By Lyn Horner
I write western historical romances, and I love researching the Old West. However, while my readers want to be swept away to another era, they’re not after a history lesson.
It’s my job to subtly weave in historical details. Today, I’ll give you some tips on how to do that, including examples from my books.
1. Let readers experience history through your characters’ five senses.
In real life we can describe our surroundings through what we see, hear, smell, touch and sometimes taste. Your characters should do the same.
When writing Darlin’ Druid (Texas Druids, Vol. I) I researched Omaha, Nebraska, and the city’s Union Pacific Station, ca. 1872. I collected train schedules and information about the station and its setting, along with descriptions of passengers and the town itself. My two main characters reveal these historical details from different points of view.
Example: Chapter one of Darlin’ Druid opens with the exterior setting and a few historic tidbits in the hero’s POV:
Outside Omaha’s Union Pacific Station, Captain David Taylor awaited the westbound train. Tired of the wait, he paced to a corner of the building, crossed his arms and leaned back against the yellow frame wall. This new depot was a far cry from the rickety old Riverside Station he’d passed through some years ago, he mused. Built on landfill, the new structure stood near the Missouri River Bridge, which had recently replaced the slow ferry service David recalled with distaste.
Admiring the bridge, he did his best to ignore the passengers and baggage crowding the station platform.
Later, after David meets the heroine, Jessie Devlin, we see how she views the setting:
With a sigh, she eyed the crowd on the platform. It was a mixed group. There were settlers with children in tow and all their worldly goods heaped around them. Others, well-dressed easterners, might be journeying west for business purposes, Jessie supposed, or simply to see the land in all its glory. She also saw buckskinned westerners, going home perhaps.
And . . .
She made a face, recalling what her tourists’ guide had to say about Omaha. Since the completion of the Union Pacific Railroad three years ago, the river port had grown into a frontier city, which the guide touted as the “Gateway to the West.” Well, as far as Jessie could see, the gateway city consisted mainly of saloons, gambling dens and brothels. After three days here, spent in a cheap, vermin infested hotel, waiting for seats on the westbound train, she could hardly wait to see the last of the place.
From these few paragraphs, readers get a picture of the raucous frontier city, the crowded train station, and travelers who rode the country’s first transcontinental railroad.
2. Use historical settings to provoke emotions.
Often, something we see, hear, smell, etc., touches off strong emotions within us. This can also happen to your characters. It’s a great way to present a unique historical setting, and it offers an opportunity for conflict between characters.
Example: During their journey west, David, Jessie and her brother Tye cross Wyoming’s DaleCreek bridge. This bridge wasn’t terribly high by today’s standards, but in its time it was taller than most buildings. And Jessie is afraid of heights:
Beside her, Tye was on his feet, craning his neck to see. “Bejaysus! It has to be over a hundred feet down! What a job it must have been building the thing!”
Jessie heard a rushing noise, spots danced before her eyes, and the world began to spin around her. Then someone was shaking her, hard. With an effort, she managed to focus her eyes and saw David leaning forward, gripping her arm. He wore an oddly concerned frown, she noticed absently as the rushing noise in her ears began to recede.
“Don’t look down!” he barked.
“Let go,” she mumbled, resenting his high-handedness even in her feeble state. She made a weak attempt to pull free, but he only shook her harder.
“Lean back and close your eyes,” he ordered sternly.
Not strong enough to argue, she obeyed his directive, and he released her. Tye said no more about the bridge, thank heaven.
3. Deliver history in dialogue.
Example: Dashing Druid (Texas Druids, Vol. II — Tye Devlin’s story) includes a cattle drive up the Chisholm Trail. Here, the trail boss debates crossing the flooded Red River. His scout’s report reminds him of an actual tragic event:
Del nodded grimly. “How many other herds did you see?”
“Two wait to cross,” Jack replied as Chic handed him a plate of beans. “Another will get there a day before us.”
“Damn. And a bunch behind us. Sure hope it don’t end up like back in ’71. I trailed west that spring, sold to an outfit over on the Pecos, but I heard tell Big Red was a mile wide.” Del glanced at his segundo. “Weren’t you in that godawful stampede, Neil?”
“Aye, and a horror it was. Sixty thousand steers all runnin’ like the devil was after them. That’s how many were bedded near the Station at the time. Shanghai Pierce warned the other bosses ta move their herds back, but they wouldna listen. They feared losin’ their turn at the crossing.”
