Knowing the history of your favorite states makes your stories better

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I have been a member of the Montana Historical Society for at least 25 years even though I live in Georgia. Why? I fell in love with the state after working two summers in Glacier National Park. Since the state’s history and environment fascinate me, I look forward to each new issue of the Society’s award winning Montana The Magazine of Western History.

The places where my novels are set always figure strongly into their plots and themes. Much has been written about the Rocky Mountains and Glacier National Park. I try to keep up so I can make my descriptions as accurate as possible and to ensure that my plots are viable within those settings. Even though I don’t write historical novels, I also feel that knowing the history of an area adds to my understanding of a state or region and enriches my storytelling.

Unlike many of our high school and college history classes that focused a great deal on remembering dates, reading the articles and reviews in a historical magazine is a joyful experience. There’s no pressure to take notes and/or to guess which five facts will be on a pop quiz or the final exam. In the  Summer 2012 issue of Montana The Magazine of Western History, the lead article “The End of Freedom: The Military Removal of the Blackfeet and Reservation Confinement, 1880” by William E. Farr features the Indian reservation on the east side of Glacier National Park.

One can hardly visit Glacier without learning about the tribe’s association with the park. If you reach the park by car or train from the east, you’ll pass through the Blackfeet reservation. This well-written article definitely increases my sense of place and the people who are important there.

As a writer, I want to know what I’m writing about—in depth. Obscure facts come to mind long after I read an article and influence plot development in ways I can never predict when each issue of the magazine arrives. My membership in the Montana Historical Society has, I think, been an important component in shaping my three novels set partly within the state: The Sun Singer, Garden of Heaven: an Odyssey, and my recent contemporary fantasy, Sarabande. I always hope that readers, especially those who live in the places I write about, will think that I live there, once lived there, or have spent a great deal of time seeing the sights on multiple vacation trips.

Most states have state, county and local historical societies, tourism departments, and preservation groups that are worth their weight in gold for writers who see place almost like another character in each story.

Table of Contents – Current Issue

  • The End of Freedom: THE MILITARY REMOVAL OF THE BLACKFEET AND RESERVATION CONFINEMENT, 1880, by William E. Farr
  • Protest, Power, and the Pit: FIGHTING OPEN-PIT MINING IN BUTTE, MONTANA, by Brian Leech
  • Breaking Racial Barriers: ‘EVERYONE’S WELCOME’ AT THE OZARK CLUB, GREAT FALLS, MONTANA’S AFRICAN AMERICAN NIGHTCLUB, by Ken Robison
  • Building Permanent and Substantial Roads: PRISON LABOR ON MONTANA’S HIGHWAYS, 1910–1925, Jon Axline
  • Signs of the Times: THE MONTANA HISTORICAL SOCIETY’S NATIONAL REGISTER SIGN PROGRAM, by Ellen Baumler
  • REVIEWS:  Jiusto and Brown, Hand Raised, reviewed by Jon T. Kilpinen / Hedren, After Custer, reviewed by James N. Leiker / Courtwright, Prairie Fire, reviewed by Sarah Keyes / Schackel, Working the Land, reviewed by Susanne George Bloomfield / Wood, Hunt Jr., and Williams, Fort Clark and Its Indian Neighbors, reviewed by Steven Reidburn / Pasco, Helen Ring Robinson, reviewed by Alexandra M. Nickliss / Flint and Flint, eds., The Latest Word from 1540, reviewed by Thomas Merlan / Harvey, Rainbow Bridge to Monument Valley, reviewed by Lawrence Culver

For me, such articles grab my attention like a page-turner novel. Since the reading is fun, I tend to remember it later on when I’m telling another story about the state.

Malcolm

A contemporary fantasy set in Montana, and available on Smashwords in multiple e-book formats.

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7 responses

  1. This is such a great idea, and one that never occurred to me (although I talked on the phone to the Montana historical society a few times when I was toying about writing a children’s book about Jeanette Rankin). And, of course, I’m nagging the Bodie preservation people night and day with the book I’m currently writing (well, not quite that often). This looks like a great issue of the magazine. I’d love to read the article about open pit mining–I think that’s such an horrific practice.

    • Jeanette Rankin is definitely an interesting person to research. That pit mining article had some depressing pictures to go with it. But the bear on the cover helped make up for it. I’m not surprised to hear your haunting the Bodie ghost town people.

      Malcolm