Thursday, April 26, 2012

Guest Post: Researching "A Story of the West," by Susan Spence

About A Story of the West: Matt Daly arrives in Montana Territory with his father John in 1880, eager to begin his life as a cattle rancher. He thinks life will be hard but simple. However, things get complicated quickly. First, Matt falls in love when he meets Lavina Lavold, a young woman who has journeyed west with her family from Illinois. She shares his zest for life, and it doesn’t hurt that she's very attractive. But its not clear if the family is just passing through or if they will settle there. Then there are rustlers who steal cattle on the vast prairie. Though it’s dangerous, Matt joins a band of ranchers intent on capturing and punishing the criminals. Bully Buehler, a neighboring rancher only concerned with profit, causes the most trouble. He thinks the Daly ranch would be an attractive addition to his land holdings, and he’s ready to try to take it. Join Matt as he pursues love and adventure in A Story of the West.

Researching A Story of the West was a lot of fun. The first thing I did was visit the local library. I checked out histories and first-hand accounts of the time period. It was fascinating to read the stories of people who lived in the American West during the 1880s. From cowboys who trailed cattle up from Texas, to women who helped settle the frontier, I read every book of the time that I could find in our small library. I also borrowed books from people whose bookcases I was able to peruse.

The second thing I did was to take short road trips around Montana and Wyoming. I drove down highways that few travel to, towns I might never have visited. Along the way I passed abandoned homesteads and ghost towns. There are also many existing ranches that began during the period I wrote about in my book. I always like imagining the people who lived in these places and what their lives were like. I also love to snoop around old buildings and do so whenever I get the chance.

My destination on these drives was usually a museum. Almost every small town has a collection of relics to showcase the early settlers. The museums are usually housed in period buildings. I can remember visiting a couple old schools and one time I toured a county jail with an indoor gallows that gave me the creeps. My favorites were old mansions that have been restored. I never knew what to expect because each collection is unique.

It was also interesting to talk to the people running the museums. For the most part they are volunteers and their knowledge of local history is impressive. They told me stories about the families who settled the area, many of whom were their neighbors. It really helped set the mood as I studied artifacts and contemplated the lives of frontier settlers.

The one medium that wasn’t of much value was the internet. Although I could look up specific historical events and find information, it was hard to find details of everyday life. For instance, I tried to research the history of haying. I knew roughly the changes it went through, from men using scythes to manually cut grass, to horse drawn equipment and on down to the use of the motorized machinery of today. Unfortunately I found little on the web documenting the specifics of those changes.

When I got stuck, I used my imagination. I thought about how a certain task could have been managed using ingenuity, and common sense probably helped me there. The scenes cannot be entirely accurate, but since a lot of this history is gone forever, that’s the best I could do. People have commented, after reading A Story of the West, that my knowledge of life during the 1880s is impressive. That’s satisfying, since my goal was to be believable.

1 comment:

  1. Remembering my adventures researching A Story of the West was almost as much fun! Thanks so much for posting my guest blog.


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