History Hoydens


Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

09 August 2007

Researching The Northern Devil . . .

Or, Living Historians and Reenactors Are Your Friends

The Northern Devil is my fourth Devil book – and my fourth book set in a time period over a hundred years ago, when the only ways to move around involved either shoe leather, horses, or trains.

Now I like to think I understand walking reasonably well. But I admit I’m aided by living in Virginia, where it sometimes seems you can’t go more than fifteen minutes without encountering a Civil War battlefield populated by folks marching around in woolen 1860s uniforms on sunny August days. There were rules of thumb back in 1873 for how far people could travel on foot in one day and reenactors are very happy to share their knowledge, God bless them. They have a very active online community, including websites, mailing lists, etc.

Unfortunately, traveling on foot wasn’t highly favored in 1871 Arizona, the location of The Irish Devil, my first Devil book. Back then, a fellow could get scalped if he went more than a mile or two from the nearest bit of white man’s civilization. Any sort of rapid retreat obviously called for horses. While I love anything related to those big four-footed beasties, I’m hideously allergic to grasses, especially those commonly found in hay – which makes it very difficult for me to go near a barn. How could I learn enough to write intelligently about horses? Well, I first did a lot of reading and then I tracked down. . . That’s right: some more reenactors!

If you want to write western historicals, you need to talk to people who can speak with strong feeling about the horrors of the McClellan saddle. If you’re especially lucky, you’ll find somebody who can explain to you exactly why men particularly loathe that abomination.

By then, I was feeling reasonably comfortable about moving my characters around using either two feet or four.

But what about trains? How could one be forced to stop, such as a scene in The Southern Devil needed? Where are the passenger cars located, in relation to the locomotive? How is a passenger car laid out? All of this is fundamental knowledge but 1872 trains are very, very hard to find now. The technology changed for good in the late 1880s and almost everything made earlier has been destroyed.

I could find no working examples from the period within a six-hour drive. It was difficult enough finding an explanation of how steam engines worked which non-mechanical me could understand. (That’s when I reconsidered figuring out how to sabotage one and started thinking bribery was a better explanation for any unexpected halt.) I did know there were two 1869 locomotives at Promontory Point, just outside Salt Lake City in Utah, honoring the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. But when would I ever see them in person?

Finally I stumbled across a wonderful group of British locomotive enthusiasts whose idea of a thrilling vacation was working on an ancient steam railroad and taking tons of pictures. They went to China’s most remote corner, the marvelous fellows, and posted pictures of every step needed to take that locomotive through its day. The local Chinese clearly thought those Brits were crazy as loons but I saw them as angels. Those snapshots took me through writing The Southern Devil’s train holdup.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough to get me through The Northern Devil, much of which takes place during a train racing across the United States. I needed to be able to walk that train in my sleep, the way any modern writer can tell her way around an airliner. To know how it was boarded, where the crew sat, how it was refueled, how the other passengers were fed and housed…

Then my family suddenly decided to hold a big reunion in Idaho. Now there aren’t that many airports offering discount fares close-by but one of them was – Salt Lake City. That’s right: Salt Lake City, home of those marvelous, reproduction 1869 locomotives! I whooped for joy! Okay, I was very glad to attend the family reunion but I admit I scheduled my flights around the demonstrations at Promontory Point.

I arrived at Promontory Point just in time to see a locomotive come around the bend, traveling on the same tracks laid over a century ago and its whistle echoing over the same landscape. What can I say about the different smells of the wood and coal? I introduced myself as a writer and was permitted to spend all the time I wished looking at those two beautiful trains. The railroad historian, who’d helped build them and was now the engineer, spent a long time talking to me, as did his assistant and the park ranger. I went through the very extensive bookstore with the senior bookseller, looking for first-hand accounts. All of them freely shared with me the little details of life back in 1872, when transcontinental rail travel was just being established.

And The Northern Devil’s world came to life for me.

As I said before: living historians and reenactors are your friend.

Diane Whiteside


Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

>>you can’t go more than fifteen minutes without encountering a Civil War battlefield populated by folks marching around in woolen 1860s uniforms on sunny August days. <<

GAH! Diane, you just gave me the heebie-jeebies!

Color me ignorant. What's up with the McClellan saddle? Can you tell us more?

And I apologize for having gone missing for a few days! Debut week plus mother visiting!

1:42 PM  
Anonymous diane whiteside said...

Hi, Victoria! Hey, some of the really brave fellows wear authentic 1860s undies underneath those woolen uniforms, which are made of wool! I'm always in awe.

But they'll talk to you for hours about the shirts, shoes, boots, soap, lanterns, tents - anything and everything.

Even the horses are accurately equipped. I once happened across a picket line of about 2 dozen horses, half-hidden between a grove of trees and a meadow, overlooking a small stream. It felt as if time had stopped.

You can tour reenactors' camps and smell how life was lived back then. Woodsmoke, of course, but also the genuine food.

McClellan saddles were invented by the general of the same name and were shaped for the horse's comfort, at least underneath. They're generally considered an instrument of the devil because they were wooden to save on weight and cost, as I understand. However, they were made in two panels with a gap running down the center - right where a man's delicate bits tend to dangle (or bounce?) while he's riding. Without any leather padding on the saddle to protect a fellow's anatomy, it was only a matter of time until... Well, the worst happened.

However, those saddles lasted forever. They were standard-issue Army into this century and you could still find them in everyday use as Army surplus a few decades ago.

Reenactors are full of the most amazing information!

5:51 PM  
Blogger Victoria Dahl said...

Oh, my God! More heebie-jeebies!


I'd never heard of that. Thank you so much for the info, Diane! Amazing! And horrifying! *g*

6:10 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

My husband and I just toured some of the old mining towns in Colorado, taking the spectacular ride through the mountain passes on the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, the only remaing narrow gauge RR in America that is still operating. The route began in the 1870s to carry materials to and from the mining towns, but it soon became a passenger train. We rode in a restored parlor car from the 1880s, and it was a magical experience that really taught me a lot about how the railroads functioned then. I was so unfamiliar with that whole world and its history, being an East-coaster. I'm SO glad that you're getting American-set historicals published. It makes me nuts that publishers fear that American readers don't care to time travel through their own history!

P.S. I am thrilled to be back online after nearly a month of spotty (or nonexistent) internet access (between 2 weeks of vacation, then having my computer crash the day after I returned home. I'm finally up to speed on a brand new machine).

7:55 AM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Wow Diane!! So fascinating! I too was going to ask about that saddle and now I understand! I often share parts of this site for my hubby so he could see some historical info I find here. Ouch!

I'd love to go some day to a place that re-creates history as you see around Virginia and the like. Maybe there is something within a drives trip.

Welcome back Amanda!

4:08 PM  
Blogger Caffey said...

Diane, I too wanted to say that I absolutely love westerns and so looking forward to getting your new one. I heard too you working now on the next one? If you answered below, just ignore me, I'm reading backwards :)

4:09 PM  

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