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Writer to Reader: About Writing History

When I write a book about the past, I have to become a detective. Whether I am writing a historical novel, such as Orphan Journey Home, or a non-fiction book like The Gold Rush, I search for primary source material before I start to write. I need to find the voices of the people who created our history, so I look for diaries, newspaper stories, journals, letters, quotes, and speeches from the period I am writing about. My search takes me to libraries, historical societies, and museums. I write letters, make phone calls, and send emails to historians and other experts in the field as I search for sensory details, for images and facts that will help me recreate a world we have left behind.

  Liza and her bear

If I’m really lucky, I can visit the place I’m writing about. For my serialized novel, Orphan Journey Home, I spent some time in Kentucky, exploring the area where Jessie and her family struggled to find their way in 1828. I have traveled west many times to do research for The Gold Rush, West Against the Wind, and for Into a New Country: Eight Women of the West. Another historical novel, Where the Great Hawk Flies, takes place in central Vermont, in the town where my ancestors lived. I have walked over the pastures where my relatives farmed more than 200 years ago and snapped photos of the mountain views they would have seen from their farmhouse. I visited the Vermont cemetery where my Pequot ancestor and her husband were buried, and tried to imagine life in their village after the American Revolution. Walking over a site helps to bring the past alive more than any book I could read.

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