…and why it matters.
I’m still researching Seattle history for my next book, The Wolf Tree, trudging through Thomas Prosch’s bone-dry but fact-filled Chronological History of Seattle from 1850 to 1897. I’m up to 1871, which is within spitting distance to my target of 1874.
Some people might say this is a bit over-the-top for what is essentially a secondary story line in a mainstream/non-genre novel, and I’ll admit, I do have a tendency to over-research.
But you know what? That’s just tough. Deal with it, peeps. I won’t apologize or change.
A couple of weeks ago, messages came in from my readers, all telling me about a recent episode of the A&E series “Longmire.” I’d watched the first season of the series (mostly for a little more “Starbuck” time), but the hiatus between seasons 1 and 2 was long, and it dropped off my radar. And so it was a surprise when these messages came in, all saying the same thing.
“There’s a Contrary on ‘Longmire,’ and I knew what he was because of your books!”
“Longmire” is set in Wyoming, and the Cheyenne people figure prominently in the sheriff’s life and duties. In the episode “Tell It Slant” there’s a character who is a Contrary Warrior. In The Year the Cloud Fell (Book I of my Fallen Cloud Saga), the character of Laughs Like a Woman is also a Contrary, and several readers were excited to see (and understand) this fascinating aspect of Cheyenne culture.
Admittedly, my first reaction was surprise at the amount of crossover between my books and “Longmire,” but it was also very gratifying to have all the research and detail that went into those Fallen Cloud books come full circle. I did months of research on Cheyenne history and culture before I began that series, and did months more for the subsequent books. Cultural elements like the Contrary Warrior and the Man Becoming Woman added depth, interest, and realism to my cast of characters. Tiny details like the lodge openings always facing east–and the symbolism of that fact–built up the story of the Cheyenne throughout the Saga. It was a lot of work, but the books are better for them (IMO).
So, now, as I research the first 25 years of Seattle history, writing down notes about population and the price of a barrel of flour, knowing I won’t use even half of these details, I keep going.
Already, I’ve learned enough about the time period to realize that I have to either radically change this secondary story line, or set my book earlier in the city’s history. I’m not writing fantasy here; I’m not going to make things up to suit my story. I can’t pretend that, in 1874, Seattle wasn’t a busy little town with shipbuilders and shops and coal mines and all sorts of employment for a sullen, embittered young man.
Now, would most readers know it if I cobbled together an inaccurate setting for 1874 Seattle? Probably not. Nor would it detract from their enjoyment, mostly. Some would know, though (and oh, would they complain), but more to the point, I would know.
If I’m going to use history, I’m going to leave it as close to “as is” condition as possible. I’m not going to cherry-pick the best bits to suit my needs, tossing them together in an olio of disparate facts. There’s enough of that in Hollywood and in fiction–hell, there’s enough of that in modern journalism–and it’s just not what I want to do.
I don’t want some reader in the future to see a documentary or historical show set in Seattle and tsk when they remember my book. I want them to smile as they see those details–the Skid Road, the regrades, the Occidental Hotel, or the battle of the box-house bands at Yesler’s Corner–and remember that in The Wolf Tree, it was just like that.
Whether I hear about it or not, I want that possibility to exist.