Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Endless Adventure of Research for the Historical Novelist by Michelle Black, Guest Blogger

According to her website, Michelle Black was "born in Kansas and studied anthropology in college, then went on to law school where she graduated with honors. In 1993, she moved to Colorado and began to focus on her fiction writing."

"In 2008, she spent several weeks in India and was privileged to study with her favorite Buddhist writer and foremost proponent of secular Buddhism, Stephen Batchelor."

Those are just two tidbits from Michelle's bio that I found interesting. You can read more at her website.

Welcome, Michelle.

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The Endless Adventure of Research for the Historical Novelist by Michelle Black, Guest Blogger


I have written six historical novels, the most recent of which, Seance in Sepia, will debut on October 21. They all have one thing in common for me: each required research that led me into new areas of life that I never saw coming.

My first novel, Never Come Down, took place in an old mining boom town-turned-ghost town in the Colorado Rockies. Of course, I turned to history books and old newspapers, but the real joy for me was hiking with my two small sons to local ghost towns. We lived in Frisco, Colorado, at that time, elevation 9,100 feet, and we were surrounded by what was known as the Ten Mile Mining District. The mountains were pocked with abandoned mines and mining towns whose fortunes had played out a century earlier. We all know the phrase, “If walls could talk....” Well, the ruins of those old towns practically sung with stories of their rise and fall.

Research for An Uncommon Enemy, my novel about the aftermath of the Washita Massacre, when troops of the Seventh Cavalry, led by George Armstrong Custer, attacked a sleeping Cheyenne village in 1868, caused me to search for a Cheyenne-English dictionary. When local bookstores and even Amazon.com had none to offer, I broadened my search and eventually located a linguist on the Northern Cheyenne reservation in Montana who had put together a beginning course in the Cheyenne language.

I ordered the course and was fascinated by the voice on the tapes, that of the late Cheyenne elder, Ted Risingson (who happened to be a grandson of the great Cheyenne leader Dull Knife—for those of you who might be familiar with Cheyenne history, or who have at least read Mari Sandoz’s amazing Cheyenne Autumn).

The linguist was producing the course himself out of the local Kinkos, but I thought the material deserved a much wider distribution. I owned a bookstore in Frisco at this time and so was very familiar with the wholesale book market. I approached the linguist and offered to professionally publish and distribute the course. He was reluctant at first to deal with a stranger, so I traveled to Lame Deer, Montana, and visited the reservation to meet with him personally. Soon I was able to publish “Let’s Talk Cheyenne” and make it available to libraries and bookstore outlets all over the country.

The experience was an amazing education for me and I feel proud to have contributed. in some small way, to the preservation of our rapidly disappearing Native languages.

My research adventure for Seance in Sepia took me all the way to London, though the story is not set there. The novel begins in the present day when a young woman buys an antique “spirit photograph” at an estate sale. The Victorians were obsessed with the occult and some photographers of that era claimed they could photograph the dearly departed during séances.

When the spirit photograph’s origins seem linked to a notorious 1875 murder trial, my historical protagonist, Victoria Woodhull, enters the story. Woodhull was a real person who, in addition to being the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency, was also a spiritualist. This was a lucrative career for a woman of that time period and widely respected. Spiritualists had their own trade organizations and even held national conventions.

Woodhull was also an outspoken advocate for Free Love, which earned her so much public scorn, she eventually left the United States and headed for England. There she married a wealthy banker and lived out the remainder of her very long life as the “lady of the manor” in the English countryside (proving, I hope, that living well is the best revenge).

I began to correspond with a descendant of her banker husband who had inherited all her personal papers. When he learned that my family and I would soon be visiting London, he invited us to dinner at his elegant Chelsea townhouse on Tite Street, just a few doors down from where Oscar Wilde once lived.

A memorable evening, to be sure, and one which reminds me how much my writing career continues to broaden my outlook and life experience.

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Thank you so much for this guest post, Michelle. You have a wonderful range of experiences to write about, so I'm guessing we'll have many more books from you in the future.

Learn more about Michelle and her novels at The Victorian West of Michelle Black as well as her blog of the same title. The first two chapters of Seance in Sepia are available here. You may also follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

8 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Pat - Thanks for hosting Michelle.

Michelle - Thanks for sharing your journey of research. You've certainly had some amazing experiences. I was especially interested in your experience learning Cheyenne. I'm a linguist and I find the language learning process fascinating. I'm glad you did what you could to make that language more available. I wish you much success!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hiking up to those mining towns must;ve been fun!

John Paul McKinney said...

Thanks, Pat, for bringing Michelle to us. Thanks, Michelle, for an interesting glimpse into your fascinating journey. I guess being open to new experiences is essential for the successful writer.

Michelle Black said...

Margot, Alex, John--Thank you for reading my post. I do enjoy research--I sometimes think it is my primary motivation to write. :D

Dean K Miller said...

This is not only "the" life of a writer, but a well lived life for anyone of any profession. Travel, learning, immersion in diverse cultures...I don't want to be like Mike, I want to be like Michelle.

My "to read" list growing again...and these might get a chance to take cuts in line!

thanks Pat...you pull in some of the most interesting authors!

Michelle Black said...

Dear Dean
Thank you for such a wonderful compliment!

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Michelle and Pat,

First, I love the title of your novel. I enjoy historical mysteries with a touch of the paranormal. Your research seems impeccable. Definitely a must read novel.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline Seewald
THE TRUTH SLEUTH

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Patricia and Michelle - what an interesting post with so much stimulating information. Michelle - it must be 'great fun' doing what you do .. and your background must be so helpful.

Wandering the mines in Colorado absorbing ancient ways, finding and helping restore (with a language book) a Cheyenne connection with the past, and then your London story .. fascinating ..

Loved reading this - thanks so much - cheers Hilary