bridger, material from Idaho State University that told about Shoshone culture, and countless pioneer diaries. I even got a little help from Drusilla, a Shoshone who consulted on Hollywood movies – but she retired, and quit answering questions. There were still huge gaps in the knowledge of the Shoshone way of life and customs. Finally, I found Darren Parry, modern day Chairman and “Chief” of the Northwestern Shoshone Band, on Twitter.
Darren was mounting a run for Congress in Utah’s first district, and was willing to meet with me. His ancestors were the victims of the Bear River Massacre, the largest US Army massacre of Native Americans in history – and which is barely mentioned in most history books. Darren had written a non-fiction book on the Bear River Massacre, and when we met, he gave me a personal tour of the massacre site – the real one, not the one marked by the National Park Service. The tribe is raising money and applying legal pressure to acquire the site. The current owner cannot farm it without encountering human remains.
Darren said that as a boy, his grandmother made him memorize all the stories of their tribe. He had to repeat them word perfect before he was allowed to play. The stories, language, and customs were passed down through six generations, each learning them perfectly. For me, he patiently answered question after question on history, culture, dealings with other tribes, dealings with the soldiers – especially Patrick Conner and the California volunteers. I checked what he told me with Drusilla, and the few written historical sources like Sergeant Beach’s diary that provided a map of the Bear River massacre.
Not all research can come from books – sometimes people are the books. Darren and I forged a friendship, one that reaches Across the Great Divide.
This is fascinating, Mike. As board members for the HNS North America 2021 conference, Mike and I have gotten to know one another this past year. Mike’s writing routine includes getting up once or twice a week around 3am to get some work done! Congratulations on your series, Mike, and best wishes for The Search.
The Search by Michael L. Ross ~~ The guns of the Civil War have ceased firing, and the shots are but an echo… yet the war rages on deep inside Will Crump’s soul. His soldier’s heart is searching for peace, and in that quest Will joins the westward movement, setting his path on a collision course with adventure, loss and love.
The Westward Expansion floods the sacred, untouched lands with immigrants bringing conflict to the Shoshone, Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho. Amidst the chaos Will finds safety in the shadow of the US Army, but the army brings battle-hardened troops into Red Cloud’s War, pulling Will into a tornado of conflict. Broken treaties and promises, leave both sides searching for answers. Will’s search leads him to a battle for survival, and there he finds a love that could change him forever.
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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, Nook, Kobo, Google Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.