Researchng History ~ Melanie Dobson

Melanie Dobson has written twelve contemporary and historical
novels. In 2011, two of her historical novels won Carol Awards:  Love Finds You in
Homestead, Iowa (for historical romance) and The Silent Order (for romantic suspense). This fall her latest
novel, Where
the Trail Ends, will launch American Tapestries, a historical
romance series based on significant events that have shaped our country.Melanie and her husband, Jon, enjoy exploring their home state
of Oregon with their two daughters. When Melanie isn’t writing or playing
with her family, she enjoys exploring ghost towns and cemeteries, line
dancing, and reading historical fiction. To learn more about Melanie
and her books as well as more information about her research trips,
please visit 

Researching a Historical Novel
By Melanie Dobson

My favorite part of writing
a historical novel isn’t the actual writing. It’s the research. 
I love exploring old houses and museums, tracking down experts, and
reading diaries. With each discovery of information, my story begins
to take shape. There are five specific ways that I research to both
develop my plotlines and add authenticity to my historical novels.

Visit the Location
My first historical novel
was about a Quaker woman who ran an Underground Railroad station so
I spent days exploring hidden places that had once been used to harbor
runaway slaves. In one home, I climbed the secret staircase hidden in
a closet and crept over the exposed nails and boards to the room where
the Quaker homeowners once hid runaways. At night I stepped out into
the surrounding forest, when the cloud cover masked the stars and the
only sound was the hoot of an owl. My heart raced as I wondered what
a runaway slave might have felt like in that horrible blackness, pursued
by a slave hunter and his dogs. How would she find a safe place to hide
for the night? While the terrain and photo features on mapping websites
help tremendously with geographical details, it is invaluable for me
to experience my main setting as well so I know a bit of what my main
characters would have seen, heard, and smelled.

Interview Experts and Locals
Because I’ve written
both historical and contemporary fiction, I’ve interviewed experts
about everything from how to sell stolen goods online to the technicalities
of delivering mail in the late 1800s. I’ve spent hours interviewing
about the inner workings of the Mafia, what it was like to grow up in
a religious cult, and how a family could travel for six months across
our country in a wagon. I’m always surprised by something I discover
during these interviews, something I hadn’t been able to uncover in
the books I’d read.

The most important interview
I ever did was with an Amana woman named Emilie. I asked her a simple
question—what were Amana women passionate about in the 19th
century? The answer to that question—friendship—shaped my entire
novel.

Explore Museums and Landmarks
Living farms, museums,
and historical villages like Williamsburg or Old Salem offer a unique
and educational window to the past. I learned how to run a printing
press in Ohio’s Roscoe Village, cook on the open hearth at a National
Historic Landmark in Indiana, and drive an Amish buggy at a museum in
Walnut Creek. Many of these museums and historic landmarks will give
private tours to writers, and the friendly tour guides are often a seemingly
endless source of information.

Invade the Library
One of my books was inspired
by a beautiful mansion in Ohio that had been built before the Civil
War. I couldn’t find information about this house, but the town’s
librarian unearthed a research paper written sixty years ago that included
pictures of the mansion, historical detail, and folklore about a secret
tunnel that ran—and maybe still runs—underneath. This one paper
gave me the information I needed for the details of my fictional house
and helped form my plot.

Newspapers, magazines,
diaries, archived research papers, and of course, books provide basics
like how people dressed and what they ate during a specific era as well
as more abstract concepts like how they approached life and what world
events shaped their thinking.

Surf the Web
How did writers write
before the Internet? I ask myself this question almost daily as I search
for specific words or facts online. One of the most effective ways I’ve
been able to use the Internet is to establish contacts where I can get
additional information about a difficult research topic. In one novel,
for example, I needed specifics on how a telephone would work in 1890,
but I couldn’t seem to find this info anywhere. Then I found someone
online who sold phones from this era, and we dialogued via email until
I had my answers. Without him, I’d probably still be wondering.
It’s hard for me to stop researching, but after a month or
two of work, I finally organize what I’ve discovered and input it
into Scrivener. Then I use this research to begin writing my story.
Love Finds You in Mackinac Island, Michigan is Melanie’s
latest novel.
As the Gilded Age comes to a close, Elena Bissette’s family
has lost most of its fortune. The Bissettes still own a home on fashionable
Mackinac Island, and they spend summers there in hopes of introducing
Elena to a wealthy suitor. Quickly tiring of the extravagant balls at
the Grand Hotel, she spends her days walking along the island’s rugged
coastline. There she meets Chase, a handsome laborer who invites her
to watch the ships from an abandoned lighthouse. The two begin to meet
there in secret, hoping to solve a mystery buried in the pages of a
tattered diary. As Elena falls in love with Chase, her mother relentlessly
contrives to introduce her to Chester Darrington, the island’s most
eligible bachelor. Marriage to the elusive millionaire would solve the
Bissettes’ financial woes, and Elena is torn between duty and love.