I love the research aspect of writing stories set in unfamiliar times and places. Maybe this stems from my life-long goal to know something about as many things as possible.
Stormy Hawkins unfolds on a 19th century cattle ranch in southeast South Dakota. I live on a farm in northcentral Minnesota, so I had a leg up on some essential aspects of the story. I’ve driven through both North and South Dakota with a husband who provides running commentary about the geological and agricultural history of every small town and continental divide, and who will slam on the brakes to read a historical marker.
We moved to our then-rundown farm in March 1972. The “house” was a roof over three pushed-together hunting shacks. We had running water but no bathroom. The outhouse was a two-seater. My grandmother was the first relative to visit. She bit her tongue and bought a wringer washing machine, which I filled using a hose that attached to the kitchen faucet.
My eager hubby went to the local sale barn and bought a Jersey milk cow. She gave birth to twin heifers, and we learned to milk her by hand. Soon we were in the cattle business.
So, I had some first-hand knowledge of what daily life might look, feel and smell like on a ranch in 1888. Act 1 of my story was research-lite. In Act 2, the heroine Stormy pursues the hero Blade Masters onto a Missouri River steamboat. I needed to research that.
I ordered books from the local library on steamboats. I bought used books—hardcovers with oodles of pictures—from ABE Books (a fantastic resource). I searched historical society websites for riverboat arrival and departure schedules from St. Louis, MO (my hero’s intended destination) to Yankton, SD., and found first-hand accounts of riverboat boiler explosions (frighteningly common) and boat sinkings due to hitting snags (trees submerged under the Missouri River’s surface).
I knew how the characters would dress working on the ranch, but made sure to check when jeans were invented. I took a fascinating workshop on the history of clothing so I would envision correctly the fancy dress that Blade orders for Stormy as a ploy to win her father’s trust. (Blade wants to buy their ranch.)
Barbed wire, too. I couldn’t have the characters erect a fence before barbed wire was invented. That detail, and the history of the army forts established along the Missouri River to protect settlers from Indian attack, set the exact date for the story.
My editor at SoulMate Publishing checked on—and correctly called me out on—the dates when double hung windows came into use. She googled the French brandy in the story to see if it could have been imported. (I invented the brand, so yes, it could have.)
The research I gathered to write Stormy Hawkins will be useful as I write the next book in the Prairie Heart series. Book 2 will propel Blade’s sister, Mary, into hopping Missouri riverboats in a desperate search for her missing fiancé. I will have to pull out the picture books. Passenger riverboats were grand conveyances with stately dining rooms, gambling, and promenades—if you had money. Steerage passengers slept beside stacks of cargo and ate what they brought aboard.
She has no money.