Friday, January 25, 2013


I love research. Always have, always will... and I soak up lush, wonderful details in the westerns I've read. Most of them since DOUBLE CROSSING, my western mystery set in 1869, was published -- but I cut my teeth on television and movie westerns since early childhood.
Did I rely on all that when I started writing my book? Heck, no! I knew costumes, sets and such generated in Hollywood were far from accurate. I spent months delving into fashion changes from hoops to bustles, what a Bowie knife looked like, Colt revolvers, train schedules and routes, what a UP Pullman Palace car looked like versus the CP Silver Palace car, Texan cowboys, etc. etc.
I knew better than to rely on western TV and movies, where the soiled doves wore glittering gowns worthy of a Ziegfeld Follies girl. Other big problems are the cliches stemming from dime novels of the 1800s, still popping up in current western novels. Lawmen tracking murderers who kill without reason. Helpless women who sat around waiting for their man to rescue them.
Pioneer women that I've researched knew how to handle weapons and protect themselves, how to survive snakebites and nurse sicknesses or wounds, and many adapted after being kidnapped by Indians. I rather doubt they lounged around in the stable (after pitching some clean hay) with their bosom exposed like Jane Russell.
Okay, maybe that is an extreme example. But take for example the Stetson hat.
Some writers have their heroes wearing these famous hats as far back as the 1850's. Check out this link for a fascinating history on how John B. Stetson got started making the trademark hats in 1865. Yep. AFTER the Civil War. Or weapons -- here's a link to a great website on military sabres, rifles, revolvers, etc. manufactured during the 1800s. And here's another link, similar to it. With dates of when those weapons were in use.
Trains are another big pitfall for writers. I've read some books where characters found their way west on the railroad before the Civil War or immediately after it ended. The first railroad crossed the vast expanse of the American west in May of 1869, when the Union and Central Pacific lines joined together at Promontory, Utah. For the first time, travelers could ride from New York to Chicago to Omaha and then to Sacramento -- not San Francisco. That took another few years. Other rail lines to Kansas and Arizona and Montana were completed by the mid 1870s or late 1880s.
I've read and seen a wide range of stories with either the total absence of native Americans or a bloodthirsty savageness of tribes (and not always the right ones in the right spots!) set on revenge. Savagery happened on both sides. The main point is to avoid "stereotypes" --  characters need reasons for the choices they make in our stories. Readers might forgive a modern word or phrase in dialogue, but when such things add up, they're "thrown out" of the story and may give up reading the rest of the book.
I love a good, juicy western where I can walk the dusty streets or ride the prairie on horseback, smell the goods on display in a general store, taste the grit in the air or touch the sweat-soaked shirt of the hero. Go beyond the visual. Make sure your characters have a goal and a motive in mind. And for your reader's sake, do the research.
They'll thank you with great reviews and word-of-mouth sales in your future career.
Meg Mims is an award-winning author and artist. She writes blended genres – historical, western, adventure, romance, suspense and mystery. Her first book, Double Crossing, won the 2012 Spur Award for Best First Novel from Western Writers of America and was named a Finalist in the Best Books of 2012 from USA Book News for Fiction: Western.

She is currently working on the sequel, Double or Nothing, which will be released this year. Interested in a sneak peek? Check out Meg's blog for The Next  Big Thing!


  1. Woman after my own heart, Meg. Yeah. If you don't know the country, chances are you'll set your story in a town. Often there are alleys in the town. Hmmm. Plenty of room in the west, no need for alleys, much. It's really fun, isn't it? Trying to write westerns like it really was. Almost. Thanks for the links. Thanks for the reminder that we're writing historicals as well as western genre stories. Love it.


  2. Meg, thanks so much for your words of wisdom on getting it right, or as close as possible. I especially enjoyed what you wrote about women of the west. As you suggest, they were resourceful, and tough as nails. Women - of any age - who survived the hardships, dangers, disease, and deaths involved in a wagon train journey of hundreds of miles gave them the grit and ability to adapt to most any challenge they faced in the future.

  3. I spent 42 years teaching American West and Wyoming history and seems like I researched the entire time. I get a laugh from use of words that were not around at the time. I love the old TV black and white westerns, no accuracy at all, but fun to watch. I really enjoyed your post but am disappointed your research led you to believe Jane Russell like women were not everywhere in the west, hanging out in the straw. Are you sure they were not?

  4. Hi Meg!
    What a great article on research and the fun you can have with it. When I was in school, I got some funny looks when I said I enjoyed research...but you sure learn a lot of interesting things along the way. Dialogue is what irritates me the most--when a character of a certain time period says something like "You think?" Or "Riiiiggghhht." Even I can remember a time when a lot of these expressions weren't around and I'm not that old...really...LOL Growing up here in Oklahoma really was great--I had history all around me, and in my own family. My mom was the oldest in her family, and as such, could tell stories about my great great grandparents on down the line. One of my favorites was when my great grandmother answered a knock on the door to find a group of Indians on her porch, asking for supplies. She gave them half of what she had, explaining that she needed to keep half for her own family. Me? I would have said, "Help yourself!" LOLLOL On my dad's side, my grandmother's sister held the reins of Jesse James' horse while he bought some supplies. He gave her a silver dollar. I incorporate a lot of local and family history into my stories, too. Great post--I really enjoyed this and look forward to your monthly posts, Meg!

  5. LOL, Chuck, about alleys. I did find mention of an alley in 'Frisco, tho, but it was more of a lane with shops. As for Jane R, Neil, that poster drew plenty of boys into the theater and kept them hoping to see more during service in WW2. Howard Huges said, "There are two good reasons to see Jane Russell. Those are enough."

    I hear ya, Cheryl, about dialogue. I'm always stunned to read 'movie-isms' in some books. I learned my lesson early on, when I had a character saying "take a slow boat to China." A critique partner Q'd me on it, so I searched... and came up empty. I had no idea why I'd used that -- until a TV program's jingle sounded (my young daughter loved watching it)... "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" I WAS SO embarrassed. I always check a 9th edition Collegiate now for when a word or phrase first came into play. Ha!

  6. Hi Meg,

    Great post. You are absolutely right, we all, as writers of historical fiction have to do our best to avoid anachronisms. Yet they creep in, like typos, despite our best efforts.

    I love those links and have saved them. Many thanks.


  7. I agree wholeheartedly about the research necessary to write a historically accurate story. I love western romances, but I never liked the Hollywood variety. In fact, my favorite movie star was Randolph Scott and his movies were at least better than the usual Hollywood western movies. When I'm reading a western romance I like to "feel" like I'm really in the story so it needs to be realistic for me to enjoy it.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly about the research necessary to write a historically accurate story. I love western romances, but I never liked the Hollywood variety. In fact, my favorite movie star was Randolph Scott and his movies were at least better than the usual Hollywood western movies. When I'm reading a western romance I like to "feel" like I'm really in the story so it needs to be realistic for me to enjoy it.

  9. Sound advice Meg. 50's style TV western hats appearing in movies many years later have always irritated me. Guess it was easier to use those styles than do actual research on what was actually worn at the time peroid depicted on the silver screen. I agree with Cheryl. Dialogue is a sore spot with me as well. Thanks also for the links. Nice post.

  10. Meg, You did some first class research about the contents of this blog. I checked out the links. What a gold mine! Holding for future reference. Thank you.
    I really enjoyed it.!

  11. Thanks, all! I'm just REALLY careful since I made mistakes myself - and learned the hard way, LOL! If it's something I'm not sure about, I try to check several sources. And if there's nothing found, hey - it's FICTION! Fudge time! ;-)

  12. I love researching things, although I admit to getting impatient when the story is on a roll and I have to stop and find out about something.

    One thing that interests me is pejorative terms. What might be considered ill-mannered in the late 19th century could be acceptable today, and the converse is true, too.

  13. So true, Jacquie! I know gentlemen never swore in front of a "lady" - and I believe the change slowly came about between the 40s and the 60s... as a teen in the 70s, we thought we were "cool" blurting out "damn" and "hell" and other words. LOL. Now I'm *sick* of so many f-bombs and the like. Sigh.

  14. No matter how much research I've done (and that's plenty) there is alway a mistake somewhere.
    It's a learning process and I'm happy for someone to point them out - constructive criticism always appreciated.
    I love the West (even as a UK citizen) its wildness and its wilderness.
    I try to tell a good story and hope that my readers will forgive my occasional 'slip up'.
    D M Harrison