Western Writers of America
Slightly revised from April 2015 original
(no longer on magazine's website)
by Dennis Herrick
My new house was built on the extended battlefield of America’s first named Indian war.
Not that I knew that. My neighbors didn’t know it either.
It took months before I heard a rumor of the bygone war. I wish I could remember who told me, “Oh, yeah, Coronado’s headquarters in the 1500s was just over there. About half a mile away. Didn’t you know that?”
Coronado? I’d heard of that conquistador. But I knew very little about him or the expedition he’d led into my new neighborhood north of Albuquerque.
I started my research just to satisfy my curiosity. I was not thinking in terms of a book at first.
My journey in researching, writing, and marketing that book might be instructive for Western authors planning a historical novel (“based on a true story,” as they say), or a nonfiction book set in the West.
Through sporadic research over a decade, I learned about the mostly forgotten war that Coronado fought against the Puebloans in the winter of 1540-41.
As I learned more, I wanted to know more. After a while even I realized I’d learned enough that perhaps, maybe, I might be able to write a book about it.
I even began thinking that if I squinted my eyes just right I could see conquistadors riding Spanish Barb horses between my house and the Rio Grande. My ears could almost hear Puebloan warriors fighting for their lives and their homes against overwhelming numbers of conquistadors and their thousands of Mexican Indian allies.
Imagination. The birthright of all books—even historical ones. You need to be able to envision what you’ve found in your research and make dry facts come to life.
Coronado’s Tiguex War happened in what is now the United States 135 years before any other named Indian war.
Even so, no one had ever devoted a book to it. The Tiguex War is so unknown that it needs a pronouncer: TEE-wesh.
Spanish chronicles first mentioned the war nearly 500 years ago. But facts that might put Spaniards in a bad light were often omitted or mischaracterized. Other facts were misunderstood.
I decided to tell the Puebloan side for the first time of what happened. The only way to do that was through a historical novel, using known facts but taking into account Eurocentric bias. I needed composite characters for the Indians who never left a written record. I wanted to bring them to life through plausible fiction, filling gaps in the historical record.
As author Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
The author Forrest Fenn summed up the problem about historical research by reminding me of Voltaire’s quote: “History is fables agreed upon.” Remember that. The first person you need to dissuade from the myths learned over the years is you.
In your research you will need to sort out contradictory points caused by even historians who were prone to believe myths rather than the reality.
Write what you know, but if you really want a challenge, write about what you want to know. No matter how many novels you’ve written, both historical fiction and nonfiction require a different skill set. Sure, you need knowledge of the era you’re writing in for a novel. But in historical fiction, and especially in nonfiction, the facts take priority. Or at least they should. There are many times they don’t.
University presses are always looking for nonfiction. But all or nearly all seem to have abandoned any kind of fiction unless you’re a well-known author.
It’s also true that historical fiction has a small share of the market. Many agents and publishers alike tend to shy away from historical fiction. In addition, the genre is dominated by women writers, whose historical fiction is really disguised romance.
A small but prestigious publisher finally accepted my historical novel, Winter of the Metal People. That’s better than self-publishing, but it’s still difficult. I’m resigned that it will take a determined marketing effort before many readers who would like my book discover that it even exists.
WWA members already know that standing out in the crowd of thousands of titles published and self-published every year can be a challenge.
This is especially true for non-established writers. It’s hard for an unknown author to be taken seriously by bookstores, book distributors, and readers.
As just one example, it took me eight months of repeated emails, phone calls, and personal visits to schedule a book signing in one of the larger bookstores in my area. At this writing, I still haven’t succeeded in obtaining a commitment from a second. It’s even more difficult for self-published authors.
Perseverance is a major answer for any author. Luck comes in mighty handy too. Mere hard work, talent, and extensive research are not enough.
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