March 01, 2010


By Stephen Bly

It’s tough, dirty work, but I’m sure willing to do it. . .that is, hop in my pickup and travel paved and dirt roads to far-flung western sites. The authenticity of my stories demand it.

Even though much has changed in the last 125 years or so, the geology’s often similar wherever I go. The rivers still flow. The mountains keep their shape. The sunsets ring true. With a fiction writer’s eye, I can imagine what it looked like without power lines and housing developments, when only a few folks lived in a place that’s now a thriving metropolis.

On location, I find the best print documents. For example, old newspapers recorded on microfiche; local history books of the region; even pioneer journals and diaries. Often local historians or even high school students interview elder citizens of their locale and their reports get filed somewhere in public libraries. Oral histories of an area can be discovered by sitting on a bench in front of a café and chatting with folks and asking questions about what they know and who they remember. I also rely on favorite research treasures, such as State Place Name books.

Every U.S. state offers a book that explains the why and when of their towns, rivers, counties, mountains and how they got their names. Also, the date a town was formed and other historical tidbits. Another invaluable find is old maps of a region. Sometimes they’re compiled in atlases or you can Google “Northern Map Company” (in Florida). They’ll ship copies of old maps for a reasonable price.

In addition, I use a chronological history of the Old West. There are several available that aid in keeping events in their proper order. And a lexography from my chosen era for word usage helps so much with authentic dialog. For research books of the Old West, I rely on publishing houses such as the University of Oklahoma Press, University of Nebraska Press, and University of New Mexico Press. I’ve found these publishing venues provide the most accurate histories for my chosen period of late 1800s and early 1900s.

It’s important to know the lay of the land on the day my characters move about.
It’s just as critical to be informed about such details as when lead pencils were first used or when air tight canned fruit appeared on shelves; or baby bottles got invented or who was President at the time; for that matter, the most critical national issues he faced. For any western novel, it’s of prime significance to know about firearms, such as whether your protagonist would carry a Winchester repeating rifle and which model. That’s why I own and shoot every gun my characters carry.

On the trail,
Stephen Bly
Newest Release: Creede of Old Montana (hardback)
Coming June 2010: Cowboy For A Rainy Afternoon (hardback)


Molly Noble Bull said...

Dear Stephen,
Your western settings sound good even when you are telling us how you write them. Way to go.

Stephen Bly said...

Molly: What a neat and gracious thing to say! Greatly appreciated!
On the trail,

Vickie McDonough said...

Great advice, Stephen. Thanks for the info. I love going on research trips.

Susan Page Davis said...

I'm preparing for a research trip for a new "eastern," in a new-to-me setting, and I will keep your tips in mind. I heartily agree about the local print sources. You can't find everything online. It's exciting to know there are sources out there waiting for me that I don't yet know exist.