Del grunted derisively. “Durn fools.”
“Exactly. A few nights later, one herd stampeded and before ye knew it, they were all up and on the run. Took ten days ta sort them out, and I canna tell ye how many were killed or crippled.”
4. Use historical settings to expand your plot.
Example: I read about a place along the Chisholm Trail called Panther Creek. Later, an elderly gentleman, whose father lived during the trail drive era, showed me the real Panther Creek. Excited to think big cats once roamed there, threatening cowboys and cattle alike, I decided to build a sequence of scenes around that setting:
“Listen up,” Del barked a moment later. “Most of you know this place. For those that don’t . . .” His steely eyes pinned Tye briefly. “. . . it’s called Panther Creek. And there’s a good reason for that. The cats have caused stampedes here before.”
He looked at each of them in turn. “I don’t want that happening to us, ’specially with other outfits nearby. So we’re gonna ride double shifts tonight and every night ’til we move on.”
Three nights later, as Tye rides night guard . . .
The panther had screamed a couple times earlier, but he’d sounded farther away. He was getting too close for comfort now. Along with the other night guards, Tye attempted to calm the cattle, not an easy task when he was on edge himself.
Glancing at the stars, he judged it nearly time to head for his bedroll. Three nights of double guard duty had left him dog tired, but the panther’s presence overrode his need for sleep.
He stiffened in his saddle when another blood-curdling cry rang out, sounding dangerously close. Dozens of cattle scrambled to their feet, almost ready to run.
“Stop your racket, ye devil,” Tye muttered. Figuring he was closer to the troublemaker than anyone else, he made a quick decision. Not giving himself time to reconsider, he swung the grulla toward where he thought the shriek had come from, certain the panther wouldn’t attack him. He’d seen the creatures down along the Nueces and back in Colorado. They must roam all over the West. Lions, some miners called them. Despite their fearsome cry, they usually ran off when a man approached.
He’d drawn near to a rocky outcrop when a long, shadowy shape detached itself from the rocks and took off running with a snarl. Startled for a second, Tye kneed his horse after the predator to make sure it kept going. Oddly, the cat appeared to limp, but it still outran them for a good ways. Then it stumbled to a halt, whirled around and shrieked.
The grulla stopped so short, Tye nearly catapulted over its head. Before he could regain his balance, the horse neighed in terror and reared. Losing his grip, Tye tumbled from the saddle and hit the ground hard, knocking the breath out of him. He lay there for a few seconds, fighting to breathe while the horse galloped off. Then he started to sit up . . . and froze.
Not ten feet away, he saw the dark form of the panther.
5. Write historical figure(s) into a scene.
Example: In Dearest Druid (Texas Druids, Vol. III – planned release March, 2013) the main characters meet the man who actually commanded Fort Sill, Indian Territory (OK) in the spring of 1876:
Slim and middling tall, the youngish looking man was far from imposing, but Jack knew him to be a ruthless Indian fighter. He’d defeated the Comanche, Kiowa and Southern Cheyenne in what whites called the Battle of Palo Duro Canyon, burning lodges and winter food supplies and ordering more than a thousand Indian ponies shot. Left afoot and starving, the tribes had been forced onto reservations.
The commander nodded at Jack and gave Rose a smile. “Col. Ranald Mackenzie, ma’am. May I ask your name?”
“Aye. ’Tis Rose, Rose Devlin, sir,” she said, fingering the cross at her throat, a habit Jack had noticed before, whenever she was nervous.
“I’m pleased to meet you, Miss Devlin. I understand you need my assistance.”
“Aye, sir, we must go to Jack’s mother. She’s very ill and perhaps I can help her, but I won’t know until we get there, and –”
“Whoa, slow down,” Mackenzie said, holding up his good hand, keeping the other with its two missing fingers – the reason Indians called him “Bad Hand” – behind his back. He aimed a piercing look at Jack. “What’s this about your mother, LaFarge?”
“I got word a few days ago that she’s near death.”
“Sorry to hear that, but I suspect I’d rather not know how you found out.” When Jack didn’t respond – he wasn’t about to admit Tsoia had jumped the reservation to bring him the bad news – Mackenzie turned to Rose again. “May I ask why you think you can save the woman, Miss Devlin?”
I hope you find some of these techniques helpful.
How do YOU create historical settings without sounding like a history professor?What sorts of historical details do you love to see? Is there a particular era that interests you?
About Lyn Horner: